Borknagar are one of the most important names in progressive black metal, to the point of being definitive of the genre. Winter Thrice is their tenth release, and with everything it is, it’s proof that they still definitely deserve that acclaim. Not only are the band noteworthy for their music alone, they also have a roster that’s essentially the “who’s who” list of the genre – with Vintersorg on vocals, Baard Kolstad of Leprous on drums, Lars Nedland of Solefald on keyboards and backing vocals, and ICS Vortex of Arcturus on vocals and bass. Not being content with that roster, they’ve also gotten Garm of Ulver as a guest on this album as well. While that reads like a “who’s who” list of Norwegian artists, what’s truly important is what the music sounds like. Fortunately, putting that much talent into a single room turns out to lead to a great listening experience as well, and Borknagar deliver yet again.
It’s been four years since their previous release Urd, which is longer than the average time active bands have between their releases, which of course colors the expectations of fans. The band had more time to write and the listeners were thirstier. While expectations shouldn’t be the ultimate tool for judging a work of art, their influence is definitely a part of the process. Borknagar mastermind Oystein Brun is known to write large amounts of Borknagar material ahead of time, so the process behind the curtain might have been different – Winter Thrice’s material might have been written in advance, and that would be a sensible assumption. The album continues many threads of thought established in Urd, both thematically and musically. The general nature of the band’s sound can be described as having a black metal foundation whose abrasive nature is blunted by melodic riffing, ambient chords and an abundance of clean vocal sections, all put into a more progressive framework. That word, “nature”, is quite important here, as Borknagar have yet again delivered an album heavily focused on themes of nature, which is natural (cue rimshot) given the heavy folk influence in their sound.
Having three of the most interesting singers in metal simultaneously on the same album (four if you also count Garm’s guest spot) is one of the bigger draws of modern Borknagar. Vortex, Vintersorg and Nedland all have their own quirks and they complement each other wonderfully. The raspy black metal screaming is there for sure (Vintersorg does most of these along with his cleans), but it’s definitely not the main appeal despite being more than sufficient. In fact, it’s used sparingly for the most part, as the band are clearly aware of their unique strengths. Hearing Vortex’s angelic voice harmonize with Nedland or segue into Vintersorg’s full chants is definitely a sublime experience. Beyond their voices, each musician brings something from their own styles of playing as well, enough that Borknagar can easily be considered a supergroup beyond doubt. Solefald’s grooves and snappy keyboards, Leprous’s minimalistic yet intricate drumming, Vintersorg’s off-kilter folk melodies and ICS Vortex’s out-of-the-box black metal riffing mix seamlessly with Oystein Brun’s vision for Borknagar. The music definitely stands on its own as a great work, being knowledgeable about where each component comes from definitely enhances the experience.
While there are a lot of nice things to be said about Winter Thrice, it is also not without fault. The fact that it plays its cards rather closely to its predecessor Urd could be leveled as criticism against it, but even beyond that, the cards it plays aren’t too varied either. Perhaps this is a seasoned musician’s foible, as one can become trapped within a certain writing style and not deviate too much from it. Now, to be fair, this writing style is a great one that works, and it’s fine for a band to deliver an album that’s contained within a singular premise, but one cannot help but with for more from the final product. Considering some of the greatest avant-garde musicians are involved in this project, that the result is less than the sum of its parts can be a disappointment for some. On the other hand, no one is 24/7 on mind-blown-mode, and even avant-garde artists deserve to have their “black metal and chill” musical outlet. Setting aside the discussion of whether a priori knowledge of an artist’s career in other endeavors should be held up against them, the fact that the album is generally mid-tempo and within a single tonal and emotional framework can make it a bit fatiguing. The standout tracks are definitely the groovier and more energized “Panorama” and “Erodent”. The rest, while playing just the right notes to speak to that spot within one’s soul that can appreciate the beauty of nature and its primordial power, can become a bit overwhelming. In the end, whether this is a drawback or not is up to the listener to decide, as some can enjoy a lengthy meditative session of engrossing atmosphere, whereas others demand more active moments during their listening.
Subjective quibbling aside, Winter Thrice is a beautiful album. The best musicians in the Nordic prog scene have come together to connect with the listener’s primal instincts and the feeling of wonder that one experiences when engrossed in the woods on a winter night. The soothing, unique voice of ICS Vortex, Vintersorg and Lars Nedland (plus Garm!) make it all too easy to get carried away in this picture painted by the masterminds of progressive black metal.
Borknagar – Winter Thrice gets…