Album Review: BORKNAGAR Winter Thrice
Borknagar are a band that frankly feel a bit intimidating to review. There's so much material to consider, so much context for their sound, and so much prestige in their line-up. To create an informed review I feel like I should consider all of this, so there's a looming question of, "where the fuck do I even start?" My personal knowledge of the band isn’t all knowing, I heard tracks here and there over the years, but didn't really dive all in. My first real connections to the band were Universal, which I like, and Urd, which is a great record start to finish. With a few of exception, Winter Thrice IS Urd. This isn't necessarily a bad thing since plenty of bands are able to produce very similar records and continue to thrive.
Since the band is a highly lauded, and there is excitement surrounding their tenth album, I was thrown off by the final product. I have since lightly explored the band's expansive back catalog to if I was just missing something, and found that there certainly has been a transformation in sound and spirit since the beginning. The last decade or so, however, not so much.
This isn’t to say that there is bad experience taken away from this record. The album’s finale, "Terminus," may be my favorite Borknagar song to date. It’s a bombastic, blackened, folk-ish mid-tempo track with great vocal diversity and amazing piano breaks. With Urd and Universal in mind, it’s an obvious Borknagar song, but still great. “Cold Runs The River” carries similar feelings for me. It has some of the more memorable melodies on the record, and is structured with some cool back and forth turns between black metal blasting and slower epicness. Again, good song, but feels safe. “Erodent” has some of the best vocals on the album, and perhaps the band’s catalog. Vintersorg, ICS Vortex, and Lazare sound like a metal choir weaving in and out of sync in a way I’ve only really heard in classical ensembles before. These vocal theatrics soar over similarly intricate guitar melodies by Jens F. Ryland and Oystein Garnes Brun. The drumming of Baard Kolstad is pretty incredible throughout, and the song-writing of mastermind Brun can’t really be criticized beyond feeling that he played it safe.
When they do branch out it can be interesting. “Panorama” is perhaps the record’s most unique track. It has awkward progressive rhythms that play against an infectious disco-esque melo-death chorus. It too is guilty of falling into thier tropes, but features an incredible synthesizer solo that seems completely out of place in the best way. Conversely, “When Chaos Calls” is cool, but I've heard it before. Same with “Noctilucent” despite being a break from blasting and swift tempos.
I’m even willing to play the devil’s advocate against myself and argue that as a progressive band, they pull from a variety of influences and one big influence is folk music. Folk, in its nature, is a genre of tradition and therefore recycles melodies and themes. Borknagar does this also. This is essentially a traditional Borknagar album. Vocal melodies, chord progressions, or explosive moments of blasting can seem familiar to previous releases (even other songs on this record), yet I can’t be mad because these are some of the best being who they’re supposed to be.
Speaking of the best the best, Garm (Ulver) guests on a few songs and adds some freshness to the sound. However, this freshness was realized in hindsight. I didn’t read he was involved until after a full listen. When I listened for him it was glaringly obvious he was on lead vocals of the titular track, and seemed like a better song the second time.
I'm overall conflicted, and a little bored, by Winter Thrice. Yet, there is nothing I DISLIKE about the album. I just feel like each album by Borknagar could be their greatest work if it was your first exposure to the band. I suppose this would be true of any band. My favorite Between The Buried and Me album will always be Colors (my first album of theirs)and my favorite Opeth album will always be Ghost Reveries (also my first), and someone less versed on this material could write a similar review as this for much of their subsequent material.
The band has never dipped in quality, but might be nearing stagnation. If you've heard them lately, you've heard this album, and if you liked what you heard, you'll like this. My own expectations are probably to blame here, and again I’m not mad. There are still plenty of great piano interludes, vocal harmonies, and layers that reveal themselves on re-listens, which has kept me coming back. So maybe it is poised to grow on me. I just had higher hopes. Still, your fine Borknagar album is still better than most of the shit out there.