Borknagar’s been the European black metal version of the Travelling Wilburys since the mid-90s, peddling their brand of melodic, symphonic black metal with a revolving cast of Norway’s finest (and kvltest). Now they’re back with a new album, Urd, and a new lineup, this time centered on returning bassist/vocalist ICS Vortex (best known for his stint in Dimmu Borgir). And let me tell ya, if you’ve been jonesing for something in the vein of IX Equilibrium-era Emperor, this is basically like that…only not as well executed. Not for a lack of trying from the current Borknagar cast, but it’s a pretty tough act to follow Ihsahn and co., especially if you’re trying to ape their album that proves that your genre of music doesn’t have to completely blow turds.
Let’s back up a bit, though. The fact that Urd hews so closely to a sound pioneered and then mastered so long ago isn’t a problem in itself; look at the legions of throwback thrash/doom/whatever bands saturating the market right now-some of them are pretty solid, despite popping up 20 years too late. Where there is a problem is that here, Vortex’s dramatic clean singing gives Emperor flashbacks so hard I had to pull out my vinyl copy of Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk and just fondly look at the sleeve for a while. Opening track “Epochalypse” sums up the sound of Urd pretty succinctly-tremolo picking, Vintersorg screeching, Vortex singing. There are a couple of interesting hooks, but all in all the track holds close to Borknagar’s mission statement of a more melodic take on black metal. The production is an interesting choice-while a cleaner sound may make more sense given the tone of the band’s music, it manages to simultaneously miss the mark on capturing black metal atmosphere or approaching Emperor’s symphonic cacophony. At times, the drums sound more like Nerf bats than a proper set.
There are times when the band’s approach pays off-the opening of “Roots” has a pretty neat melodic underpinning, and “The Earthling” actually comes off as somewhat experimental, with its eerie scraping sounds before a gothic choir kicks in. Vortex seems to be taking a cue from his former high-profile gig; as if his vocal style didn’t already give you (unfortunate) flashbacks to In Sorte Diaboli, the keyboard tracks over the usual minor chord black metal rush practically beg the Demon Burger comparison.
Probably the biggest problem with this album is that few of the songs are awesome all the way through. “The Plains of Memories”, an instrumental in the vein of Opeth/Katatonia, is the first real slam dunk of a track, and that takes half the album to crop up. As is, there are plenty of cool individual parts of songs, but rarely does the whole thing come together. I can dig the vibe the band is going for, and sometimes it works, but it seems like the band can’t decide which of several directions it should head and just decides to ape Emperor for some reason. Because of that, I have a hard time recommending this to anyone not a huge Borknagar/ICS Vortex fan or in serious need of an Emperor surrogate.