Century Media
rating icon 8.5 / 10

Track listing:

01. Summits
02. Nordic Anthem
03. Afar
04. Moon
05. Stars Ablaze
06. Unraveling
07. The Wild Lingers
08. Northward

As standard bearers for Norwegian black metal's progressive wing, BORKNAGAR have always aimed higher than the vast majority of their contemporaries. Defiantly untraditional from the start, Øystein G. Brun's crew are approaching their 30th anniversary with increasing ambition and an almost total disregard for pandering to external expectations. 2019's "True North" was rightly praised and heralded as one of their finest records yet, but it was a mere appetizer for this, their twelfth and most fervently progressive album to date. Stunningly beautiful and fearless in its complexity, "Fall" is a vivid, frostbitten trip-and-a-half.

By the time BORKNAGAR released their seminal third album "The Archaic Course" in 1998, their founder's vision had already expanded far beyond the usual limits of adventurous black metal. Emerging over a quarter of a century later, "Fall" springs from the same musical roots, but displays an exquisite elegance of design that is thrillingly new. These songs are so sumptuous and imaginative that this feels like the beginning of a new chapter rather than an anticipated step forward.

The tone is set by "Summits": an epic invitation into this album's self-contained world, eight minutes long and rich with melody, intrigue and bluster. The dual vocal attack of ICS Vortex and Lazare is still one of the most distinctive and flamboyant elements at BORKNAGAR's disposal. Backdropped by Brun's deep and dexterous arrangements and flurries of vicious extremity, this refreshed take on the band's imperious intricacy has never sounded better. "Nordic Anthem" offers a more succinct take on similar themes, but a frisson of authentic prog rock pomposity. Both "Afar" and "Moon" revolve around big melodies and in-built restlessness that does numerous audacious things without ever losing its central thread. In particular, "Moon" is one of BORKNAGAR's most emotionally direct creations: Vortex soars, Brun's crisp guitar figures pepper the foreground, and the subtle folk influences and atmospheric verve that have served every album since the very early days continue to cast a wistful spell. "Stars Ablaze" is more bewitching still. Another colossal sprawl, it glides towards the ten-minute mark with grace and guile; a lushly melodious salute to widescreen thinking, with shimmering keys, plaintive flute and sudden surges of brutality, underpinned by dense waves of ambient scree and plangent, gilt-edged grandeur. Again, the sheer imagination informing this record is a wonder to behold, even when Brun's songwriting intermittently tends towards the prosaic and direct. The more economical flights of fancy that drive "Unraveling" and "The Wild Lingers" speak to the Norwegians' confidence, nearly 30 years in. Both are wild and windswept in true BORKNAGAR tradition, but strident and accessible too, with black metal belligerence a persistent presence. Somehow outstripping all that has gone before, grand finale "Northward" is a magnificent sprawl of ideas that blur into one enchanting whole, evoking the devastating splendor of snow-capped mountains and night-sky specters into the bargain.

An album that demands surrender and total engagement, "Fall" has the same commanding charisma that made previous high points like 2010's "Universal" and "True North" so nourishing and substantial. The difference this time is that BORKNAGAR have transcended their established sound and grown, matured and passed through to a new realm of progged-out glory. Fans will relish every second, and newcomers will succumb too. The sound of greatness is overwhelming.

Author: Dom Lawson
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