Mike McLatchey 28-April-2002 Borknagar - Empiricism (Century Media 8099-2, CD, 2001)

The fifth Borknagar album is perhaps one of the clearest examples of a hybrid between black metal and symphonic rock. It's perhaps no surprise that a group from the black metal scene would so decidedly move over into progressive rock territory, as albums by Emperor, Solefald, Enslaved, and Immortal have all worked in the epic format, creating music that sways from the heavy atmospheric onslaught of northern frigidity to somber acoustic parts that create dynamics of a very symphonic nature. But while many of these groups create music that structurally resembles a lot of classic 70s progressive rock, it is only until Empiricism that the heavily symphonic, keyboard-laden nature of progressive rock has actually began to dominate the black metal aspects.

The band in itself certainly has the credentials and sense of adventure to pull off such a feat, as Borknagar leader and main composer Oystein G. Brun has been leaning in the direction ever since he put Solefald keysman Lars A. Nedland in front of the music, the double black-metal guitar attack creating more of the atmospheres with waves of Hammond organ and synth leads sharing time with the main vocal melodies. Believe me, black metal is not the place you expect to hear a Tony Banks riff, and it's amazing what the combination of two very worn styles can do for the overall creativity of both. Similarly, new vocalist Vintersorg follows in his predecessors' footsteps by splitting his time between his "grim" troll vocals and his surprisingly passionate clean vocal delivery, each bolstering the other to dramatic effect. But despite all good intentions, it is always the song that has to deliver and Brun is more than up to the task, delivering a varied set of pieces with enough home runs to lift the entirety in the stratosphere. The first two tracks really set the pace for the album, and by "Gods of My World," the waves of synthesizers, epic melodies, and double-toned vocal attacks (often layered and accompanied by Nedland) absolutely overwhelm you with sheer passion.

As a complete fusion of two very different styles, the album is definitely going to suffer fans from both angles - the black metal fans will cry "sellout" and the prog fans will continue to complain about the vocals, guitar and drum tones. Those who welcome and understand the hybrid as a rung on the ladder to new stylisms and sounds, may or may not see Empiricism as successful, but will likely add Borknagar to their radar nevertheless. Brun continues to deliver from the heart and not the mind, which is evident by the extraordinarily high quality of songwriting here, despite such being slightly unevenly distributed. At the very worst, Empiricism is likely to be the Fragile to the band's potential Close to the Edge as long as Brun can keep this very impressive line up together. At best, this is one of 2001's finest.

Greg Northrup    28-April-2002 Borknagar - Quintessence

I hate myself. After enjoying, but not being blown away by, Borknagar's third album The Archaic Course, I picked this one up and unceremoniously shelved it after one, admittedly superficial, listen. Recently, I had heard some good things about Quintessence, which by this time had found its way into my "to sell" pile, and pulled it out for another listen. My ass is officially kicked. This is progressive metal like it should be done, and I hate myself for not having realized it the first time around. Quintessence is avant-garde black metal of the highest order, featuring psychedelic swirls, amorphous tempos and chaotic, unpredictable song structures. Still, this won't at all be immediately gratifying. The production is intentionally muffled, great guitar and keyboard melodies are buried in the muddy mix, the rhythms simply don't grab you, and the songs aren't catchy at all. No, it would be too easy to just play a safe hand; Borknagar wants it to be tough on you. Only frequent, and careful, listening will reveal what is in fact a masterfully executed opus that places Borknagar into the big leagues of avant-metal artists. With the demise of In The Woods, and the growing irrelevance of bands like Amorphis, Tiamat and Moonspell, albums like Quintessence are a huge breath of fresh air (and luckily we still have Opeth). The album is subtle in its beauty, but utterly unrelenting in its attack. The bad production is all part of the atmosphere, but as funny as that may sound, it all works out somehow. Severe guitar assaults blend with 70s sounding keyboard parts and some killer melodies. Vocals are generally delivered in a demonic growl, but lead singer ICS Vortex proves extremely versatile, throwing in some mind blowing "clean" passages here and there. This guy can really sing.

On "The Presence is Ominous," the opening drum pattern, which I initially hardly noticed, sounds totally driving now. "The Ruins of the Future" breaks down into a great proggy syncopated attack marked by searing keyboard runs. "Colossus" simply kills with its grandiose clean vocals. It's amazing how different this album sounds after a few listens. Quite simply, it's inexplicable how much is actually there that I hadn't heard before, and how much better it gets with each listen. The album just burns, sheer fury from front to back, but balanced with a sense of compositional intelligence and limitless depth, if initially unnoticable. Quintessence utterly annihilates basically every so-called "prog-metal" album I've heard in the past year, closely contending with the latest Opeth release, Blackwater Park, as the primary nourishment for my occasional metallic cravings.

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