Winter Thrice is the follow-up to 2012’s excellent Urd. Urd may be my favorite Borknagar album. The way the band used the massive vocal talent at their disposal—Vintersorg, ICS Vortex, and Lazare all uniquely adding to the epic feel—combined with music that was intense and more direct than anything since Quintessence. It made for an intoxicating listen. It’s been four years since Urd was released and Winter Thrice builds upon the back of Urd while trying to expand its vision. The album is sixty minutes of epic, blackened, progressive metal which builds on the back of excellent vocal performances, including the unexpected—but totally suggested by me—inclusion of Garm’s cleans in the growing vocal mosaic.
Winter Thrice walks a balance between the progressive impulses of the band and its inclusion of the black metal elements which they have never completely dropped. Vintersorg is still the band’s ‘lead’ vocalist and his screams litter the album, often backed with blasts from new-ish drummer Baard Kolstad (who’s in every active Norwegian band but Darkthrone as far as I can tell). The black metal bits are few and far between, however, with most of the album lilting along like a river in the thaw—at a medium pace, but with the possibility of overflow dangerously close. The threat of intensity is just around the corner.
Winter Thrice spends a lot of time teasing intensity and variety, but never quite delivers it. The songs are long—often times pushing 7 minutes—with vocals swapping between Vintersorg, Simen, Lazare, and even Garm on a couple tracks. The writing is littered with blast beats and builds—like “Erodent” and “When Chaos Calls”—but the music is winding, and it rarely peaks for long. While the use of the different vocalists is enchanting and makes for majestic harmonies and playful interplay between voices, generally the songs seem to be split into sections that are assigned to a vocalist. Rather than taking advantage of the variety of singers to create lots of lush forests of harmonies—using the different timbres to create variety—there are Vintersorg songs (“Cold Runs the River”) or Lazare songs (“Panorama,” which is the best song on the album). The feeling is disjointed, as though the music was written and vocal tracks mailed in from different studios. There are notable exceptions like “Dominant Winds” and “Winter Thrice,” but these are exceptions.
The feeling that Borknagar is teasing with variety and intensity is absurd, of course. Winter Thrice is not a uniform record. The songs on here are all unique and interesting. While it’s more mid-paced and a little more winding than Urd, every track is at least pretty good on its own. Vintersorg nails choruses for Borknagar with the same vocal alacrity he does in his own work, and the guitar work from Jens and Øystein is as good as ever. “When Chaos Calls” has a beautiful and intense build, “Noctilucent” features some of Camel‘s best writing since Åkerfeldt, complete with an onion on his belt, was channeling them in the early-aughts. “Panorama” is a truly five star song featuring not only amazing vocals, but excellent lyrics.
I think the feeling that this album isn’t dynamic is because the album sounds quite flat. Music as lush and dynamic as Borknagar should not be crushed to the point where the drums have no punch and the quiet proggy parts are just as loud as the blast beats. It’s absolutely bizarre to listen to an album and realize that the blasts are no more intense than the music coming before them. I know that I sound like a broken record—I’m as tired of this paragraph in my reviews as you are—but I can’t help but wonder if the feeling of uniformity doesn’t have more to do with the brickwalling of Winter Thrice‘s master. When everything is loud, nothing is—and the peaks and valleys don’t really peak or valley.
Ultimately, and whatever the cause, Winter Thrice is a mixed listening experience. Taken song-for-song, I think everything on here ranges from pretty good to excellent. Taken as a whole, though, I’m not even really sure I’ve made it from start to finish more than 3 or 4 in the dozens of times I’ve heard the album. I found myself losing the thread after “Panorama” and coming back and having to listen to the back half of the album separately. I split the whole album, toward the end, into mini 3-song EPs and could enjoy each one on its own. I listened to this in my monitors, my headphone monitors, two different sets of speakers and my earbuds, and…
There’s a sad irony that I finally got what I wanted—a Borknagar record with Garm on it and all of my favorite Scandinavian vocalists in one place—and I’m having trouble enjoying it. I want to lay this at the feet of production because I don’t know how else to understand it. Every song on here is good when taken alone, and yet I have trouble listening to Winter Thrice. When I see gushy reviews like the one Andy Synn did over at NCS, I feel robbed. Moments like “Panorama” and “Dominant Winds” make me see that there is brilliance here and I want to like it. But I only sort of do.