There’s something to be said for longevity in underground metal: As tastes change quickly and the bar is continuously raised for listeners’ thresholds for dissonance and technicality, it’s becoming increasingly harder to find bands who find a formula, stick with it, and refine it to a razor-sharp edge over time. Norway’s Borknagar have not only tread the thin line between folk-tinged progressive metal and black metal — they’ve practically made it nonexistent over 20+ years of existence. Their tenth album, Winter Thrice, feels like a retrospective of their career without crossing into nostalgia or retreading past glories and is their most satisfactory effort so far.
For their past few records, Borknagar have distilled their anthemic, blackened brand of progressive metal into something immediately accessible yet still intricate. Øystein Brun’s songwriting has always been unapologetically reliant on the dynamic ebb and flow of memorable vocal hooks and the grandeur of heavily layered, atmospheric metal that is as breathtaking as it is burly. Winter Thrice feels like not just another Borknagar album, but the destination they’ve been traveling toward since 2010’s Universal. Well within their signature sound, the songs are bursting at the seams with multi-layered vocal melodies and harmonies, heady lyrical concepts, intricate guitar rhythms, and progressive touches from Lars Nedland’s piano and mellotron. Somehow, though, Winter Thrice succeeds on some levels that the past few albums haven’t.
Aside from strong songwriting and beautifully constructed choruses — “Erodent” and the very proggy “Panorama” among the best the band has ever written — the band’s chemistry has fallen into place after lineup changes in the rhythm section. Particularly, new drummer Baard Kolstad (Solefald, Leprous) brings a brutal edge that has been only hinted at previously. With a tasteful blend of driving double bass, blast beats, powerful grooves, and an excellent production to let his playing shine through, Kolstad’s drumming is one of the highlights of Winter Thrice. Additionally, with the inclusion of not two, not three, but FOUR vocalists — Vintersorg, Vortex, Ulver‘s Krystoffer Rygg, and Lars Nedland — each vocalist takes sections of each song that best fits his range and complements his sense of melody. Rygg’s contribution on “Terminus” is a far cry from his work in Ulver but uses similar phrasing and melodies, and it’s a perfect build-up into Vintersorg’s absolute home run of a chorus at the end of the song. The combination of Lars’ and Vortex’s ranges on “Panorama” is a perfect fit for the prog-indebted nature of the song, and Vintersorg’s raspy screams are a driving force on “Cold Runs the River.” On the whole, Winter Thrice feels like the most complete Borknagar album since Empiricism; it takes them back to the unfiltered aggression of their “Viking metal” days while channeling it through the winding structures of their more technical 2000s output and keeping hooks at forefront.
My interview with guitarist Jens Ryland also gave me some insight to the recording and mixing process with Jens Bogren at Fascination Street Studios, but even before the interview, I had arrived at the conclusion that this is the best Borknagar have ever sounded. Bogren has done an excellent job of keeping the dense, heavily layered wall of guitars and keyboards distinct and well-articulated while also making the low end punchy and audible, and the multi-tracked vocals float atop the mix with stunning clarity. In terms of mixing, it seems like the band didn’t really get their bearings about them until Universal, and Winter Thrice‘s mix is the high point of that trajectory.
Production, of course, means nothing without strong songcraft behind it, but fortunately, Winter Thrice is consistently excellent throughout its runtime; these songs stand equally well when taken as a whole album but also have individual staying power. Opener “Rhymes of the Mountain” may well be one of the best tracks they’ve ever recorded, sweeping in its majesty and grandeur, and the remainder of the album re-establishes Borknagar as masters of what they do while always moving forward. Those who have never been introduced to Borknagar will find a good starting point in Winter Thrice, but for long-time fans, Winter Thrice is a stellar entry to their extensive discography.
Winter Thrice will be released on 01.22.2016 through Century Media Records and is available for pre-order on CD and LP. For more information on Borknagar, visit their official website or Facebook page.