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Borknagar - Quintessence CD (album) cover

QUINTESSENCE

Borknagar

 

Tech/Extreme Prog Metal

3.23 | 35 ratings

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Frankingsteins
4 stars 'Quintessence' is the fourth album by Norwegian progressive black metal band Borknagar, from Bergen. If that's a bit of a mouthful, it essentially means they spawned from Bergen's prominent and often infamous black metal scene in the early 90s, but evolved to incorporate more of a folk and progressive rock influence into their music, to the point that their most recent album 'Origin' is entirely acoustic. No, that hasn't straightened anything out, has it? Well I tried.

For this particular album, the band intentionally reverted a little to their black metal roots, and abandoned much of the folk influence for space-age sounding keyboards. Vocalist ICS Vortex, as he likes to be called, makes his second and final appearance here before moving on to join Dimmu Borgir, and although his excellent singing style is heard on several songs, it's primarily substituted for a more standard black metal growl. This sounds similar to the 'death grunt' you may have heard from larger death metal bands, but mixed with a Popeye impersonation. In any case, it sounds a lot better coming from Vortex than his contemporaries. The guitars and drums also play faster for the most part, the afore-mentioned keyboards providing excellent background atmosphere and really filling out the sound despite the intentionally reduced production standard, even being granted a solo spot for track five. It seems that the band wanted to produce a really dirty sounding black metal album in the vein of Mayhem, but didn't have the heart to really kill the instruments.

At forty minutes, this appears on the surface to be an entirely standard black metal release, with little to distinguish it. While Borknagar's sound is one of the most distinctive within black metal, progressive metal, and whatever other genres they belong to (folk metal and Viking metal spring to mind. There's more to this metal lark than you thought, isn't there?), this album is admittedly repetitive. The template for most songs seems to be a fast riff on the guitars and drums, slightly under-produced and ever so slightly generous on the treble, with Vortex either growling or singing over the top. There's usually a slight interlude of either a guitar solo or keyboard wash before the song kicks in again, and ends before the five minute mark. There are some excellent exceptions to be found in the middle of the album, and indeed much of this album's value lies in the incredible song 'Colossus.' Vortex sings with pure viking metal force over an epic soundscape of mid-range guitar, measured drum blasts and, of course, the old trick of using the keyboard to pretend this song was recorded in space. It actually works here, to some extent. After this seminal number comes the afore-mentioned keyboard solo spot with the short but interesting 'Inner Landscape,' which tries a little too hard to convince the listener of the outer space thing and ends up falling on its face, allowing the spotlight to fall rightfully back to the other instruments, the synthesiser quietly resuming its background duties with a promise never to do that sort of thing again.

The album opens with the violent 'Rivalry of Phantoms,' a cool speedy metal song that's almost pure black metal, aside from the constant presence of those proggy keyboards. Vortex's growls are ferocious, and backed up superbly by the high screeching guitars that are at least memorable afterwards. Rather than continuing in this intended direction, the second song reverts to the grander style of the previous album, but remains just as impressive as its predecessor. Space-age keyboards are replaced with a slightly more traditional, medieval-Norway sounding instrument similar to that found in purist bands like Ulver and Empyrium, and although the pace is slowed, this song still remains pretty similar to the rest. Vortex's singing takes centre stage, and sounds really good. They should have used it more, especially in light of his imminent departure.

The rest of the album really does follow this pattern to the point of tedium, which would be expected for most other bands but disappoints considering Borknagar's usual higher standard. From 'Invincible' to 'Genesis Torn,' excluding the two songs already discussed, the vocals rotate from growling to clean for every other song, and the tempo is all pretty much the same. There's very little chance that anything from tracks three, six, seven or eight will be memorable even if this album were listened to on multiple occasions, though there are occasional pleasant touches like a return of the archaic-sounding keyboards in 'Genesis Torn.' None of these songs are inherently bad or boring, it's just their position on this album that reduces their impact.

Perhaps suspecting that things were becoming a bit repetitive and that subtle changes might not get noticed, the band grabs the listener's attention in the penultimate track by offering a slow and melodic semi-acoustic instrumental. This nicely sets the tone for the excellent closing song 'Revolt,' the most openly progressive song on the album and one that's more like the more impressive material the band would produce with new vocalist Vintersong on their next two albums. Black metal growls are still present, as they were even in 'Colossus,' but take a major back seat. At six minutes this is the longest song, but not too long to become dull. The instrumental changes towards the end are really impressive, and the album manages to leave the listener wanting more, something that would not have been possible had it ended on any of the earlier tracks. Every once in a while, this album really gets things right.

Had this been reduced to an E.P. consisting of the first two tracks, 'Colossus,' and then the closing two tracks, I would award it a definite five stars. As a forty-minute album it only gets four, and even that's a bit generous when compared to the far more excellent Borknagar material that's out there. The instrumentation is still precise and technically impressive, but there's not enough variation in the song style, structure, subject matter and the general way everything sounds. For casual metal fans who enjoy the occasional taste of Bergen black metal, this album offers some great songs for listening every once in a while but is a bit of a chore to sit through in its entirety. Plus, ICS Vortex is the second greatest vocalist they've ever had.

Frankingsteins | 4/5 |

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