Borknagar - Empiricism

Year of Release: 2001
Label: Century Media
Catalog Number: 8099-2
Format: CD
Total Time: 50:06:00

Okay, I'll admit that Borknagar are not considered a progressive metal band but a black metal band and so probably really lie outside the scope of this site. I really have no "sounds like" to offer, but I hear some elements in the their sound that they share with bands such as Blind Guardian (about whom some may make the same argument) and Pain Of Salvation (at least at times). I'll also admit that I am neither a long time fan of the band nor a fan necessarily of black metal. Sure, we cover them in the news page because I get the feeling that some of you prog metal fans like also some of the more extreme forms? But, the truth is, aside from perhaps an MP3 at some point, this is the first time I've heard them.

So, I'm not saying they are a really a progressive metal band in disguise, they aren't. The mostly howling-wind like vocals of Vintersorg will tell you right away that it isn't Russell Allen, Daniel Gildenlow, James Labrie, Geoff Tate, or Ray Alder (to name a few) behind the mic exhorting whatever message or concept that is being exhorted. Although, when the band -- Øysten G Brun, guitars; Lars A Nedland, synthesizers; Asgeir Mickelson, drums; Jens F Ryland, guitar; and Tyr on bass - and Vintersorg play/sing "clean," it becomes something that will appeal to progressive metal fans. And, as much as I don't particularly like the so called "cookie monster" vocals, there is something liberating about their ferocity and aggression, even if Borknagar aren't a particularly aggressive band. Musically they are, but, at least here, lyrically it isn't about murder, dismemberment, etc. Maybe that's the province of death metal. No, here the lyrics on the album aren't particularly demonic. In fact, they are often cosmic and speak more of natural forces than supernatural forces - wind, sea, air, etc.

And actually, though often obscure, there is a sense of poetry to the lyrics. For example, "The parade of the quaternary symbiosis," "A silver stream of cryonic stars," "Negligence makes the future tense" all from "Inherit The Earth," one of the songs that appeals to me the most. Reading through the lyrics you see these aren't stupid people merely bashing and screaming out aggression. Though, as I said, obscure, there is some great deal of thought behind them and require a lot of thought to figure out what they're about. Actually, I'm far more impressed by the lyrics than their execution.

So yes, the minus for me are Vintersorg's demonic vocals, which seem to suck up everything else so that becomes the single element. It's a shame, at least for me, because behind that some very interesting stuff is often going on, there is something to like in every track. Sometimes it is bash and throb with a singular purpose, admittedly, but a lot of the time it's textured and balanced, nuanced at times. When they are more melodic they seem to hit the mark more often, but this is from a progressive rock fan's perspective. I'm sure there are long time black metal fans who are displeased with the "softer" moments.

One point where they do hit the mark (and there is more than one) is "Soul Sphere" which brings to mind Pain Of Salvation, as here Vintersorg sings in soaring, plaintive tones (terms which might seem at odds), while the rest of the band plays melodically behind him. I have but one criticism here, and this is true about a number of the tracks -- there are times where I find one particular part of Mickelson's drum kit is mixed too up front. I'm not a drummer, but I think it's the tom. Though played with ferocity (when appropriate), as I find in a number of metal releases (Vanden Plas' The God Thing comes to mind), the sound is hollow and ? well rubbery. Maybe it's supposed to sound that way, but at the front of the mix it just sounds ? well, like it's mixed poorly. And this recurs in "The Black Canvas," as well. Not that I don't think Mickelson's a good drummer, he demonstrates he is on other parts of the album. If you think that name's familiar, Mickelson handles the drum duties for Spiral Architect and White Willow, too, as well as in vocalist Vintersorg's own band Vintersorg.

According to the blurb on the back of this review copy, Empiricsm represents a "new vision from [? the band, where they?] experiment with diverse sounds like a Hammond organ, grand piano or authentic strings." Given the classically-influenced bent of progressive metal bands, this suggests they are leaning in the same direction. Well, experiment is surely the case as with "The Genuine Pulse," the keyboards open the track, but seem very much out of place with what surrounds them. The same can be said about "Liberated." In the instrumental "Matter & Motion," a short two and half minute interlude, we find a piano based piece and one that would be quite good if it didn't seem just a little clumsy, the counterpoint between the lower and upper ends of the register makes this incongruence seem by design. Heard alone, you'd have a completely unrealistic expectation of what the band sounded like. In fact, you might be looking to trad jazz pianists for comparison ? before the heavy elements come in.

Where does the addition of keys really work? In the gentle "The View Of Everlast" where shimmering guitar, sparse, taut drums, and warmly tinkling piano set a wary and cautious tone. Something is going to happen? and though things break open a bit for the chorus, a tension remains. Here vocals are sung clean clear through and, as you might have expected, this is my favourite track of the album. In "The Genuine Pulse," I'll add, though the keys seem odd at the beginning, by the time the chorus comes around, everything falls into place.

There is a particularly nice bass line in "Gods Of My World" - one of those fat and liquid ones that I associate with Tony Levin. Here, too, you will find a touch of acoustic guitar that works well with the snickering percussion and keyboards. "The Black Canvas" would work for me, vocals and all, except there are time when it's seem hurried, as if the band are trying to race ahead of Vintersorg and the backing vocals. But here you will hear their use of the Hammond, which actually fits right in with the pummeling percussion, the twisting and turning of dual guitars. So it doesn't entirely not work, as once it finds its groove at about the 3 minute mark, the track easily carries you along.

A bit of history on the band, which, in reading the bio at the Century Media site, reveals that we could correctly call Borknagar a progressive black metal band, since the goal of the only remaining original member Brun was "rupturing the peripheries of what was deemed "traditional" black metal." Of the present line up, Ryland joined in 1998, Nedland (also of Solefald) and Mickelson in early 2000, and later in 2000 Vintersorg and Tyr. Empiricism is the fifth Borknagar release.

It's probably not fair for me to render a rating on this CD. But, I do recognize that aside from a few production quibbles, Borknagar are very good at what they do. I mean, Vintersorg does howl well and sing clean well, the interplay and performances are quite good. But, rate it I have. I have not taken off points because I personally don't like the "cm" vocals, because within this context, they work. If they were playing smooth jazz and there were these vocals? well, that'd be different. No, that lost half point is due to what I feel is unbalanced production, and the other half point to the awkwardly placed organ and piano elements.

The Genuine Pulse (4:51) / Gods Of My World (4:25) / The Black Canvas (5:18) / Matter & Motion (2:30) / Soul Sphere (6:40) / Inherit The Earth (5:29) / The Stellar Dome (5:36) / Four Element Synchronicity (5:49) / Liberated (4:49) / The View Of Everlast (4:29)

Øystein G Brun - guitar
Vintersorg - vocals
Lars A Nedland - synthesizers
Asgeir Mickelson - drums
Jens F Ryland - guitar
Tyr - bass

Borknagar (1996)
The Olden Domain (1997)
The Archaic Course (1998)
Quintessence (2000)
Empiricism (2001)
Epic (2004)
Origin (2006)

Genre: Death-Black Metal

Origin NO

Added: April 20th 2003
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website:
Hits: 1010
Language: english


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