BORKNAGAR – Fall (Album Review)

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Call them black metal, call them progressive metal, call them whatever you want. But under no pretenses may you call the long-running Norwegian quintet known as Borknagar anything other than excellent. Now firmly re-established after a slew of personnel changes that plagued them for over a decade, the band I affectionately refer to as “Borky” hit back after the triumphant one-two punch of “Winter Thrice” and “True North” with another ode to the majesty of the natural world in “Fall.”

It hasn’t just been Borknagar‘s longstanding commitment to excellence that sets them apart. Borknagar are one of the very few bands who are instantly recognizable even as they adhere to black metal hallmarks like blast beats, tremolo picking, and shrieked vocals: the smoothness of their light & shade structures, the positively lush textures that adorn chord progressions as intricate as nature itself, and the commanding voices of literally every singer who’s ever had the daunting distinction of fronting this remarkable band all blend together so uniquely and divinely so as to create a singular sonic identity. Other bands may bear a Borky mark, but no other band out there sounds like them. There is only one Borknagar, and the sound that Borknagar makes is as expansive as it is dense, as varied and mercurial, and as bold and serene as the nature that inspires it.

And such the record begins. Not only do we know within seconds of the needle dropping who we’re hearing, it takes scarcely any time at all for the overpowering splendor of the Borknagar sound to envelope us. “Summits” is the Borknagar sound’s very quintessence – the devastating brutality, the regal resplendence – with the added grace and maturity that over two dozen cycles around the sun would bestow. “Summits”not only reminds us with its first half who it is we’re dealing with here, it it scales its namesake into stratospheres not yet reached even in Borknagar‘s storied past: if your spine doesn’t tingle the moment boss Øystein  Brun paints his sonic landscapes over which Jostein Thomassen‘s guitar delicately sings, and if the hair on the back of your neck isn’t standing at end by the time this song concludes, I’d suggest you check your pulse, because it is unbecoming of any living human being to experience the apex of this band’s artistic vision without feeling some serious chills. Borknagar promises summits, and Odindammit Borknagar fucking delivers.

Nordic Anthem” sees keyboardist/ singer Lars Nedlund fully embrace the role of the frontman. An eerie folk-laden tribute to the band’s Viking roots that I have to suspect was inspired by the success of Heilung, Nedlund’s affirmation that they’ll never bend their knees cements his value in Borknagar‘s creative core and definitively establishes him as a singer of force. We’ve heard him sing lead previously, on “Winter Thrice” and “Voices.” But here on “Nordic Anthem,” Nedlund proves himself to be a vocalist capable of contributing more than just the occasional verse or closer. The dude is good, and could easily stand alongside Garm and Vintersorg in the echelon of Borknagar‘s famously fantastic frontmen.

“Fall” Artwork

Which is not at all a slight against Simen “ICS Vortex” Hestnæs.  Vortex remains among the most charismatic, distinctive, and all-around excellent singers in black metal,  his demonic screech bested only by his actual singing. The man possesses the most easily recognized baritone in the genre, and he wisely does everything he can with it. His croons soothe, his bellows alert, and his delivery never wavers.  I am nearly forced to believe he was only dismissed from Dimmu Borgir because he took too much of the spotlight, but that unwise move on their part allowed him to return to a band that better deserves and utilizes his talents.

“Fall” continues with more blackened prog with roughly equal amounts of clean singing and screeches, with great care taken to not let one overpower the other. As ever, the transitions from clean to brutal – both musically and vocally – are without seam or fault, and Brun‘s songwriting and arrangements retain their forward-moving quality. “Moon” is another unapologetically progressive journey that also takes cues from psychedelic rock in the intro and even NWOBHM in the lead guitar breaks, all the while maintaining its identity. Meanwhile, “Stars Ablaze” expertly segments its progressive moments, its blackened moments, and its folk breaks only to mash them all together again after a silent moment to gaze at the celestial bodies dancing above. Emperor may have written about the majesty of the night sky, but Borknagar are over here depicting it as if to exemplify my greatest demand of music: it is not enough for you to tell me you’re sad. You must make me feel that sadness.

“Fall” also sees the band toying with styles damn near alien to the black metal world, albeit briefly. “Unraveling” features an almost poppy chorus that has me referring to arena rock bands I admittedly don’t know very well, while some of  Thomassen‘s soloing in “The Wild Lingers” borders on jazzy and even bluesy. This latter track also features one of the most infectious refrains on the album, with Thomassen‘s downward slide as essential to its character as Simen‘s singing. The album closes with a nearly ten-minute tour de force called “Northward” that sees Norway’s finest doing what they do best: taking their listeners on not just a ride but a freaking adventure across the arctic vistas that move these gents to do the thing they do. It brings to mind the popular conception of black metal as being needlessly angry, almost entirely unintelligible, and completely brutish. And yet here we see a bunch of earth-conscious outdoorsmen creating thoughtful anthems to the natural grandeur that has inspired the greatest poetic minds to create timeless works of art. Borknagar is The Nature Conservancy in corpsepaint. Or to the layman, Bob Ross, but fucking loud.

It’s safe to say that Borknagar are at the top of their game a good three decades after their inception, and that their first album created from beginning to end with their current roster honors the path laid out with its exceptional predecessors, “Winter Thrice” and “True North.” I often look askance when albums released so early in the year are regarded as AOTY material, but in the case of “Fall,” we have a legitimately serious contender. Just wow, y’all. Wow

Released By: Century Media Records
Release Date: February 23rd, 2023
Genre: Progressive Black Metal

Band Members:

  • Øystein G. Brun / Guitar
  • Simen “ICS Vortex” Hestnæs / Bass, vocals
  • Lars “Lazare” Nedland / Keys, vocals
  • Bjørn Dugstad Rønnow / Drums
  • Jostein Thomassen / Guitar

Fall track-listing:

  1. Summits
  2. Nordic Anthem
  3. Afar
  4. Moon
  5. Stars Ablaze     
  6. Unraveling
  7. The Wild Lingers
  8. Northward

Pre-order the album HERE

9.5 Excellent

“Fall” is worthy of your time, worthy of your repeated spins, a worthy follow-up to Sonic Perspectives' Metal Album of 2019, and worthy of a spot in the greatest records this absolute gift of a band has ever produced. We don't deserve music of this caliber, but that won't stop me from loving it.

  • Songwriting 10
  • Musicianship 10
  • Originality 9
  • Production 9
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