Borknagar: ‘Fall’ Review

The album art for Fall

What does it mean to be several decades into a career and still be releasing arguably your best material? Best ask Borknagar, the Norwegian progressive black metal band that never seem to stop topping themselves. The band returns with Fall, their twelfth record, and interestingly, the first album the band has released without a lineup change compared to the previous record (of the founding members, only guitarist and primary songwriter Øystein G. Brum remains). 

It’s worth noting that across two decades and eleven prior albums, Borknagar have embodied a “who’s who” of the Scandinavian metal scene, with some very prominent musicians adding the band to their CV – Garm (of Ulver and Arcturus fame), Vintersorg, Leprous / Rendezvous Point drummer Baard Kolstad and David Kinkade (ex-Soulfly). The constant roster changes halting leaves a line-up that still has some of that metal prestige, being centred on vocalists ICS Vortex (also of Arcturus, with a stint in Dimmu Borgir to boot) and Lazare (of avant-garde black metal band Solefald). 

On paper, then, a combination of that steady line-up and Borknagar’s ever-developing songwriting ethos might already set up the listener for at least an enjoyable time – but does it actually? 

In the five years between True North and Fall, it’s clear that the band took what worked on the former and really sought to refine it, make it more expansive and more progressive. The song structures are less predictable and overall the focus has shifted away from large hooks (though they’re still present, see singles Nordic Anthem and The Wild Lingers for your more verse-chorus style tracks) and more about the push and pull of their own compositional strength.

ICS Vortex and Lazare take their trademark brand of slightly off-kilter cleans and balance it well, with tracks like Stars Ablaze really pushing their cleans and harmonies in tandem. The vocal trade-off in this track is satisfying and their combined forces even moreso. Vortex gets plenty of chances to shine solo in both harsh and clean vocals, with his harshes getting plenty of airtime in opener Summits and his cleans being a highlight of Moon

Lazare-led tunes are also aplenty, with the previously mentioned Nordic Anthem pushing him to the forefront. Lazare always brings a unique sounding track to Borknagar records, with previous hits being the atmospheric Panorama and Voices. This time around, his songwriting approach is a bit more direct and yet somehow still elusive in nature: Nordic Anthem is very focused on being exactly what the title suggests, and still reminds me a lot of Wardruna, and Heilung to a lesser extent – bands not usually known for massive leans into catchy hooks. It does have the gigantic hook you expect from Borknagar, but they’ve never made a song quite like it – a shame they’d have to completely rip it apart to make it Eurovision-eligible because it’s genuinely the sort of song that could do well there. 

One element where Borknagar have truly never had it so good is their guitarwork – the riffs have always been a strong point, but their soloing has never been a highlight of their work to me, until Fall, with tracks like Moon and The Wild Lingers allowing for both rocksteady guitarist Øystein G. Brum and relative newcomer Jostein Thomassen to let rip on the solos. Likewise, the rhythm section gets a good amount of airtime, with Vortex’s basslines occasionally presenting themselves at the forefront to great effect. Bjørn Dugstad Rønnow has some strong drumming throughout, but his most tasteful playing is to be found on The Wild Lingers, with some effective fills.

All of this builds towards what might be one of the best songs the band have ever written: Northward is a genuinely special track, with every member of the band bringing their best, particularly Vortex with an enthralling vocal performance at the track’s climax. It’s Borknagar at their most ambitious, and it’s a satisfying conclusion to Fall’s very strong offering. 

I’m really rather struggling to find particular criticisms – though the track Afar hasn’t quite grown on me yet. Perhaps, it’s worth stating that if you’re a fan of more direct and hook-driven songwriting, you may instead find more to immediately enjoy in True North, Winter Thrice or any of their other Vintersorg-era albums, which have that heightened linearity and singalong choruses. For something altogether more adventurous, Fall is the record for you.

Fall is a definitive statement that Borknagar can still bring their best – it’s no exaggeration to suggest this might be their strongest record. It’s outright difficult to think of any other band that has been consistently putting stuff out for decades and is releasing their best material right now. Tracks like Summits, Moon and Northward are ample examples of a band that has continued to evolve and develop without alienating their core sound and audience – a genuinely impressive feat. 

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