Norwegian progressive black metal stalwarts Borknagar keep a stellar streak running with their new opus, Fall.

Release date: February 23, 2024 | Century Media Records | Purchase | Facebook | Bandcamp

Watching a metal band across numerous years is always an intriguing thing. Especially in the realms of extreme metal, you always have to wonder what your old favorite groups are going to do to keep up with the times. Some hit that state where they just can’t persist as is, and either have to slow down, shift styles, or disband entirely. Those changes can lead to some absolute flops, and some can end up refreshing a band’s career as the gray hairs poke through. Years of experience lead to a renaissance where the band in question is delivering some of their finest work, a la Paradise Lost or Voivod. Rarer still is a band that somehow doesn’t actually need to change. They know what they are and persist, but somehow just keep getting better. They thrive, and stand tall as the northern pines in the face of rain and shine and harsh winters. Once such band, who I would argue is in their best era right now, is Borknagar.

Having come together in the Norwegian black metal scene in the banner year of 1994 to explore guitarist and main man Øystein G. Brun’s more progressive ambitions, Borknagar has long stood as one of the scene’s finer bands. Across numerous releases featuring a multitude of vocalists and musicians, there hasn’t really been a single album from the band that I would describe as weak. But something special’s been happening since 2016’s Winter Thrice dropped, which was matched up by the equally excellent True North in 2019. And now, here in 2024, the band’s latest album Fall has managed to not only keep Borknagar’s stellar run alive, and even improve on it. And the weird thing is, they’ve done it without changing their (ahem) archaic course all that much. A couple minor tweaks have been done, but overall Fall absolutely succeeds just on the band feeling sure of themselves.

It helps when your latest album starts off with one of your best songs yet, and opening track “Summits” is exactly that. Kicking in with a blackened ferocity that caught me off guard when it was dropped as a single, the band throws an onslaught of blackened rasps, sharp tremolo riffs, and pounding drums at you right from the start. After several scorching minutes, the band suddenly backs off and throws a much more measured, progressive, and characteristically folky approach at the listener, helmed by outstanding vocal hooks and harmonies and an emotionally resonant series of melodies. Within a song, Borknagar encapsulates almost everything beloved about them. And then the album continues, and they just refuse to let the quality dip for even a moment.

One of the areas where Borknagar is nigh untouchable compared to many of their brothers within their scene is the vocal approach. While ICS Vortex has always rightly been know for his soaring singing, his blackened shrieks across Fall could easily be considered some of the strongest of his storied career, rivaling Borknagar’s own past frontmen (who are admittedly all legendary for a reason) and eclipsing the vocals in certain projects he was a former member of. But you can’t have Vortex without that beautiful singing voice, and he makes masterful use of that throughout delivering moving choruses and vocal lines that stick to the mind like tree sap. Better yet, long time backing vocalist Lars A. Nedland proves just as indispensable to the sound with his rich, deeper tone. The man is just as capable of a tremendous performance as his bandmate, and when the two harmonize, it just feels like some kind of old shamanic magic at work.

Of course, Borknagar is far more than the massive vocals at the helm, and musically Fall feels like it takes something from every iteration of their signature sound. The instances of black metal throughout the album are as scathing and aggressive as they’ve ever been, even back to the icy roots of their self titled album or The Olden Domain, though the clearer production doesn’t render the music quite as hostile as on those formative works. A certain cosmic sensibility does show through on some songs like “Moon” or “Stars Ablaze”, recalling albums like The Archaic Course or some of their middle albums with Vintersorg at the helm.

Elsewhere, their abilities to create rousing balladry that the last few albums cemented is proudly on display throughout “Nordic Anthem” and “The Wild Lingers”. Alongside all of this, the band has even worked in a new way of displaying their love for all things folk via the intriguingly tribal vibe evoked most strongly on the aforementioned “Nordic Anthem”. It’s a very fresh, new sound for them, but the band feels so at ease within it’s own skin that even sounds they’ve carried since formation just feel damn good to hear.

The sound of Fall is also nigh on perfect, feeling grand and clear without losing any of the earthy charm the band has always been proud of. Adding to that, I can’t think of many Borknagar albums with the same level of guitar heroics as this one. Songs like “Moon” and the dramatic closer “Northward” are just glorious in that regard, bearing emotive solos that delight while never feeling too showy or flashy. Add to this Nedland’s outstanding organ and synth work, rock sturdy bass, and powerhouse drumming, no single aspect of Borknagar shows any sign of weakness throughout.

That’s not to say that Fall renders anything in the Borknagar back catalogue obsolete, as I would argue that certain highlight moments from certain past albums still stand just a smidge more glorious. Sure “Summits” can join in alongside “Grimland Domain”, “Winter Thrice”, or “Up North” as one of the band’s finest songs, but as a whole Fall is a long, consistent run of outstanding moments that don’t try to outshine each other. The peaks may not seem as high, but that’s because the whole mountain range stands so very tall.

Øystein G. Brun and company deserve to feel nothing but pride for all their work in Borknagar, but Fall may honestly be my favorite thing this storied band has done yet. Much like fellow Norwegian progressive black metal gods among men Enslaved achieved with 2023’s Heimdal, Fall feels like everything Borknagar has done right across their career distilled into one package and spruced up with some new evolutionary trimmings. Like the pine trees of the Norwegian forests, Borknagar has only grown stronger over the years. Fall is a masterful album from one of progressive black metal’s finest practitioners, and I am very excited to see if they can by some miracle top it next time.

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