Monday, May 24, 2010

Borknagar: Universal (2010) Review

If a black metal band had toured arenas with the likes of Kansas or Genesis in the 70's, that band would have sounded like Borknagar's Universal. With their huge dramatic sound, catchy choruses, and prominent electric organ, it wouldn't have been too out of place on my dad's 8-track player.

The sound is highly melodic, and has all the infectious drama of those much-loved-and-maligned 70's classic rock bands. Clean vocals take precedence over growls and electric organ over guitar, and there are softer sections to every track. The sound is definitely progressive, but at every turn they clearly put memorable songwriting before showing off. The production is top-notch as well, with every instrument audible at all times.

With the extensive use of keyboards (especially on "Fleshflower") it doesn't fit most people's expectations of a metal band. Every instrument does get a chance to shine, though, including the bass and drums, and they still manage an all-out assault on tracks like "Havoc" and parts of "Worldwide". The clean vocals are a bit nasally (not unlike Mastodon), so not everyone will like them (the inclusion of former vocalist ICS Vortex on closer "My Domain" makes the vocals seem worse by comparison).

I happen to like the vocals as well as the keyboard. The electric organ is a vastly under-used instrument in metal, but it's seeing a surge in popularity with groups like Opeth and Cathedral using it. The only real complaint I have is the most amorphous one possible: Even though nearly all the tracks are great, and the sound is consistent, it doesn't feel like a cohesive album. It's an inexplicable complaint, but there it is. One improvement would have been to make "My Domain" a bonus track instead of "Coalition of the Elements" and "Loci" (the latter makes a much better closer), but this wouldn't completely fix the issue.

The Verdict: Though I'm not familiar with their earlier work, it gave me the distinct impression of an accomplished metal band's foray into more accessible material. Like Soilwork's Sworn To a Great Divide or Metallica's self-titled album, it will be divisive among metal fans, but provide an easy starting point to the band's catalog. I know I'll be exploring their earlier work. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.


  1. The only one I have heard from this band is Empiricism which finds them as some sort of very melodic black metal band. I enjoy the album quite a bit and the vocals are definitely incredible. I am not sure why I have not looked further into their stuff.

  2. That's one with Vintersorg on vocals. I really like his style, in isolation. But ICS Vortex has a bigger voice, and when you have both of them on the same album it makes Vintersorg sound weaker by comparison.

    I picked up one of their other albums (I can't remember which one) but I haven't listened to it yet. I'll have to post a review when I do.