BORKNAGAR DO WHATEVER THEY DAMN WELL PLEASE ON UNIVERSAL
Black metal is usually at its most interesting when it spreads itself about as thin as it can while still being black metal. And even then, are Darkthrone, Enslaved, and Ulver better as true black metal bands, or as trad metal/crust punk, blackened prog, or dark atmospheric weirdness bands (respectively)? For most, black metal is best as an additive and not the sole ingredient, and for Viking/folk/proggy “black metal”-ers Borknagar, a pinch of gruff vocals, tremolo picking, rigid blast beats, and synthesized orchestral flourishes goes a long way. It helps that the concoction also includes jazzy interludes and meticulously crafted vocal harmonies, all in just the right portions to avoid stylistic whiplash. The band has more in common with Opeth than Mayhem or Burzum, and their latest album, Universal, shows off their penchant for genre-biting asides that pay as much attention to beauty as to brutality. Though they grow tiresome after a while, they’re ably executed, and a great reminder of black metal’s potential as a jumping-off point for those with loftier goals.
Borknagar’s elasticity is its most admirable trait, and one that could serve as an example to everything-core bands like iwrestledabearonce. Though there’s nothing truly out of left field thrown into the mix, for most bands, a combination of folk metal, prog, jazz, and symphonic black metal couldn’t be combined without a diluting of the ingredients. But the band sidestep that, pulling off mostly seamless segues between diverse interludes and bridges, heaviness, and soaring choruses. Keyboardist Lazare is a pretty good indicator of the band’s back-and-forth, switching between faux-choral and fake-string synths and Hammond-sounding organ, a great throwback to OG prog rock. The opening one-two punch of ”Havoc” and “Reason” similarly jump between jazz/folk distractions and blackened intensity. In fact, Universal slips up when it spends too much time in one genre: both “The Stir of Season” and “Fleshflower” dawdle in portentous folk metal and C-grade prog metal, respectively. Reliance on unexpected turns is Borknagar’s strength and Achilles Heel.
And in the end, the album isn’t best taken as the sum of its parts: it gets a bit same-y by the end. But even though this writer isn’t particularly fond of neither folk metal nor prog metal, the album is surprisingly tolerable, especially when it comes to things I usually can’t stand. I usually think prominent keyboards are a pretty solid indicator of bad black metal (or bad metal in general) but on Universal they’re absolutely essential, and often add quite a bit. The singing, too, is surprisingly well-executed, as in environments like this it’s usually an afterthought after all the heavy shit is crafted. The most impressive thing about Borknagar, though, is that they still sound remarkably intimate: usually symphonic black metal and prog try to sound gargantuan, dwarfing the individual achievements of the band. But they sound like a tight collective of dudes trying to do it all, and pulling it off most of the time. Of the play-acting black, folk, and prog metal seem to require, Borknagar sound confident and mature when combining all three. They’re just grown-ass men making grown-ass metal. There’s little reason to dislike that.
(3 out of 5 horns)