From starting out as a band who seemingly arrived late to the party of Norwegian black metal to being “Hey, their singer was the opera guy in Dimmu Borgir!” Borknagar have always seemed to be on the outer fringes of whatever movements in metal happened in their country. Too proggy for the kvlt kids and too blastbeat-ridden for the prog crowd, Borknagar have occupied a very strange niche in the metal community alongside outfits like Arcturus, Enslaved, Vintersorg, and Solefald. (All of these have had past or present members of Borknagar, surprise!)
They’ve never experienced a huge amount of success in themselves, but their union of the progressive with the traditional has resulted in a discography that has introduced subtle but significant changes over time. From the plowing “Viking metal” of their early days to the incorporation of folk and classical influences, Borknagar remain a fascinating anomaly of a band. This edition of Nine Circles Ov… is about the overall trajectory of the band’s career as they’ve moved—almost jarringly—from one distinct sound to another. Let’s get to it.
“Dauden” (Borknagar, 1996)
This is about as close to “true” black metal as the band ever got, and even with Garm’s clean chants and buried keyboards, this song rips pretty hard. Underneath the raw production, the roots of the band’s songwriting are still fully intact. Brun’s chops to blend savagery and subtlety, even at a young age, are impressive.
“A Tale of Pagan Tongue” (The Olden Domain, 1997)
The Olden Domain was the album that got Borknagar on the radar, partially because the duo of Garm on vocals and Grim (Immortal, Gorgoroth) on drums was a supergroup in itself. Øystein Brun pushed both members into new musical territory, and the band had shed raw black metal for a grandiose, sweeping sound that incorporated folk elements.
“Oceans Rise” (The Archaic Course, 1998)
Long before ICS Vortex donned leather and spikes, he was vocalist for Borknagar, and his range, both clean and harsh, is demonstrated wonderfully here. The band’s chemistry falls into place here as the rhythm section exchanges proggy, melodic licks, and Grim’s drums take a backseat to the atmosphere built by the chorus and guitar breaks.
“Colossus” (Quintessence, 2000)
Quintessence was quite different from anything the band had done; aggressive in its approach and more direct in the songwriting, it qualified as “progressive extreme metal,” as today’s kids say. “Colossus” is mountainous in its grandeur, and Vortex’s vocal performance is riveting.
“Soul Sphere” (Empiricism, 2001)
Following Vortex’s departure, Vintersorg began his tenure with the band. His voice, more dramatic and had greater abilities to fill in the quieter prog sections of the band’s music. Along with an emphasis on the keyboards and more complex guitar/bass compositions, Empiricism set the standard for Borknagar going into the new century.
“The Wonder” (Epic, 2004)
Epic saw the band’s surest transition into more progressive territory. While the album had dodgy moments as Vintersorg attempted to stretch his vocal abilities, the closing track is not one of them. Reliant on interplay between vocal phrasing, flutes, and acoustic guitars, “The Wonder” is awe-inducing for its composition and beauty.
“Earth Imagery” (Origin, 2006)
There have only been a handful of bands that can make full albums outside of their traditional wheelhouse, and Borknagar is among them. A mixture of neo-classical, neofolk, and strains of progressive rock, this track shows—perhaps more than any of their metal tracks—the incredible amount of talent and intellect behind the songwriting.
“For A Thousand Years to Come” (Universal, 2010)
If one were to pick a song from Borknagar’s discography that sums up their sound, this is it. Fretless bass solo with swirling clean guitars and violins? Check. Epic lead guitar melodies backed by dense keyboards? In the pocket. Layered clean vocals over pounding drums? Yeah, buddy. It’s all here in a wild ride of a song.
“Frostrite” (Urd, 2012)
A driving, majestic march, this song emphasizes Øystein Brun’s ability to write fantastic guitar melodies and effective lead sections. Vocally, this may well be one of the strongest songs that Vortex has recorded with Borknagar, with the harmonies adding climactic touches at just the right points. Also, laser synth solo.
This is only a starting point for the band’s discography, and I highly recommend that, if you’re a fan of progressive metal, digging into their entire discography. Do it!