For almost twenty-five years, Borknagar has deservedly been among the most celebrated and characteristic bands in Norwegian metal. After all, the quintet’s quintessential blend of black, progressive, and folk elements—delivered via awe-inspiringly larger-than-life production—routinely results in hugely dynamic and memorably multifaceted records. Thankfully, their latest trek, True North, is more than just a resounding success and a satisfying successor to 2016’s Winter Thrice. Chillier and more cohesive and robust than its predecessor, the LP symphonically juxtaposes icy brutality and beauty without a single wasteful moment; as a result, it’s not only one of Borknagar’s best records, but also one of the top metal albums of 2019.
Following Winter Thrice, the group lost three key longtime members: vocalist Vintersong, guitarist Jens F. Ryland, and drummer Baard Kolstad. Thus, True North marks the debut appearances of drummer Bjørn Dugstad Rønnow and guitarist Jostein Thomassen. In addition, bassist Simen “I.C.S. Vortex” Hestnæs takes up vocal duties once again while guitarist Øystein G. Brun and keyboardist/vocalist Lars A. Nedland naturally return. Whereas Winter Thrice was “a celebration of time spent and bonds made,” the band notes, True North is “the vanguard forward, clear-sighted, refined, and full of power.” In fact, founder Brun calls it their “most diverse, powerful and grandiose album,” and he’s likely spot on. He also notes that writing it was especially collaborative, with the end result being less philosophical and more straightforward than in the past. (Plus, it's mixed and mastered by genre legend Jens Borgen—Opeth, Katatonia, BTBAM, Ihsahn—so you know it sounds pristine.)
Naturally, True North packs plenty of vigorous guttural mayhem, mainly on tracks like “The Fire that Burns” and “Mountain Rapture.” In the case of the former, frenzied riffs and rhythms complement devilish verses, and even the healthily clean chorus is complemented by backing shrieks. This synthesis is particularly potent near the end when bellows in both forms cascade around each other in a spellbinding crescendo of yelling and yearning. On the other hand, the latter is more directly vicious, with droning keyboards and sharp guitar arpeggios adding sufficient nuance and vibrancy. This is especially palpable during the entrancingly polygonal and introspective instrumental break midway through.
Of course, those tracks are also decorated by densely warm yet woeful folky patches, and elsewhere, Borknagar delve fully into that part of their DNA. For instance, “Lights” is mostly a melodically mesmerizing and patiently arranged gem whose abundance of stacked singing is downright infectious. Afterward, “Wild Father’s Heart” is lusciously built yet overtly radio-friendly, making faultless use of strings, soaring harmonies, and atmospheric intermissions in the midst of its emotional journey. Closer “Voices” circumvents its slight repetition with sheer tribal absorption, as well as impeccably prepared shifts between soft and heavy structures.
Fortunately, the other songs are just as rewarding in their own ways, with each achieving its own identity while also fitting into the masterfully unified puzzle that is True North. From start to finish, it triumphs as a resonant and distinguishing realization of how well folk, black, and progressive metal trademarks can unite into an unforgettable formula. As such, Borknagar have crafted a timeless work that few of their peers could match, and they absolutely deserve as many accolades as possible when the end of the year arrives.