Calling me a fanboy of Borknagar is an understatement. Because of this, the review of this year’s True North has been one of the toughest yet for ole Grier. That’s why it’s always difficult to trust the opinion of fanboys, starfuckers, or anyone getting financial “encouragement” from a band or label. Wait a second, Grier, did you back yourself into a corner and admit that no one should trust this review? Hell no, plebs. I’m no n00b. The countless peer reviews on Metal Archives and pretty much everything said over at MetalSucks are the product of letting one’s emotions overtake reality. Passion or payoff is a great incentive to write, but a biased, one-sided review doesn’t do much for the reader (or the band, for that matter). No, dear reader, I am no rook. Even for the love I have for Borknagar, I can (and will) approach True North without bias. And you’ll be sure to find something honest and clickbait-free. Well, more of the former and less of the latter. No one’s perfect.
It’s 4:45 am as I spin True North for the eighteenth time. And, fittingly, lightning is cracking and thunder is rolling across the dark horizon. Fitting because “Thunderous” is exactly what its name suggests. This thing is fucking massive in every way known to the band. With an eight-and-a-half-minute runtime, the opener explores everything from the darkest caverns to the tallest treetops, the warmest valleys to the coldest mountaintops, and the ocean floor to the outer exosphere. Which, as it turns out, also describes most of the album. Combining blackened rasps with Vortex’s unmistakable cleans, “Thunderous” transitions from an aggressive front-half to an emotion-filled back-half. The transition to clean guitars and standout bass work is so abrupt, it feels like a different song. But the gorgeous instrumentation and captivating vocals envelop the whole of the song and wrap it up in the perfect conclusion.
As the album progresses, what stands out the most is the track lengths and the Vortex/Nedlund diversity. “Thunderous” is long but it doesn’t stop there. Also, I’ve been listening to Vortex sing for a long time (Arcturus, Borknagar, Dimmu Borgir, and ICS Vortex), yet he still surprises me. Every song has a different vocal approach on True North. But the ones that stand out the most are the Volbeat-like arrangement of “Up North,” the ballady emotion of “Wild Father’s Heart,” the bludgeoning raspiness of “Mount Rapture,” the clean-on-harsh layering of “Into the White,” and the folkiness of closer “Voices.” Vortex and Nedlund are forces to be reckoned with and they hold nothing back on True North.
As for length, only a few of the tracks dare to be less than six minutes long. The rest are six-and-a-half (“Up North” and “The Fire That Burns”), eight-and-a-half (“Thunderous”), and nine-and-a-half (“Tidal”) minutes in length. Like the opener, “Up North” is a storybook journey that explores every nook and cranny of the countryside. Combining an upbeat first half with a sadboy back-half, this track acts as the perfect pairing to its predecessor, “Thunderous.” This upbeat attitude continues through the massive, clean/harsh builder, “The Fire That Burns,” to the chill, gorgeously-arranged “Lights.” And then the “upbeat” transforms to “uplifting” on the surprising “Wild Father’s Heart.” The progression through these five songs is so damn pleasing. Yet, this suggests that the front of the album is stronger than the back. Which is correct. The build attempted on the B-side uses a combination of “Lights” and “The Fire That Burns” to create “Into the White” and progresses from there to the jaw-dropping closer. But it’s hampered by “Tidal” and “Mount Rapture.” The first being too long and the second—while waking you up after “Wild Father’s Heart”—feels out-of-place with the rest of the disc.
Even with an hour-long album that has two songs pushing against the ten-minute barricade, the album contains a few of my favorite Borknagar moments. “Voices” and “Wild Father’s Heart” are the more unique pieces on the disc and, along with “Lights” and “Thunderous,” will define True North as it ages. Though this album is miles apart from the last time Vortex was the sole voice—not to exclude the fine vocal work done by Lars Nedland1—of the Borknagar, the biggest difference between then and now is the attitude. True North is more upbeat and more uplifting than any other Borknagar record. That, however, is not a criticism. Rather it’s an observation that makes True North one of a kind in the band’s extensive catalog. At times, True North feels long and it needs a couple of spins to digest all the details. But once you’ve explored its lush soundscapes, you’ll find that True North deserves to be next to other albums in Borknagar‘s catalog.