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A fine return to form - 79%

lukretion, October 10th, 2021
Written based on this version: 2001, CD, Century Media Records (Digipak)

Released in 2001, Empiricism marks a fine return to form for Borknagar after two albums (The Archaic Course and Quintessence) that were far from the level of quality the Norwegians had reached on the splendid The Olden Domain. After Quintessence, ICS Vortex, who had sung on both previous albums and played bass on Quintessence, left the band to concentrate on Dimmu Borgir and was replaced by the talented Vintersorg on vocals and Tyr (who had played live with Emperor and Satyricon) on bass. The change of line-up was very beneficial for Borknagar, not because ICS Vortex is a bad vocalist (to the contrary, he’s excellent), but because Vintersorg seems to fit much better the sonic masterplan of band leader Øystein G. Brun. His singing is more epic and less extravagant than ICS Vortex’s, which is a better match for Borknagar’s progressive/folk blend of extreme metal. Tyr’s performance is also very notable, with some excellent parts on bass and fretless bass, including a few solos. The rest of the line-up for this album is comprised of Øystein G. Brun and Jens F. Ryland on guitar, Lars A. Nedland on keyboards and Asgeir Mickelson on drums.

The fact that we are in front of a much stronger record than the previous two is already apparent from the opening pair of songs, “The Genuine Pulse” and “Gods of My World”. On both songs the songwriting is lean and direct, with some excellent guitar riffs and leads intertwined with Nedland’s great barrage of vintage keyboards. The song structures explore different themes and sections, but they are always anchored in instantly recognizable choruses and melodies, that help the listener keep track of the journey. The arrangements add just enough layers to make the music interesting without overburdening it with excessive complexity. Fast and aggressive parts are complemented with grandiose mid-tempos giving the music an epic and majestic tone, reminiscent of the atmosphere one can find on Dimmu Borgir’s Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, but with an added dose of quirkiness and folk allure. The overall impression is that on the new album Borknagar have finally achieved the right balance between their various facets (black metal fury and melody; progressive experimentation and accessibility), which is a huge improvement over The Archaic Course, for example.

The individual performances of all musicians involved in the album are outstanding. Vintersorg is excellent, both when he uses his epic clean vocals and when he resorts to his grim growls. Both styles are nicely balanced through each song and fit well with one another. Tyr offers a very melodic bass presence which constitutes an exceptional rhythm section together with Mickelson’s varied and sophisticated drumming. Brun and Ryland’s guitars nicely complement one another, which is again an improvement over previous albums where one had the impression that Borknagar had not yet figured out how to make the two guitars work together. Lars A. Nedland’s performance also deserves tons of praise. On Quintessence he had already demonstrated to be a very talented musician, but his role on that album was perhaps a bit disconnected from the rest of the band, with the result that occasionally his keyboard parts were sounding a bit out of place and forced. Nedland is perfectly integrated in the band now, and it is great to hear his always tasteful choice of keyboard sounds, varying from vintage Hammonds to futuristic synths.

Probably a lot of these improvements come down to the longer time the band actually spent in the studio, honing the songwriting and recording the songs (two months compared to the few weeks of previous releases), and to the excellent sound production by Børge Finstad (who will go on to produce several records in this genre, with Borknagar, Solefald and Wind). The guitars and drums sound great, with lots of bite and edge. There is a lot of space and dynamics in the sound that let each instrument come through when necessary, even Tyr’s bass – which is an instrument that often gets sacrificed in this type of music. This spaciousness does not at all come to the cost of power, though: the album can pack a punch or two when needed. Again, the record is excellently balanced in its various facets.

While there is a lot to like on Empiricism, the album does contain a couple of dull moments, with slightly more nondescript songwriting. This is the case especially in the second half of the record, where we have tracks like “Inherit the Earth” and “Liberated” that are borderline fillers. Fortunately, the good moments greatly overweigh the bad ones, and tracks like the opening duo, the progressive tour de force “Soul Sphere”, and “Four Element Synchronicity” stand tall as great example of the talent of these six musicians. The latter song is particularly remarkable for how modern it sounds still today, 20 years after it was first recorded: this track could have been taken from one of the recent albums of Leprous (before their progressive-pop turn) or Ihsahn, showing how visionary and forward-looking Borknagar were back then (or perhaps how backward-looking the progressive metal scene is today!?).

In summary, Empiricism is a strong album, marking a definite return to form for Borknagar. After Quintessence, I had started to wonder whether Borknagar were perhaps a “one album” wonder, which after the excellent The Olden Domain were destined to drown in mediocrity. Empiricism proves me wrong. It is not quite at the level of excellence of The Olden Domain, but it gets damn close and is definitely a highly recommended listen if you are into progressive extreme metal.