BORKNAGAR – Universal (2010)

It’s been four years since we’ve heard anything from Borknagar, a Norwegian black metal ensemble that doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as they should, despite being every bit as established as their contemporaries (Emperor, Gorgoroth, Enslaved, etc.). Like the aforementioned bands, Borknagar have evolved a great deal since their inception in 1995; their eponymous debut album was released in 1996, and it was very reminiscent of mid-period Bathory, a style which the band would seldom touch upon again, as their albums traversed into more symphonic, avant-garde territory – the kind reserved for bands like Arcturus, though Borknagar never quite gave in to cosmological weirdness as much as they did (fun facts: Arcturus vocalist and Ulver ringleader Garm was the vocalist on Borknagar’s first album; after he left Arcturus several years later, who did the band get to replace him? None other than the first Borknagar vocalist, ICS Vortex, who left Borknagar in 2001 and was replaced by Vintersorg. Kudos to you if you understand everything I just said).

Borknagar took their most drastic turn with their last album, 2006’s Origin. It was primarily an acoustic album; it felt like a less sacrosanct version of Ulver’s Kveldssanger, and there are moments on Universal that definitely call Origin to mind. But the band that Borknagar seem to be channeling the most here is Winds. There’s a lot of orchestration on Universal, but they lack the tired bombast of bands like Dimmu Borgir or Cradle of Filth. No, the orchestration here is more contemplative, less about accenting the heaviness that envelopes them, and more about helping them to actualize the big picture. Overall, Universal is the most progressive album Borknagar have ever made; it’s not hard to imagine a band like Evergrey composing material like this. It’s definitely a strong step forward for the band.

I’m not sure if black metal is going to have as good a year as it did last year, but between Universal and Sigh’s Scenes From Hell, things are definitely going alright with the genre so far in 2010. It’s always gratifying to be pleased by an album from a band that’s been silent for the past few years, and that’s exactly what Borknagar have done here. More than that, though, they’ve proved that black metal (a genre which even now is notoriously resistant to evolution), can benefit from opening doors instead of just walling them off.

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