There is a very technical adjective to define the new Borknagar album: beautiful. Øystein Garnes Brun’s creature crossed the remarkable milestone of the eleventh studio album in almost a quarter of a century of activity in the best possible way, beyond all expectations.
After the announcement, just at the beginning of the year, of the separation from the historical frontman Andreas “Vintersorg” Hedlund, we found the omnipresent ICS Vortex behind the microphone. Simen Hestnæs had already had to fill some very difficult shoes in the post-Garm Arcturus and in Borknagar themselves, again after Garm, but the abandonment of Vintersorg must have particularly motivated the giant Norwegian, because on True North he brought together what I could venture to define the best performance of his career. Brun has specified in several interviews how the transition has been particularly accurate, of how Vortex has spent months training and then days in the studio to be able to find that feeling with the scream that he hadn’t used massively for a long time. Well, dear Simen, mission accomplished. Between screams and clean vocals, the final result is sensational.
The album opens on very high tones straight away with “Thunderous”, a ride that immediately makes clear what Borknagar are in 2019: progressive, compact, catchy, refined, aggressive, inspired. All this by painting the wildest and most unspoiled landscapes of Norway, a paradise to be enjoyed as long as it resists. Following next, it is Vortex again to steal the show with a pearl that could almost be in a top 40 or something like that, that “Up North” which had already worked perfectly as the hit single, that the giant vocalist not only sings in an incomparable way, but wrote from top to bottom as well: a rock single that you hardly see in extreme metal in general, yet perfectly in line with the Norwegian band’s style.
True North, however, is much more than a simple set of good songs, it is the album in which Brun saluted his father, who passed away just after the release of Winter Thrice. The entire record is dedicated to his memory, and specifically “Wild Father’s Heart” is an ode to all fathers “who ventured further”, and who during their journey on this Earth transmitted something to their children. The song is poignant, it speaks of separation, a painful separation, but also about how the heart of a father continues to beat through generations to come. In light of Brun’s personal tragedy and the meaning of this work, the title True North itself takes a much broader meaning than the more evident geographical one. It is always the guitarist who speaks widely of how the concept of True North is linked to navigation, to a fixed point that does not move and that allows anyone to find their way, at sea as in life. The album is therefore not (only) linked to the Scandinavian origin of the band, but also to their infinite maturation journey, still in motion and in continuous exploration even after a quarter of a century. Still on finding its own way, “Tidal” is a song that talks about… moose. Apparently, Brun was struck by the story of how these clumsy ruminants, who have lived in Scandinavia for over ten thousand years, for a period of time became extinct and then returned, thousands of years later, to retrace exactly the same paths used by their ancestors thousands of years earlier.
Nevertheless, Borknagar also have a more mischievous soul, which certainly could have not remained silent through the entire album: the good old Lazare managed to place the hit right at the end, and “Voices” is the odd song, the strange piece, which revolves around a motif repeated to exhaustion and a text that speaks about imaginary voices, which disappear only when the protagonist dies. And it is with the keyboards by Lars Nedland that a very rich, very fitting and inspired album closes. I hope Vintersorg won’t hate me for this, but for such a result I can accept to let him go.
One final detail which is worth mentioning concerns Vintersorg leaving the band: this was implicitly attributed to the Swede’s inability to engage strongly during live shows, due to his work as an educator and his now chronic hearing problems, however his relationship with the rest of the band remained relaxed and Brun considers him “like a brother”. This, in turn, leads us to suppose that we will be able to see this new and brilliant version of the Norwegian quintet take on stages around the world more often. Let’s hope it’s true.