Borknagar // Universal
Rating: 3.5/5.0 —Very good, feels unfocused at times and its definitely a grower..
Label: Indie Recordings
Release Dates: EU: 22.02.2010 | US. 03.02.2010
Borknagar is a class act and has been for a long time. Reaching all the way back to their first, self-titled release, this band has separated itself from the herd by being just plain more interesting and unique. Eventually they just separated themselves from the modern black metal scene altogether, heading towards more progressive pastures. Universal continues a trend away from the raw and simple towards the highly complex, dynamic and progressive, but the question is whether or not the band’s fans and general public will want to follow the band in this direction. Well, and whether or not where the band is leading is somewhere worth going.
Make no mistake about it Borknagar is a seriously talented and fantastic band. Even with the departure of longtime drummer Asgeir Mickelson, the band didn’t miss a beat (oh, hahahaha, I’m so funny) when they picked up American drummer David Kinkade who performs admirably while filling some of metal’s biggest drumming shoes. Vintersorg sounds fantastic as well, though he’s mixed quite far back on this record, more so than on previous albums. On a close listen, Universal is a record of incredible layers. All of the instruments are painting complex, elaborate, detailed and beautiful portraits which come together sometimes to create a grand tapestry of sound.
Unfortunately, all this epicness and detailed playing also leads to what I see as the biggest problem from which this record suffers: a lack of focus. While every song on the record has shining moments of beauty and clarity, Universal seems messy and hard to follow at times. Intros to tracks can feel like total non sequiturs when the verse actually starts, (see: “For A Thousand Years to Come”) or sometimes the instruments seemingly clash with each other instead of working together to create beautiful chords and harmonies. Particularly in my normal speakers, I found myself just wandering off mentally when this record started overload my ears with information that seemingly clashed. However, a deeper listen with earphones helped me see through this sort of foggy mix (metaphorically speaking) and helped me come to a better understanding of these tracks.
And let me say: there are some really strong tracks on this album. The opener, “Havoc” is sort of your standard Borknagar opener, but it has done its job and stuck in my head. “My Domain” which features a guest appearance from Simen Hestnas is another track that stands out for its epic build, particularly to the end of the song and stands as a reminder of what a fantastic vocalist Simen really is (and what Dimmu Borgir lost). “Abrasian Tide” is probably the most reminiscent of Quintessence and Empiricism on the whole record, and it’s just a solid track from start to finish. But my personal favorite track on the album is probably “Fleshflower” which, while quite short by metal standards, features a fantastic neo-classical kind of melody and some really convincing vocal performances. All of these awesome tracks point me to the same conclusion, when the band stays focused, they are able to produce epic, fascinating and powerful tracks. The big problem is when they let their progressive urges get ahead of themselves and the tracks start to wander.
Of course, the above tracks are not the only ones on the album I like. Every song on here has stand out moments, but I still do feel like I just get lost at some points and really, this is the first album by Borknagar where I’m able to say that. I admittedly had some issues with Epic at times, but even that one I felt like had a lot more good than bad and I can honestly say that I never had to work at liking that record. Universal, on the other hand, is a record that I have put a ton of effort into dissecting and trying to enjoy because of the high regard I hold this band in. While in the end I still think that this is a pretty good record, it certainly didn’t manage to live up to my expectations and had I not been forced to write a cogent review of it, I don’t know whether or not I would have given it more than just a couple listens.