Borknagar return to the majesty of Norway’s snow capped mountains and frozen fjords on True North. The group’s eleventh studio album reveals the return of operatic jester Simen “I.C.S. Vortex” Hestnæs, also known for epic vociferations in Arcturus and Dimmu Borgir. Grandiose vocals have always been a centerpiece of the band for nearly a quarter of a century with Garm and Vintersorg formerly filling that role.
All three of the vocalists appeared on their last recording Winter Thrice with Vintersorg in the lead role. Here, Vortex revisits that role for the first time since their 2000 release Quintessence. While Quintessence made a sharp impression on listeners, his crowning moment was the previous album, The Archaic Course, which featured some of the best writing of Oysten G. Brun’s career.
As the commander of the ship Borknagar, the band’s success largely hinges on Brun’s songwriting prowess — his ability to deliver a melodic product that captures the essence of Norway’s rugged nature. Steeped in metaphor, his lyrics have a way of connecting humanity to the essence of nature and the universe, savage yet also serene. This motive reoccurs throughout Borkngar’s discography including True North. A cursory look at the song titles upholds these ideas with song titles such as “Thunderous,” “Up North,” “Into the White” and “Tidal.”
The song titles are very simplistic like viewing a single image, but there is a sub-text within each song that is deep. “The Fire That Burns” is not the best title. It’s quite redundant, but musically it’s one of the strongest songs on the album. Brun and company must have felt the same way because they used it as one of the singles to promote the album. Vortex’s mix of clean of harsh vocals mimics the complexities of nature’s light and dark aspects. The harsh parts aren’t injected in speed, but the manner in which his voice was recorded continues the icy atmosphere apparent through out the album. Lull points of melody including the acoustic intro are memorable. “Wild Father’s Heart” also contains a rich acoustic intro.
Brun stays consistent with True North. The snowy mountain scene depicted on the cover certainly beckons to those who’ve followed the band throughout their career. Mountains were a motif on the last album, and the scene makes one believe this may be a return to early material such as The Olden Domain, but that is not the case. In that sense, True North is a disappointment. Although heavy contrasts appear on the album, the album is not nearly has hard as early material, a trait that has been constant over the last few albums.
When a moment calls for the kind of speed Grim (R.I.P.) once offered, Bjørn Dugstad Rønnow doesn’t push the tempo. His double bass work is exceptional, though. Also, there is the progressive element brought to life through organ. Instead of beckoning to panoramic peaks and valleys, it’s akin to a bag of peanuts at a baseball game. Guitars add to the melodic nature of the album and can be great like the bluesy melody that appears on “Mount Rapture,” but the medieval riff seems to have been laid almost broken shields at least twenty years ago.
Vortex’s entrance back into the band is one of mixed results. He shows an impressive range and tone, as usual, but the lyrics don’t register to the extent as earlier material. “Up North” begins with more baseball-ready organ, the phrasing and how Vortex accentuates some of his vocals seems out of place. It’s too happy, too poppy. The beginning of the song is catchy, but it’s akin to hearing refrain from an annoying pop song that just won’t leave your mind.
True North is not a bad album, and as noted above, longtime fans should enjoy it. Sameness is not the problem here. Melody and prog rock elements are the norm for Borknagar, but this album just doesn’t stick out like previous albums. The songwriting isn’t as good. Borknagar and The Olden Domain, and even Vortex’s first album The Archaic Course will probably never be emulated or somewhat replicated again, but then again, the first three albums tend to always the best.
(released September 27, 2019 on Century Media Records)
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Watch Borknagar – “Up North” Video