Borknagar is an experimental metal outfit that has been through its share of lineup changes and sonic shifts since their formation in 1995. They’ve delved into the nooks and crannies of progressive black metal over the course of their extensive discography to create an eclectic and unpredictable sound, and given their constant metamorphoses, it’s a triumphant surprise that most of their work has been overwhelmingly excellent. 2010’s Universal was a bit off the mark, but that’s what makes Urd all the more satisfying. It’s a fantastic record, not only in comparison to their weaker material, but it might be one of their best releases to date. Pushing their progressive side to a new level, Urd combines theatrical energy with soaring compositions and catchy complexity. The album greets the listener with the return of vocalist and bassist ICS Vortex, with an assemblage of songs that defy black metal conventions and prove once again that Borknagar is one of the most inventive and versatile groups out there.
The record gets off to a dramatic and breakneck start with “Epochalypse”, with classic harmonized vocals seizing the reins of this runaway racehorse. There are black metal screams, too, which take the track from progressive and nearly choral to straightforward and ferocious. These classifications are quickly twisted in a Danny Elfman-esque way with a choir of syncopated “ah’s” adding a whimsically dark touch to the main melodic theme. “Roots” is next, which is a bit more intensely melancholic but no less energetic. As with most Borknagar, there are layers of instrumentation and vocals, but the relationship is cooperative rather than competitive. The production is commendable, as no level strains to be heard. The dynamics are so effective that most tracks possess a cinematic scope of emotion and depth. This is especially apparent with “The Beauty of Dead Cities”, which sounds like it came from the soundtrack of some bizarrely compelling rock opera.
Borknagar recently announced the departure of their drummer, David Kinkade, and Urd marks his last contribution to the band’s discography. This will surely register as a loss, since his performances on this album are unbelievably tasteful and brilliantly executed. The drums sound fantastic too, and I tip my hat again to the excellent production and engineering. Lyrically, the band explores themes of existence, creation, and civilization, which isn’t exactly unheard of. However, Borknagar’s unique and vibrant song structures breathe new life into tired motifs. “The Earthling” discusses gravity and nature with a variety of clean singing tones, as well as screams and growls. The track also has one of the best guitar solos of the record, but trust me, there are many to choose from.
It’s difficult to choose a “best” track from an album so strong, but the heavily symphonic and mid-paced “In a Deeper World” rises above the pack with its misty layers of gloom that settle over gorgeously subdued soundscapes. It’s not as enthusiastic or boisterous as the songs surrounding it, but that is a huge part of what makes it so gripping. Urd closes with “The Age of Creation”, a piece that combines their signature strata of vocals, rich textures, and grim reverberating riffs. Not surprisingly, the clean and distorted guitar work is phenomenal, and the orchestral tracks have a commanding presence without being suffocating.
Rather than give a track-by-track description of Urd, which manages to be both brutal and beguiling, I implore you to listen for yourselves. This album is an hour of sheer power and all-encompassing atmosphere, and a must-have for anyone who most enjoys their metal with a touch of theatricality.