Vera : From the very outset, Borknagar has striven for an authentic sound: enriching their black metal roots with genre-strange (less harsh) elements, usually experienced as "progressive” by general music aficionados. Mastermind Oystein G. Brun always succeeded in gathering some eminences of the Norwegian metal scene around him to come up with challenging albums. And that's the way things are on this eighth studio album 'Universal' as well. Vintersorg (Vintersorg, Cronian) and Lazare (Solefald) are permanent in this crew for some time; but this album sees the return of Jens F. Ryland (guitar) and bass player Jan Erik Tiwaz (alias Tyr, session member Emperor, Satyricon). More surprising is the departure of drummer Asgeir Mickelson. He was replaced by David Kincade (Malevolent Creation). Thus far the creators of this essential record. There is another surprise, but I leave that until the end of this review.
It was already announced in 2006: the acoustic album 'Origin' was the closing of a chapter. The band needed a break; it should feel like a new beginning. Now Borknagar has joined the ranks of Indie Recordings, the label with a finger on the pulse concerning the Norwegian innovative in-crowd. 'Universal' is a regular Borknagar album again on which harsh passages are sublimated by introvert, kind of soaring fragments. And what a stunner it is! 'Havoc' and 'Reason' begin with acoustic guitars, followed by a fluent transition to blackened metal, returning to quietened areas again with typical clean vocals of Vintersorg. All this is relished with warm-hearted organ sounds (Hammond?). I should even say that Lazare's keyboards are the glue in between the musical mishmash. Of course, without being detrimental to the beautiful guitar soloing or compelling riffs. The third song 'The Stir Of Reasons' is the most prog-like one. But magnificent! This is how Genesis with Peter Gabriel would have sound now, if only they did not sell their souls to the commerce. Really touching melodies. How they sing the title of 'Thousand Years To Come' is really fetching. This top notch song meanders between black and prog - guided by vocals - and has a kind of underwater sounds that remind me of 'No Quarter' (Led Zeppelin) and fretless bass. Goose-bumps rise with the calm guitar notes in 'Abrasion Tide'. Mark the beautiful piano intro of 'Fleshflower', a composition one may call a folk hymn, due to harmony vocals. On top of this we have 'Worldwide': the first song that kept spinning in my mind (yes, you have to study a Borknagar album before reaping the harvest!). Captivating vocal lines and again that warming organ (very welcome in those cold days of winter). Loads of clean chants this time, but also a raucous eruption. And now it is time for the surprise: the final track 'My Domain' is sung by I.C.S. Vortex, the man who preceded Vintersorg on vocals (from Dimmu Borgir fame too). This marvellous song starts with smooth (loosely) chords on acoustic guitar and includes - in addition to Vortex's characteristic vocals - a proper piano recital. Compelling and melodious. Only clean vocals in this occluding track.
'Universal' has developed into album of the month in this house; just like 'After' of Ihsahn did last month. It is a masterpiece that becomes accessible pretty soon (in despite of its ultra multilayered approach) when you take the time. Well, this has always been required, with every Borknagar album. The new start has inspired the band to come up with grand achievements. And never forget: when there was no Opeth at all, there was already Borknagar.