03. The Beauty of Dead Cities
04. The Earthling
05. The Plains of Memories
06. Mount Regency
08. The Winter Eclipse
09. In A Deeper World
10. The Age of Creation (Bonus Track)
11. My Friend of Misery (Bonus Track)
Norwegian progressive black metal giants Borknagar are back! Admittedly, they hadn’t gone anywhere, but ICS Vortex is back in the band, and his heavenly voice graces us once again. Borknagar are known for questioning and redefining what black metal is. It’s quite impressive that they can still do it 17 years after their formation, on their 10th album. This album is definitely more progressive than black, but it still has its roots deeply entrenched in Norway’s finest musical export. For those unfamiliar with Borknagar, they take the fundamentals of black metal (screeching vocals, fast drumming, tremolo picking and dreary chords) and expand upon them. They also use symphonic elements to create a haunting atmosphere that is explored with all the fervor of a true progressive band. Urd is yet another exploration along these lines, this time dealing with the themes of the world tree Yggdrasil, nature, and the interconnectedness of it all.
The most significant departure from the formula is perhaps the abundance of clean vocals. The vocals are handled by Vintersorg, ICS Vortex and Lazare, each of them bringing their own unique voice. While the rest of the instrumentation is strong too, the vocals are most enchanting thing about this album. Each of these guys have their own distinct texture in their voice, and the variety introduced by having three very unique singers is very welcome. To be honest, if they removed all other instruments and kept the vocals, the vocals would still be worth listening to alone. The key here is that neither of these guys sound like any other singer, so even the small twists in their voices are exciting. Don’t get me wrong, the instrumentation is exciting too! However, if I were to choose one word to describe the music, I’d say it’s beautiful. The album mostly consists of spacey, mellow passages that are only barely black metal. There is some fast drumming and tremolo picking, but they’re usually mixed together with the angelic voices of one of the singers and keyboards that fill up the sound. The album isn’t very heavy or sinister. There are many moments where you can nod your head along with it, and even some headbanging moments, but the overall feel here is more of a “sit back and enjoy”. Not that this is a bad thing, I’m just warning you.
As I said, Urd is more progressive than black. It’s still distinct from most of progressive metal though. Think Enslaved, but more folky and psychedelic. There’s quite a bit of mellow/fast interplay going on in most songs, which helps keep the listener excited. This approach does have its flaws, though. Even when Borknagar go heavy on Urd, they don’t really get all that heavy, so sometimes the songs end up being too mellow. There’s constantly some spacey, folk-oriented, or just psychedelic excursion going on, and the melancholy can at times be overwhelming. There aren’t really any tracks that pick up the pace too much, so listener fatigue is an issue. The production also favors a unity of sound over punch, but that works better for the theme of the album. There are tonal varieties in most tracks though, ‘The Beauty of Dead Cities‘ is very upbeat, whereas ‘Roots’ is more blackened, for example. The tonal variety and the varying voices of the singers keep the album from being a total drag though. In the end, even the slow, lulling sections are charming and rewarding to listen to, so if you’re a slightly patient listener, it will all be fine and you’ll enjoy this album immensely. By the way, just a heads up, the cover of Metallica‘s ‘My Friend of Misery’ is quite out of place. It’s way too Metallica-y to fit in with the rest of the beautiful sound, and the haunting vocals just sound weird on a Metallica song. Thankfully it’s a bonus track. The other bonus track, ‘Age of Creation’ is pretty solid and it’s quite blackened too, but it’s somehow not as rewarding as the rest of the album.
Overall, this is a beautiful album that, if you give it the time for it to shine, will reward you with a world of grace. If anything, this album is worth giving a listen to. It’s not for anyone who’s looking for metal in the traditional sense, but if you like prog and have an open mind, this is definitely for you. Borknagar have made a memorable, unique and epic album yet again. Urd is just beautiful, and should be a staple in any prog fan’s collection.
Borknagar – Urd gets