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Norway is the most mono-cultural country in Western Europe. That's why I admire it so. Plain and simple, them Norwegians just don't like other countries or cultures telling them what to do or influencing them. Join the European Union? No, thanks. Even during World War II, when The Third Reich rolled in-if only for tactical reasons-expecting cooperation and promoting kinship and preservation of Nordic culture, a vast majority of its citizens still supported a stubborn resistance movement that rivaled France's. Flash forward to more recent times; such steadfastness within the culture itself in some circles was even demonstrated internally with the ardent and aggressive opposition to Christianity. I think you know which "circles" I am referring to here.
It makes perfect sense that black metal (as most of us know it today) arose out of this great nation in western Scandinavia. It's a contribution to a genre that sounds unmistakably characteristic of isolation, Vikings, snowy climates and narrow mindedness. Norway is as identifiable with black metal as Spain is to flamenco music; regardless if it was invented there or not. Seriously, how many of you off hand can name any death metal bands from Norway? I myself only knew of one and that band later went on to play black metal. As a matter of fact, they went on to be probably the most influential band in the latter genre today. When Deicide played their first show in Norway, they were threatened by black metal hordes. What does that tell you?
Still not convinced? I don't speak a word of either Norwegian or Swedish. I do know that the two are basically a variation of a common tongue and hence mutually intelligible. Yet even to my untutored ear, Norwegian sounds very distinct from Swedish. It has a more nasal and dancing quality to it. Ok, so what does all this have to with Borknagar? I'm glad you ask...
This self titled debut album doesn't tow the line with conventions of the thrashier sounding Norwegian black metal like Mayhem and Darkthrone. This band goes all progressive and it almost sounds like Swedish metal at times but at the same time it is very Norwegian sounding in spirit too. The intent is on having it both ways. They want it to sound progressive, without a care in the world if in some structural instances there may be a smidgen of resemblance to early Opeth. Still, a great and true black metal essence sweeps all through everything else in the album. A Norwegian black metal of course. However, I wouldn’t call the black metal parts heard on here raw black in the strictest sense but it is the closest sounding to that description that Borknagar has ever recorded.
This album(along with the band Enslaved) still doesn’t get enough credit for influencing some newer and highly acclaimed progressive/atmospheric black metal. The signature sound of Drudkh and Negura Bunget are clearly inspired by this record. With that, Borknagar is just one more example of an “I tell you, you don’t tell me” Norwegian black metal album. The credibility of this lineup is evidence of that. The main songwriter Brun is the least known guy in Borknagar but you would be remiss if you didn’t at least check this out for everyone else who plays on it. Garm from Ulver contributes intense high screams and a few choral chants. This is not a particularly vocal driven outing and as such, the shrieking performance for augmentation in this atmospheric black metal is exactly how you would find it done in a similar band like for example Hate Forest.
One of my favorite things on the album is Grim’s drums. There’s no mistaking his attacks when Vintervredets Sjelesagn kicks off the record. If he wasn’t on this recording, I wouldn’t have too much more interest. This first track sounds like it is all based around his insane pummeling. And that pummeling is a reach out. I know because I turned up the volume as far as it could go and it seemed to shake and vibrate my whole room. I could almost feel his whole kit vibrating intensely too. I would also like to add that the drumming on this album is also very Norwegian sounding if that’s possible. What I mean is, I have rarely heard much of this style of time pattern outside of the Norway scene. Hellhammer drums this similar foggy set of beats on Mayhem’s albums especially their first LP. And when the he does some slow hitting, they sound heavier than thou. That’s the kind of variation in Erik’s skill set. It’s aesthetically pleasing to say the least. Tanker Mot Tind is another display of astounding beating from the late great Grim. The whole song is detailed with an epic Viking spirit and resounds with clean and concise war cadence.
My one misgiving about Borknagar is that it’s an album that has too many progressive interludes. Those interludes being the instrumental tracks. Half of the album is dedicated to them. Don’t get me wrong, they are enjoyable but I think I am just not used to a black metal record like this being so progressively inclined. Of course, Brun makes it work all so very coherently but the amount of those songs respite does tend to stall the marked vehemence of the aggressive tracks. Grimskalle Trelle is the cutting furiousness of all the straight black/Viking songs. Garm pulls out all stops with the screaming and the storming intensity of those distorted guitars upon Grim’s drumming are dark and inimical but then there is a draining of all the built up energy when Nord Naagauk comes next. Even if that next song is eerie. That example is just fine in of itself but I found that it was done a song or two too much. Fabdens Allheim is the final black metal sounding song that I didn’t quite take to as the others and it precedes the limp keyboarded cut Tanker Mot Tind (gryning). To me, all that straddling between harsh and musically enlightening became a little exhausting.
The essence of a Scandinavian sound bleeding in and out of Borknagar is unmistakable. It’s motivating virtue of this album. The Swedish influence of Vintersorg is drawn from here and Born creates an album that reverberates like a metal travelogue of Norway. The fog of Norwegian black metal is accented. The isolation sets in all around the peninsula. Borknagar is an album that tells me everything is just the way it has been and should be from Norwegian metal.