OK, so we are now a quarter of the way through 2012, and I've been waiting for that one new release to jump out and scream 'best of the year' at me amidst what is already looking like a strong year for new music. Norway's Borknagar, who just ten years ago were trailblazing, along with Opeth, new avenues for extreme metal, then just kind of quietly took a backseat while allowing other acts to take up the spotlight. Fast forward now to April of 2012, and the Norwegian horde have returned with their follow-up to 2010's very solid Universal, titled Urd. There have been some line-up changes since that last release, namely the addition of new drummer Baard Kolstad and the return of the popular vocalist/bassist ICS Vortex, who comes back to the fold after his jettison from Dimmu Borgir. Borknagar now have one of the most incredible triple vocal threats in black metal, as ICS Vortex joins Vintersorg and keyboard player Lars A. Nedland for one hell of a formidable wall of sound. To put it mildly, these three, along with the supreme guitar skills of founder Řystein G. Brun and Jens F. Ryland, have helped produce a wonderful symphonic black metal album, quite possibly their crowning achievement.
Seeing as Borknagar have releases like The Archaic Course , Quintessence, Empiricism, and Epic in their discography, I know that last statement is going to raise some eyebrows, but honestly, Urd is that good. The return of ICS Vortex cannot be understated, as his soaring vocals just add what's been missing the last few years, not to take anything away from Vintersorg or Nedland, who are both exceptional singers in their own right. Vortex was just MEANT to sing with this band, as his delivery just perfectly matches the songs that Brun writes. Hearing Vortex and his majestic clean vocals alongside Vintersorg's growls on "Epochalypse" is just mindblowing, and all three turn in gorgeous layers on the melodic "Frostrite".
As for the music, look for raging black metal as well as textured progressive rock throughout Urd, proving that Brun still has plenty of ideas and creativity up his sleeve. "The Age of Creation" is just a wonderful symphonic black metal song, and "Mount Regency" puts forth plenty of progressive metal flavors over which Vintersorg, Vortex, and Nedland lay down their dueling clean and growling vocals. The guitar riffs and raging Hammond organ on the latter will bring a smile to the face of any fan of vintage Deep Purple. Though some might miss the drum exploits of Asgeir Mickelson and David Kinkade, new guy Kolstad really impresses here, as his flailing stick work on "Roots" and the near 9-minute "The Winter Eclipse" provide all the complex rhythms over which the textured guitar work and orchestral keyboards can soar. Speaking of keyboards, Nedland really does a fine job-check out his homage to 70's prog on the lovely "The Beauty Of Dead Cities" for the guy's talents. The band throws in an odd cover tune on this album, Metallica's "My Friend Misery", but it's damn good and a lot of fun.
There you have it, an easy contender for Album of the Year, and one of the best progressive & symphonic black metal albums I have heard in some time. Borknagar have always seemed to take a back seat to Dimmu Borgir in recent years, but I think with Urd they've surpassed their fellow countryman and are ready to sit on the top of the mountain.
3. The Beauty Of Dead Cities
4. The Earthling
5. The Plains Of Memories
6. Mount Regency
8. The Winter Eclipse
9. In A Deeper World
10. Age of Creation (Bonus Track)
11. My Friend Misery (Bonus Track)