The first thing that popped in my mind upon listening to Borknagar’s newly released Urd was “where the hell has this Borknagar been for the past few albums?”. The last album by them that I truly enjoyed in its entirety was 2001’s fierce astral black metal masterpiece Empiricism, it was a precision blending of sharp, blackened riffs, thoughtful clean vocal melodies, and the strong keyboard driven atmospherics that have become their trademark. But the follow up albums seemed to forget the recipe to this formula; 2004’s Epic was a spotty affair, and 2010’s Universal was… I hate to say it, somewhat boring – barring a few songs that had some semblance of memorability. The stopgap all acoustic album, 2006’s Origins, was an interesting idea, and I so wanted to enjoy its execution, but sadly I found it lacking in strong songwriting and melodies. It seemed throughout this period that the band was inclined towards inheriting the proggy soundscapes of vocalist Vintersorg’s solo albums (of which I am a fan), but were unable to reconcile them with their traditionally earthy black metal foundations, often resulting in songs with overblown keyboard weirdness, lack of memorable melodies, and songwriting that wandered all over the place and could not keep its focus.
What Borknagar has done with Urd then, is a thorough addressing of all those deficiencies. This is a stunningly great record, devoid of filler tracks, and containing the most emotive and powerful songwriting of the band’s career to date. The keys here are in their efforts to refine and simplify their songwriting, as well as using a light touch when it comes to keyboard and studio engineered atmospherics. There seems to be a conscious effort to create strong, memorable melodies and revisit them in creative ways throughout the song without having to fall back on a standard verse-chorus-verse format — in a way they work more as motifs than hooks. In keeping with the title of the album, the sound here is grounded in a grittier, earthier style that seems more conducive in invoking imagery of the natural world. I always respected the band’s interest in cosmology, physics, and all other things science — but after four albums in a row of it, and its corresponding influence on their sound at the time, a change was direly needed. The stronger emphasis on clean vocals here is unexpected, but its the distribution of vocal talent throughout the record that is a greater surprise, as its not just the Mr. V show anymore but what appears to be a full on divvying up of the lead vocal duties between Vintersorg, ICS Vortex, and Lars Nedland, all of whom have a particular distinction to their vocal character.
There is nary a dip in momentum from start to finish, and the band should be commended for good decisions in track sequencing. There are a few highlights that stand above the rest however, beginning with “Roots”, one of the heaviest tracks on offer and perhaps the catchiest. The brief shift away from its fantastic chorus to launch into the epic of rush of speed metal drumming and classic tremolo sweeping riffs laid under chanting vocals at the 2:45 mark is so damn compelling you’ll find yourself rewinding to it over and over again. The epic on the album (not only in length) is the complex “The Winter Eclipse”, which juxtaposes crushingly heavy riffs and searing harsh-grim vocals by Vintersorg against all three vocalists joining in with clean vocal harmonization on the chorus. The absolute standout however has to be “The Earthling”, where the initial slow tempos and ethereal chanting give way to a furious blast of black metal fury that alternates with almost swinging guitar melodies — this all works its way up to a grand, sweeping finish at the 5:59 mark that is such a satisfyingly climactic payoff, its no wonder they decided to only include this part once and as a finale at that (I feel a lesser band would have employed it as a chorus).
This is the biggest surprise of the year so far, and a strong contender for album of the year. I’m happy I’m enjoying this so much and not ho-huming about it like the past few albums. Welcome back Borknagar.