Album Title: True North
Label: Century Media Records
Date of Release: 27 September 2019
These days, even the mightiest of bands are not immune to the curses that strike down the lesser mortals; the pretenders to the throne; the young upstarts of the metal world. The evidence? The behemoth of the black/folk/progressive world, Borknagar, lost not one but three members of their fold since the release of the remarkably strong ‘Winter Thrice’ in 2016. Out of the door went not one, but three of their fold. And, given this is Borknagar, none of the departing musicians could be considered to be insignificant. Vocalist Andreas ‘Vintersorg’ Hedlund, guitarist Jens F. Ryland and drummer Baard Kolstad (Leprous, Rendezvous Point) all headed for the exit for various reasons.
Personally-speaking, I was shocked at the upheaval and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from album number eleven, ‘True North’ as a result.
But those whipper-snappers and fringe acts that may have scented blood and thought to move in to claim the throne may have forgotten one important factor: Borknagar is still captained by the professional and highly talented songwriter and guitarist Øystein G. Brun. And he still has the irrepressible I.C.S. Vortex by his side to lend his vocal and bass prowess. In addition, the band has been rounded out by the newly-appointed Jostein Thomassen (guitars) and Bjørn Dugstad. And the result is yet another incredible release to add to the Borknagar back catalogue.
First off, I’ll suggest that this is arguably the most immediate album that I have ever heard from the Norwegian stalwarts. Late to the party I may be, but in the time I have had access to this record, I have listened time and again as it got under my skin right from the first listen. I always approach albums like this with a touch of caution because I fear that the initial sheen may quickly wash away, to be replaced with a touch of boredom brought on by a lack of a challenge. In this case, that certainly hasn’t happened. If anything, the melodies that catch the ear at the outset become even stronger with repeated listens.
In the early stages, I was also concerned that perhaps the output on ‘True North’ wasn’t ‘classic’ Borknagar and that it was a little too…easy maybe. It’s hard to explain, but the record felt a little softer and warmer around the edges, lacking that spikiness that all good bands with a black metal heritage benefit from. But again, whilst this is definitely a more instantly melodic affair overall, I have to admit that it is also a deceptively varied beast, with plenty of heaviness and different textures littering the nine significant tracks that add up to the better part of an hour’s listening.
I’ll admit that it still feels a little odd to not hear Vintersorg’s voice on a Borknagar record, but on ‘True North’, I.C.S. Vortex really steps up to the plate. Powerful, epic and commanding, yet also full of expression, subtlety and sensitivity when required; his is a performance that elevates him in my esteem greatly.
Of the songs themselves, it is difficult not to single out the bombastic and aptly-titled opener, ‘Thunderous’ as an immediate highlight. It explodes into life with incredible intent after the distant sounds of thunder usher it into existence. New sticksman Dugstad quickly sets his stall out with ferocity and exuberance, whilst there are plenty of higher pitched gruff screams to help my aforementioned comments about this being a less abrasive affair sound more than a little ridiculous. And yet, despite the extremity on offer, the voice of Vortex and the bold melodies help to soften the harshness, as does the ebbing, flowing nature of this undeniable monster of a song.
‘Up North’ is an upbeat hard-rocking stomper of a track that is utterly infectious, getting the head bobbing ferociously alongside the galloping, bouncing tempo but which is dominated by some of the most compelling and assured singing I’ve head from Vortex. ‘The Fire That Burns’ is arguably one of the most ‘classic’ Borknagar tracks to feature on ‘True North’, with its acoustic guitar intro, pronounced folk-esque melodic refrains and black metal assault. And the guitar notes and tones that accompany the regurgitation of the song’s title are wonderfully addictive.
‘Lights’ is another mid-tempo romp at its core, whilst the quieter, more introspective ballad ‘Wild Father’s Heart’ is an utterly beautiful affair. It features a rich collection of traditional instrumentation including poignant strings, whilst Vortex’s mellifluous refrains and positive words are seductively compelling.
Other highlights include the sprawling nine-minute-plus ‘Tidal’ that builds in ominous fashion before diving off in numerous different directions only to be pulled back into line by yet another typically arresting chorus. And what can you say about the spinetingling closer, ‘Voices’? It is a stunning folk-laced track of epic proportions, that demonstrates the art of a suspenseful build-up and crushing, moving crescendos. If you’re not moved by the power and melodic intent of this track, I don’t think you’re human.
When I reviewed ‘Winter Thrice’, I wasn’t sure that this album could ever be beaten. However, I could well be proved wrong, with ‘True North’ demonstrating that in the face of adversity, true magic can materialise. Never, ever bet against a band like this because you’ll almost certainly be proven wrong. After all, there’s a reason why Borknagar have survived and thrived for so many years, becoming a cult favourite and a master of the genre. It’s because they are one of the very best, if not the best. Simple as that, really.
The Score of Much Metal: 95%
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others from 2019:
Leprous – Pitfalls
Myrath – Shehili
Prehistoric Animals – Consider It A Work Of Art
Voyager – Colours In The Sun
Odd Logic – Last Watch Of The Nightingale
Avandra – Descender
Darkwater – Human
ZW Band / Zonder Wehrkamp – If It’s Real
Teramaze – Are We Soldiers
Rendezvous Point – Universal Chaos
Our Destiny – Awakening
Evergrey – The Atlantic
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: