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Borknagar - The Archaic Course CD (album) cover




Tech/Extreme Prog Metal

3.20 | 31 ratings

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2 stars After releasing in 1997 a strong album like The Olden Domain - an eclectic blend of prog, black metal and Viking metal -, Øystein Brun and his bandmates entered Woodhouse Studios again in 1998 to record eight new compositions under the supervision of sound engineer Matthias Klinkmann, who had already worked on their previous record. However, the line-up that entered Woodhouse in 1998 was quite different from that that recorded The Olden Domain in 1997. Singer Kristoffer Rygg left the band to concentrate on his mainstay bands Ulver and Arcturus. He was replaced by ICS Vortex (real name Simen Hestnæs), who had already appeared on Arcturus' La Masquerade Infernale and who came with the recommendation of Rygg himself. In addition, a second guitarist Jens F. Ryland was added to the line-up, while keyboard player Ivar Bjørnson (Enslaved) was essentially on his way out of the band, being already credited as guest player in the CD booklet.

All these transformations may partly explain why Borknagar's third full-length feels much more tentative, messy, and ultimately disappointing than its predecessor. I suspect in particular that the transition from one to two guitar players was not yet fully metabolized by the band, seeing how in most songs of the album the guitar work is in considerable disarray, with ruffled riffs, chaotic leads and a general lack of refinement in how the different guitar parts are overlaid and arranged. I should say that the production certainly does not help here. The album sounds rough and dirty, definitely not making justice to the complexity and busyness of the material. The mix is also rather unbalanced, with keyboards and guitars all over the place and the vocals buried deep down to the point of being barely audible at times.

But messy production and overcrowded songwriting cannot fully explain the palpable dip in quality in the new material relative to The Olden Domain. Part of the problem lies instead in an increased musical ambition that was unfortunately not yet fully matched by actual songwriting and arrangement abilities. Don't get me wrong, all musicians involved in this album are top-notch, and in fact Borknagar were rightly considered a sort of extreme metal "super group" at the time. But Øystein Brun's songwriting on this album does not sound fully mature and up to the level that is required to properly blend together extreme metal and progressive/experimental metal, as Borknagar were clearly attempting to do at the time. The album tries really hard to innovate and surprise the listener with a flurry of tempo changes, interlocking sub-sections and quirky arrangements. But there is no flow, harmony or coherence in the way these musical ideas are structured and arranged, and the result feels very much like an infernal cauldron that is constantly on the brink of spiralling out of control (which it does more than once). My overall impression is that the material for this album would have needed a longer gestation period, possibly in the hands of a more expert producer (Klinkmann had worked mostly as sound engineer in his career) who could help the band hone their sound, by refining the structure and arrangements of the songs and pruning away the most out-there and superfluous bits.

Speaking of out-there bits, ICS Vortex is an excellent singer as he will demonstrate with his stints with Dimmu Borgir and Arcturus, but he does not exactly shine on this album. Again, the problem is one of trying too hard. His vocals sweep between grim vocals, theatrical baritones and extravagant falsettos, which is impressive. However, his performance does feel forced and strained at times, like on "The Witching Hour" and "The Black Token", a pair of songs which is probably the lowest point of the record and where ICS Vortex sounds more like a caricature of Rygg than the good singer he actually is.

All this trying hard to be progressive and experimental also means that a lot of the folk vibes that had adorned The Olden Domain are notched down considerably on The Archaic Course. The new music is also more aggressive and frenzied, making fewer concessions to melody in favour of speed and heaviness, another aspect that I do not particularly appreciate of this record.

Ultimately, there are only a handful of tracks that I find myself returning to on this record. "Ocean Rise" and "Universal" open the album in a style that is not dramatically different from the songs of The Olden Domain, albeit "Universal" does feel a tad too busy at times. However, the best song on the album is probably "Ad Noctum", the only track not penned by Brun but by ICS Vortex. It is a frenzied mash-up of 1970s Hammond organ and furious black metal played at a breakneck tempo, which is stunning in its vigour and audacity. It feels very much ahead of its times, like some of the music that Arcturus were doing around the same years, and it would not feel out of place even today, 25 years later, on the record of a forward-thinking extreme metal act like Ihsahn or Leprous.

Although on each song I can find one or two musical moments that draw my interest, there is no other track on this record that I enjoy listening to from start to finish. Ultimately, this makes sitting through the album quite a chore and I can't see myself playing this one much often in the future, especially when I could instead play one of the other better albums by Borknagar, like The Olden Domain. Overall, I'd say The Archaic Course is for completionists or hardcore fans of the band only. Everyone else should approach this one with caution, if at all.

lukretio | 2/5 |


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