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Towers above their other releases - 99%

Aeturnus65, July 9th, 2005

The delicious cacophony that was Borknagar’s self-titled debut could do very little to prepare fans of black/Viking metal for this release. Indeed, who could have guessed that with only their second album Borknagar could have produced what is perhaps one of the absolute finest examples of this sort of music, a sort which is inherently difficult to classify? Is it black metal? Viking? How about folk metal? I’d settle on a classification of “blackened Viking folk metal”, but whatever one decides to call it, the end product is the same: 44 minutes of sonic brilliance which today remains largely unmatched, even by Borknagar themselves.

For his second (and last) performance with the band vocalist Garm (aka “Fiery G. Maelstrom” aka Kristoffer Rygg) manages to steal the show, an impressive feat given the abundant wealth of high points on this disc. The mixing of clean and harsh vocals is certainly nothing new in the metal world, and was hardly any more novel back in 1997. However, few vocalists can deliver such commanding performances in each distinct style as does Garm here. His harsh vocals range from shrieking screams to guttural growls, often mid-verse. Anyone can get a mic and growl into it; not many can infuse passion into such tormented wailings. Ulver had an album that consisted solely of Garm screaming, and it worked quite well, if only because Garm does harsh vocals so well. It must also be mentioned that his work on The Olden Domain is a prime example of growls that are easily deciphered. That is, the heavy metal stereotype of vocals that no one can understand is quickly dispelled here.

No less worthy of veneration are Garm’s clean vocals. If you’ve heard any of his older work with Arcturus, Ulver, or even his few cleanly sung parts on the Borknagar debut, then you have an idea of what he sounds like with his trademark croon. Sure, his range is limited and his accent is a bit noticeable. That might ruin some singers, but for Garm these aren’t issues. At times sounding almost chantingly monkish, his deep voice is absolutely perfect for the music contained on these eight tracks (well, really six since there are two instrumentals). I don’t know, maybe his voice really is a love-it-or-hate-it type of thing, as I do know of a few (for shame!) fans who don’t care for him. If this really is the case then put me squarely into the former category. Ok, enough Garm fellating for now – just listen to the man and you’ll be spellbound. Let me just say that it’s a real tragedy he decided to focus on Ulver and the weirded-out electronic techno style they have evolved to, something which is just not my cup of tea at all.

Alas, vocals alone cannot save a metal album from mediocrity without some serious tunes backing them up. Well, the music here is, dare I say, nigh perfect. Each song seems to be the exact length it needs to be. Some people say this is progressively-tinged black/Viking metal, a point I can’t argue. However, by no means does this signify long-winded “wank” sessions that seem out of place. No, nothing here seems extra, forced, incomplete, yadda yadda yadda. Trust me – it’s the complete package. Norwegian metal never had a finer three quarters of an hour. Hell, I could also argue that neither did Swedish, Finnish, Russian, American, nor German metal, but that’s another discussion.

Everything is done so well here – the guitars, the keys, bass, and drums. The guitarwork is largely centered around the creation of swirling melodies that evoke certain images. There is a bit of solid chugging, but mostly we get something more akin to Bathory’s “One Rode to Asa Bay”. In short, tremendous guitar work that, together with the keyboards, almost soothe rather than beat you over the head mercilessly. Actually, to do that we have the drumming of Erik Brodreskit (aka Grim). I know very little about the man, but apparently he was a miserable wretch prone to terrible depression and other nasty things. That’s unfortunate because I really like his playing here. He’s obviously talented but he doesn’t have to flash it with endless blastbeats and such. Perhaps this was guitarist and principle songwriter Øystein G. Brun’s influence, but regardless, Grim does very well here, playing in a much more direct and forceful manner than seen on later releases like Epic with its meandering, almost jazzy drumming. Heck, even the keyboard work sounds terrific. Most often relegated to a layered background role, they only add to the majestic Viking feel of the album. Keyboards don’t really work when they are relied on for providing melody to contrast with harshness (kind of like Dimmu Borgir, but let’s leave that one alone as well). In other words, a song structured something like: “click-click-click-click-click-click-{insert keyboards here}-click-click-click…” very likely will suck. When keys are used to enhance a sound, perhaps even mirror the underlying guitar melodies, then we’re getting somewhere. Actually, in case you can’t tell I’m lousy at effectively describing keyboard work in a metal album, so how about you just listen to the album to hear what I’m talking about?

As for the tracks themselves, a song-by-song analysis would be awfully redundant since each song is superb in its own right. However, a couple of them are worth noting, due mainly to their sheer power and beauty. Song number two, titled “The Winterway”, is a perfect study in the contrast between brutality and melody, speed and tranquility. With liberal use of acoustic guitars, keyboards, and even what sound like violins, the song is barely even classifiable as any sort of black metal. That’s irrelevant, however, because people (hopefully) aren’t listening to this looking for hellacious black metal. “Grimland Domain” (I love that title), on the other hand, begins with something probably most similar to traditional black metal, accented by Garm’s excellent work. His clean passage in this song (“See the plains so eternally white…”) is something special. Most any listener can tell upon hearing this that Garm may not be exceptionally talented from a technical standpoint. True, he’s definitely improved over the years, but his later work with Arcturus and Ulver is “enhanced” by studio effects, so for purity his work here wins hands-down. Sometimes it almost seems like he’s forcing his clean voice to be so low, and in this sense he sounds a bit stretched. However, give me a vocalist with passion over one with worlds of ability but lacking real passion any day. Fans of Viking metal are likely well acquainted with the supreme example of this mantra – Quorthon. Thus, Garm’s vocals work so well partially because of the passion he so very clearly has. Viking metal, almost as a rule, demands passionate vocals (be they clean or harsh). You’re not belting out catchy choruses, but instead are telling tales of, well, pagan tongues (sorry, couldn’t resist). If you’re serious about Viking metal you better not limp through your songs vocally, as flaccid vocals can ruin even the best of songs.

To reiterate, this album essentially is not black metal. It’s much closer to, say, Bathory’s Hammerheart. In fact, I would put The Olden Domain about a notch below Hammerheart on my Viking metal scale, and that’s only because Hammerheart, to me, is THE essential album of the genre. Unfortunately for us listeners, Borknagar just kept changing so much with each album they subsequently released. I enjoy their newer stuff with Vintersorg, but I don’t think it even holds a candle to this album. You know how sometimes, after listening yet again to one of your favorite albums of all time, you feel almost sad knowing there will likely never be anything like it again? Well, this is one of those albums for me. So hauntingly beautiful yet excessively powerful at once, The Olden Domain indeed can almost bring me to the verge of tears, and for that I must commend Borknagar for releasing such an album. It’s not black metal, nor is it full-on pure Viking metal. Who cares? Go buy it.