Wednesday 23 October 2019

Borknagar - True North (2019)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
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Why I haven't listened to more Borknagar, I have no idea. Sure, they started out around the time my life took me in other directions, minimising the time I could spend in the scene. The Friday Rock Show was over, Kerrang! had gone all alternative and I'd lost my connections to the cutting edge. So yeah, it makes sense that I wasn't paying attention at the beginning but they've been a prolific and major player ever since, with this being their eleventh album in a quarter of a century. I should have paid more attention.

As a fan of most genre-hopping, I like this a lot. The description I usually see, of progressive black metal, is highly appropriate but not quite as it's usually applied. This isn't black metal that just does progressive stuff. It alternates between progressive rock and black metal and often merges the two in a way that creates something very different. The opening track is a great example.

It's an eight and a half minute epic, because Borknagar don't tend to write short songs, and it's called Thunderous. It's powerful all the way through, but it begins with clean vocals, enticing ones over appropriately thunderous drums. They may not be quite as pure as Jon Anderson's but they remind a lot of his style and approach and they gain much the same result.

Then the black metal kicks in, as if another radio station has powered up on the same frequency, and those vocals go bleak and harsh. Midway through, the band move into a notably eastern instrumental section, oddly given the album is called True North and that's pretty much where Borknagar are from, being based in Bergen on the western coast of Norway opposite the Shetlands.

It's an intriguing mixture and it stays intriguing throughout the album. Up North kicks off at a gallop like a Uriah Heep song, before moving into more progressive territory. The Fire That Burns starts out extreme but gradually becomes a Yes song, which Wild Father's Heart is for almost all of its six minutes. Into the White is mostly progressive too, but there are some overt Black Sabbath dynamics going on too, especially towards the beginning.

Most of that is surprising to me because I haven't been paying attention but it might not be for you. What else is surprising is the balance between the progressive side of things and the extreme side. The vocals especially stay clean for most of the album, shifting into harsh black metal only as needed rather than the other way around which is more common nowadays. Sometimes it shifts at a certain point in the song, but more often that second voice just joins in for a few lines when that sort of contrast is needed.

There's also a folk element here, which adds another intriguing texture to the dynamics that are so key to what Borknagar do. It shines out at points in a number of songs, but is most obvious in the final track, Voices, which feels like a rural spiritual with darker orchestration. It may not be the best song on the album, without the opportunities for exploration that Tidal or Thunderous have, but it's patient and effective and it's surely the most evocative track on offer, a fantastic way to end the album. I could see it being sampled on a TV show during a particularly emotional scene.

In short, there's a lot here. This is an album to dive into and explore and it's still turning up new things for me on the fourth time through. The band have made some major changes, so I'm especially interested to go back to the previous album, 2016's Winter Thrice, to see how it compares.

While Øystein Brun, guitarist and only remaining founder member, continues on, his long standing vocalist, best known as Vintersorg, left earlier in 2019; while both lead guitarist Jens Ryland and Baard Kolstad, the drummer for most of this decade, both left last year. Those are major changes but I have to say that this album sounds both mature and fresh. Paying attention is a good thing.

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