26 March 2012
by Tom Dare
If you read my pieces on the evolution of black metal here on Thrash Hits recently, you could be forgiven for missing the mention of Borknagar. They’ve been slightly overshadowed by some of their more celebrated compatriots – the price of being Norwegian is the instant mental comparisons to Emperor, Enslaved and the like, which is deeply unfair – and they’ve never quite got their dues. But with the black metal big guns rather quiet on the album front just now, does Urd represent their opportunity to finally be recognised for their considerable merits?
While Bathory’s musical progeny have been rather too keen to rip off whichever brilliant band is en vogue right now (as well as Burzum and Mayhem, who’ve been emulated more than those fucking Keep Calm And Carry On signs), Borknagar have consistently been a band with their own, very melodic voice. Their slightly quirky and deeply individual muse is one that takes some time to get to grips with – something that hasn’t changed with Urd, even if you’re well versed in their back catalogue – but even early on has just the right amount of hooks to drag you deeper, slowly drawing you into the delicious realm they create.
What’s most obviously new this time out is the distinctive voice of Simen Hestnæs – better known from his time in Dimmu Borgir (and several other bands) as ICS Vortex. While he was a (highly effective) guest vocalist on last album Universal, his eerie tenor is now firmly a part of the sound, and by Odin, it’s powerful.
Borknagar’s strength – what’s made them great in their own right and made the obvious comparisons to other Norwegian progressive black metal bands inaccurate beyond the superficial – is the warm, earthy atmosphere they manage to create, and the new man’s vocals enhance this rather magical feel. Added to which, the melodies are stunning, from the lilting strings and piano of ‘The Plains Of Memories‘ to the power of ‘Epochalypse‘ and the, er, beauty of ‘The Beauty Of Dead Cities‘.
Listen to ‘Roots’ by Borknagar:
It’s these little touches that grab your ears enough to give Urd the time it needs for the evocative feel of the album – a far more subtle one than is initially apparent – to sink in. Once it does, you’ll find yourself coming back again, and again, and again, as the lush, bright surroundings it transports you into is like a drug you need more of. Or, in less abstract/chin-stroking language, you’ll realise how bloody great the songs are, and want to listen to them a shitload. Whichever way you look at it, Urd is fantastic, and the best black metal record to come along in months.
Sounds like: a folkier Enslaved or Ihsahn, a proggier Falloch
Stand-out tracks: The Beauty Of Dead Cities, Mount Regency, The Winter Eclipse