Borknagar – True North

Borknagar - True North Album Cover Artwork

We all know at this point what black metal sounds like. Not Blackgaze, not proto-black metal, not even blackened hardcore, but true Norwegian black metal. It’s a sound synonymous with that of the devil, rhapsodies of hellfire constructed to strike fear and disgust into the heart of the listening populous. Any band hailing from Norway playing black metal is expected to sound a certain way, namely following the blueprint that Mayhem and many others laid out in years gone by, but sometimes the formula is flipped and subverted. Surely though, any band with the gall to call their album True North would likely be following the cast iron tenets of the sub genre. Right?

Hailing from Bergen, Borknagar sound almost nothing like you would expect them to. This will come as no surprise to long time fans of the band – they are in fact looking forward to celebrating their 25th anniversary as an outfit – but for the few unfamiliar with the name, the reaction invoked by their latest album will either be delight or it will conjure ire. The opening track, Thunderous, alone is enough to put a quizzical look on the face of anyone looking for some Norwegian black metal as it shares more in common with power and folk metal. In particular the use of synthesisers to round out the sound may come as a surprise for those less au fait with melodic and symphonic blackened music, as it creates a bombast of theatricality rather than the dank pitch of filth that black metal so often strives for. There is no icy feel, no transportation to a barren landscape, but instead a warmth and an almost sweet quality to the songs making up Borknagar’s eleventh studio album. This may upset some listeners of a blackened disposition. Put away the corpse paint, we’re on a different path here altogether.

There are blackened moments hidden in amongst the album, The Fire That Burns being the most prevalent of all, with harsh vocals and blast beating percussion enrapturing you in the aforementioned diabolical aura. However, for the most part this album has more in common with themes of progressive music – in particular the old school prog of Yes, Genesis and King Crimson. It does distance itself from such comparisons by injecting various metallic elements into the mix – fortunate for the album as it would be unfair to compare it to, say, In the Court of the Crimson King – and ends up a somewhat difficult to nail down piece of work. What is easy to ascertain from just a few listens however is the quality of the album. This isn’t really one to delve too deep into, save for the lyrical content that deals with philosophy, nature, the divine and the cosmic, as lyrics aside there isn’t much depth to the album. Breadth of genres, absolutely, but it all feels surface level. The band have had a break and significant line up change between prior album, Winter Thrice and True North, yet the end result still feels somewhat hurried. There is little to analyse in the instrumentation as the music feels very much a standard example of what it is Borknagar do, even though what they do is admittedly rather unique.

On album eleven, Borknagar know where their bread is buttered and have stuck rigidly to their musical concept: A mixture of progressive, folk, power and black metal. Yet despite the expert genre blending and thoughtful lyrical narratives, the album fails to inspire much of a reaction. It all feels as though it is written by committee and with a pre planned end goal as opposed to growing naturally and obtusely as progressive music should. As far as its physical presentation goes, the black metal logo will misguide many into thinking that this is true Norwegian kvlt music, and the icy landscape that makes up the album’s artwork is a deceptive promise of the journey you ought to be taken on. True North could not be less true if it tried, and how Northern it feels is down to the individual as there are few hints as to the band’s heritage in the music. It’s a satisfactory album, but a very far cry from being a world beater.

One thought on “Borknagar – True North

  1. I strongly disagree w/ the “uninspired songwriting” assessment. Just how long have you been listening to Borknagar, do tell? Admittedly, I didn’t go into this release w/ earth-shaking expectations – this is a band that will take chances, but had not really laid down magic like 2004’s EPIC lp. Outside of the band logo font, I don’t see this band physically or any other way representing falsely as “black metal”. I find the song Up North & also the vocal contributions of ICS Vortex to be massive & a much-celebrated melodic platter. Granted, I’m also a huge Dimmu Borgir and Arcturus fan. “The Fire That Burns” has sonic contours along with the caustic vocals Borknagar has been known for at their most black! I’ve been into these guys since the first lp & going to Milwaukee Metal Fest in the 90s. It’s great to see them progress & still make music that gives me chills.

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