I’m late getting to my review of Borknagar’s Universal due to life and other such nonsense, which puts me squarely behind the great tide of thought on the record. My place knee-deep in the wash of the ebb, though, gives me a grand view of all that cogitation laid out before me, and I have to say, I’m pretty well befuddled at a lot of what I see. A full decade and four albums, it seems, is not enough to buy Andreas Hedlund even the slightest break from the, by now, all too grating Vortex-pining that’s henpecked him since Empiricism. It’s a little like the Access Hollywood set still frothing over Brad’s abandoning the Good Ship Aniston to christen the S.S. Brangelina.
Aside from the TMZification of the Borknagar lineup non-scoop, the most prevalent head-scratcher for me has been the far too frequent use of the word “boring” and its various synonyms to describe Universal. I might have at least conceded an understanding of that experience in the early going, but in the end my network of thoughts on the album gives no quarter to the concept. Thinking, then, about why my take is so different from the majority of reviews out there led me to wonder whether it may be simply that I am an idiot. Yes, if you were to ask enough of the people I’ve ever known, you’d find that hypothesis to be at least partially confirmed, but I don’t believe this is what’s ultimately behind my dissimilar perspective. Rather, I would suggest that it is more a function of time and investment. That is, free of the looming specter of a release date, I was able to sit with Universal for a long while, to reassess my initial assessment across a wider array of listening contexts and moods until I overcame my own second guessing, confident that I’d given the album its due.
Finally, and directly related to the first two issues, I’ve found that there seems to be an extraordinary attention given to what Universal is not. To sum: it’s neither The Olden Domain nor Quintessence. Big surprise. This last aspect of Universal’s reception highlights a couple of related complaints about new albums that must just frustrate the shit out of bands. They’re often accused either of playing it too close to the vest when they fail to expand beyond the formula that brought early success, or of betraying their roots when they expand beyond said formula. Nevertheless, the choice between kowtowing to the fickleness of the fanbase and maintaining a sense of artistic integrity can often separate the wheat from the chaff. To be sure, Borknagar have found themselves at both ends of the spectrum and, while their approach hasn’t quite been to damn the torpedoes, they have been unafraid to make their music on their terms. Consequently, the band have forged for themselves a place among the pantheon of great heavy metal bands by crafting art that is instantly recognizable despite its constant push against the boundaries.
There was some question as to the direction Borknagar would go following the acoustic Origin, especially after Oystein Brun suggested they would reach back to the band’s early catalog. To be clear, though, he said this album would capture the raw spirit of those first albums, not the sound. Universal, then, is Borknagar, through and through. There’s nothing about the new album that will leave anybody familiar with the band unsure of the sound. That said, the expansion of their core approach to include more and more progressive elements has all but washed out the black metal entirely, which should surprise no one given the decade-long arc of change preceding. The result is epic progressive metal built to reflect and convey the members’ favored conceptual focus on philosophy and nature, cognition to cosmos. The sound is appropriately expansive, as vigorous as Brun said it would be, and makes ample use of all of Borknagar’s six players, including the recently returned Jens Ryland on guitar and newcomer David Kinkade on drums. While that’s a lot of instruments making a lot of noise, Brun and Co. add even more to the mix by liberally layering these throughout, especially Vintersorg’s vocals, creating an incredibly rich soundscape that is sure to come off as daunting to some, perhaps even overblown, at first blush.
But Universal is like a river in that passing glances reveal little more than blurred flashes of whitewater while a more discerning look finds apparently disparate flows converging to intricate patterns in the rush. “Havoc” opens the record in just this way, effervescent guitars riffing spirals around rolling keys and ascending, stepped chorale accent. It takes a few listens for it all to coalesce, but the payoff is sweet. There are moments among the remaining tracks that touch the flurry of the opener, but the focus from here is more keenly trained on melody, particularly in the interplay between Hedlund’s evocative vocals and the lushness of Lars Nedland’s keys. This dynamic is, in fact, at the center of Universal’s appeal. The combination of Mr. V’s individual coarse and massed ethereal vocals with the robust warmth of the Hammond organ is both invigorating and embracing and highlights the album’s crosscurrent of mundane and cosmic ideas.
This album follows a runneling structure, as well, as it courses from the torrent of “Havoc” through the calmer waters of “Reason” to “Stir of Seasons,” a pastoral piece that showcases beautiful bass lines and piano sustaining the misty tones of flute. “Thousand Years” ripples the surface again with turbulence more massive than chaotic, its simple, heavy descending riffs and choppy beats contrasting with ethereal keys to illustrate the futility of Man’s perpetual attempts at subjugating Nature. The sounds downstream of the album’s centerpiece gradually become more placid, though no less deep, where the blastbeat undercurrent of “Abrasion Tide” oscillates with enchanting chorale and flute melodies. And “Fleshflower” unveils Universal’s shift from vertical to horizontal vortices, drawing from the bouncy rhythms and broad chord structures of early Yes in the album’s proggiest moments.
Universal closes serenely with the exceptional “My Domain,” sung by former front man, ICS Vortex. Written long ago, the song had been shelved after the singer’s departure, though he and Brun had never abandoned plans to record it. Vortex is in exquisite form here, perhaps sounding better than he ever has. And finally, hopefully, the quality of “My Domain” renders the silly “best vocalist” debate moot by highlighting the extraordinary ability of Oystein Brun to pen songs perfectly suited to whichever vocalist is at the helm.
It’s always a dodgy prospect, suggesting that an album might simply need more time and effort to reveal its merit and, given the inherent immediacy in the current media climate, perhaps that’s too much to ask. And, because Universal requires a little more effort from the listener to find its refined focus, perhaps Borknagar really have missed the mark for most this time around. But for those willing to invest, it’s an album that will continue rendering reward long after the next landslide of .mp3’s settles into detritus.