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BORKNAGAR Fall

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Monday, February 26, 2024 @ 10:49 AM


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BORKNAGAR
Fall

Century Media Records




The names and voices may have changed considerably over three decades - and in some cases changed back! - but Norway's BORKNAGAR has remained a surprisingly steady and reliable epicblack metal force. Still, the band underwent a genuinely seismic upheaval for its last album, 2019's True North, with the departure of longtime lead vocalist Andreas "Vintersorg" Hedlund and new drummer Bjorn Dugstad Ronnow and guitarist Jostein Thomassen coming onboard.

And that transition marked a more progressive turn to the band's music, as it trimmed back some of the harsher black metal/pagan hues for a more expansive and comparatively melodic sound. Now, for once, BORKNAGAR returns with the same crew as last time for Fall, the quintet's 12th album overall.

So, what direction did the band's sound take this time around? Back to more blackness or headlong into progginess, a la ENSLAVED or OPETH? Well, the answer is a bit of both. Fall offers moments that absolutely crush and others that are more serene and sometimes downright trippy, especially with Lars A. Nedland's chirpy, swirly keyboards - and bits of just about everything in between. Yet the prominent, but disparate elements work very well together, and with the myriad other flourishes mixed in it makes for a stirring listen.

Fall courses with an almost constant ebb and flow between the band's heavier and proggier tendencies. The songs morphlike a veritable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from blackened galloping tempos, surging tremmy guitars and Nedland's shrieky/screamy harsh vocals to more languid, sometimes almost poppy passages highlighted by the often soaring but sometimes somber cleans of bassist Simen "ICS Vortex" Hestnaes, the band's onetime frontman who rejoined in more of a supporting role after a decade-long stint with DIMMU BORGIR in 2010.

BORKNAGAR sets the stage out of the gate with the majestic "Summits", an eight-minute opener that pretty much encompasses all the elements above. "Afar", "Moon" and "Stars Ablaze" follow suit, each bigger and bolder than the last, before the album concludes with the colossal "Northward", which clocks in at nearly 10 minutes but makes for an exhilarating finale, nevertheless. The epic sweep here is truly dramatic and despite their often consider length, these songs are nothing less than captivating.

The three shortest tracks, perhaps not surprisingly, are the most direct, and each evokes a widely divergent mood. "Unraveling" is the most consistently aggressive song and with its chugging riffs, shout-along chorus lines and prominent organ it recalls, to a degree, classic URIAH HEEP. The ballad-like "The Wild Lingers", on the other hand, is the most reserved and melancholy, and is the one tune here that falls a bit flat - though the awesome "Northward" follows, so no real harm done.

The ethereal, yet martial "Northern Anthem" brings the pagan element back to the fore with its ritualistic construction and "we won't bend our necks to any god!" mantra. While nature, the "absence of God" and free-spiritedness are prevailing themes on "Afar", you can almost picture this song being sung tribal style around a raging bonfire deep in the forest - although the song's video has more of a winter/snow theme, but whatever.

Nedland and Hestnaes now essentially sharing lead vocal duties only adds to BORKNAGAR's already broad sonic palette. Not only does the dirty/clean dynamic make for contrast - and when the pair clash, as on "Unraveling", they do so with great effect - Nedland provides plenty of understated clean vocals as well, making for vibrant harmonies that accentuate the rich melodies throughout. Hestnaes delivers his trademark towering cleans in nearly every chorus, which brings a certain predictability here, but with the band relying less on harsh vocals overall, it does feel more natural and less jarring.

Largely recorded by founding guitarist and lone constant Oystein G. Brunand graced by a polished but powerful mix fromJens Bogren, Fall presents the scale and scope of both the songs and the performances in all their grandness, while capturing and highlighting the subtle textures and tones that weave their way through. It's as good BORKNAGAR has ever sounded, and the material resonates like the band's classic works - The Olden Domain, Empiricism - while charting a path forward. And after 30 years of near constant tumult, that's saying something.

4.0 Out Of 5.0


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