(Andy Synn reviews the new tenth studio album by Borknagar.)
Show of hands, how many of you have heard of Theseus’ paradox? A few of you? Good to know.
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, it refers to questions of identity and continuity, and whether an object can be considered to be the same entity even after all its component parts have been steadily replaced over time, piece by piece.
Now, obviously, there are some parallels here with how bands work. I can tick off a number of names in my head of some of my favourite bands who no longer have any original members left and yet are still, in some ephemeral fashion, the same band.
Prog-Metal overlords Borknagar, of course, have something of an advantage in this area in that their existence has always been anchored (to stretch the nautical metaphor a little further) by the presence of mastermind Øystein G. Brun, but it only takes a quick glance at the Membership Timeline on the band’s Wikipedia page to see how many different members and line-ups the group have gone through over the years, while somehow still retaining the same creative drive and overarching musical identity that first brought the band together.
So perhaps it’s fitting that the line-up featured on Winter Thrice represents perhaps more distinct incarnations of the band at one time than ever before… reaching right back to their earliest days, while still forging boldly, progressively forward.
In terms of continuity, the six-string tag-team of Øystein G. Brun and Jens Ryland is still very much present and correct, weaving their particular brand of proggy riffery with all the grace and power we’ve come to expect from the two over the years, while the drum throne is still occupied by the band’s youngest (and newest) recruit, Norwegian wunderkind Baard Kolstadt, who acquits himself in stunning fashion across the length and breadth of the album’s nine intricate, inventive tracks.
Similarly, the “lead” vocal position is still occupied by the impressive pipes of Andreas Hedlund (aka Vintersorg), now the band’s longest-serving singer, aided and abetted by backing vocalist/keyboardist Lars Nedland (now in his sixteenth year with the band), and the soaring operatic cleans of bassist/vocalist Simen Hestnaes (aka ICS Vortex), who’s now on his second full album (and fourth overall) after his return to the fold in 2010.
What’s really got a lot of people talking, however, is the return, albeit in a limited capacity, of the band’s original vocalist, Kristoffer Rygg (aka Garm, aka Fiery G. Maelstrom), meaning that, as well as possessing a borderline-illegal level of vocal talent in one album, Winter Thrice effectively represents every era of the band’s 21-year existence in one powerful and polished progressive package.
You’ll likely notice, even on your first listen to this album, just how lush the arrangements and complex, multi-voiced harmonies are, and just how much clean singing there is across each of its nine, effortlessly distinctive tracks, with a good 70-80% or so of the album’s run time dominated by the grandiose and evocative clean-sung melodies issuing from the combined throats of Hedlund, Hestnaes, Nedland, and Rygg.
As a result, Winter Thrice is quite possibly the most outright “prog” album in the band’s collective career, simultaneously putting me in mind of classic Anderson/Howe/Squire/Wakeman/White-era Yes (listen to the gorgeous melodic hooks of “Panorama” or the sweeping ebb and flow of “When Chaos Calls” and just try not to think of albums like Fragile and Close to the Edge) while also remaining true to the same sound the band established on classics such as The Olden Domain and The Archaic Course.
On top of this, Rygg’s appearance – sharing lead vocal duties with Hedlund and Hestnaes on the majestic title track as well as delivering some suitably enigmatic guest vocals on the more intensely blackened prog-metal of “Terminus” – not only gives the band another instantly recognisable, gorgeously melodic voice to play with, but also helps to tie together the past, present, and future of the band in one coherent, creative conglomeration.
Without going into too much detail (as this really is an album that’s at its most rewarding when experienced in full and in person), let me make it clear that Winter Thrice is a truly magnificent piece of work, a diverse and enviably multi-faceted, multi-textured album, where no two songs sound quite the same, and yet all the tracks fit together seamlessly as parts of the greater whole.
And yes, while it is without doubt one of the band’s most progressive and artistic creations – brimming with layer upon layer of sublime, soaring melody and unique, creative riffery (not to mention more vocal parts and gorgeous harmonies than you could shake a stick at) – there’s still sufficient blackened bite present throughout the album to demonstrate that the sextet haven’t abandoned their roots entirely, with Hedlund deploying his signature growl when necessary to caustic effect, and Kolstad proving himself equally capable of cutting loose with a stream of scattershot blastbeats as he is guiding the band’s more flowery and nuanced arrangements with his progressive percussive talents.
Still, although it certainly has its moments of grim intensity (“Cold Runs The River” in particular hearkens back, in numerous places, to the band’s oldest, most resolutely blackened material, in amongst the song’s peaks and troughs of proggy exposition and moody introversion), this is definitely not what one would call a “brutal” album – which is precisely how the band would want it, I have to imagine.
No, it’s a much more nuanced and grandiose affair than that, conjuring a plethora of luminous progressive metallic soundscapes, each one as vivid and mesmerising as anything created by the group’s more famous forebears.
Is it the best album the band have ever done? That’s a hard question, as there’s a good 3-4 potential candidates capable of vying for that accolade, with little except personal preference between them in my eyes.
No, a far easier question to answer is – is it a masterwork on its own merit? And that answer is yes, resoundingly so.
It seems to me that in 2016 the bar has already been raised.
Winter Thrice will be released worldwide on January 22, 2016, by Century Media Records and can be pre-ordered here.