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Borknagar play it safe - 70%

lukretion, October 10th, 2021
Written based on this version: 2000, CD, Century Media Records (Limited edition, Digipak)

Quintessence, Borknagar’s fourth album, was released two years after the underwhelming response to their 1998’s album The Archaic Course. It is a record that rights many of the wrongs of its predecessor (messy and unfocused songwriting; overambitious experimentalism; sub-par production), but that also contains lots of material that falls into averageness and mediocrity, giving the overall impression of an album where Borknagar decided to play it safe. It is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in light of the pas-faux of the previous album. But in a period of burgeoning avant-garde extreme metal, it may be seen as a step back that puts Borknagar in the position of playing catch-up with other purveyors of the genre, like Arcturus, Enslaved or Ulver.

The band underwent a couple of significant line-up changes in the period between The Archaic Course and Quintessence. Ivar Bjørnson, who had played keyboards for Borknagar since the debut album, left to concentrate on his main project Enslaved, while drummer Grim (also with Borknagar since the beginning) sadly passed away of drug overdose. They were replaced respectively by Lars "Lazare" Nedland from Norwegian avant-garde band Solefald and drummer Asgeir Mickelson (Spiral Architect). Bass player Kai K. Lie also walked out, but was not replaced by any new member, as vocalist ICS Vortex doubled up as bassist on Quintessence, instead. With this renewed line-up, in early 2000 Borknagar entered Abyss Studios and recorded the album udner the supervision of Peter Tägtgren.

Sonically, the album takes a half-step back towards the days of The Olden Domain. There are less clean vocals, and more grasps and growls. The music is also simpler and more direct, leaving behind much of the experimentation that one can find on The Archaic Course. The performances are also more streamlined, especially thanks to Mickelson’s tight drumming replacing Grim’s more extravagant style. Newcomer Lars Nedland also makes his presence heard, as the 10 songs of the album are washed with tons of stylish vintage keyboards (Hammond organ, mellotron). Despite these more or less subtle changes, Borknagar’s music direction does not differ much from what the band had proposed on the previous two albums. Centred on Øystein G. Brun’s dense riffs, Quintessence offers a mixture of black metal, folk and avant-garde that bends the rules of extreme metal into more melodic directions.

Tägtgren’s production is good, giving good balance to the various instruments and vocals. If anything, the sound is a tad too balanced, in the sense that none of the instruments stands out particularly on this album and one has to make an effort to figure out the instrumental leads that are being played on the songs. Much of the problem, however, lies in the songwriting and arrangements that are very much nondescript, almost as if Borknagar were afraid to indulge in bold songwriting after the backlash they suffered with the previous album. The result is 10 songs that are fairly bland and lifeless and where it is difficult to find episodes that one gets excited by.

The album starts well, with “Rivalry of Phantoms” and “The Presence Is Ominous” representing two of the strongest tracks of the record. The playing is tight and the music strikes a good balance between aggression, melody and structure, alternating between epic mid-tempos and faster parts. Nedland’s keyboards take centre stage, especially on “The Presence Is Ominous”, and stand out as perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the whole album. Alas, the expectations created by these initial songs are soon disappointed, as the record starts to spin on itself, essentially recycling the same ideas over and over for its whole duration. “Colossus”, with its clean vocals, and “Invincible”, with its death metal vibe, rekindle some interest, but otherwise I find it a bit of a chore to remain fully attentive as the record plays through to its conclusion.

Overall, Quintessence is a decent album that certainly represents an improvement over the messy results of The Archaic Course, but also fails to reach the levels of inspiration and creativeness of The Olden Domain. If you are willing to forgive the somewhat dull and uninspired songwriting, you’ll find things to like here as Borknagar’s sound remains pleasant and enjoyable. But this record does not hold my interest enough to ensure I’ll be playing this very often in the future, as there are better albums of progressive extreme metal out there even from the same period (Enslaved’s Monumension) or from Borknagar themselves.