~reviewed by Eric Rasmussen
Ok, we need to get this obligatory part of the review out of the way - yes, Simen Hestnaes has left the band. Since he is one of the best vocalists in metal, it's a great disappointment to see him go to a band seemingly not interested in his vocal talents. Simen first joined Borknagar for their third release, The Archaic Course, and I consider this to be a classic. However, I was less impressed with last year's follow-up release, Quintessence. Simen used more of his deathy/growly vocals on that one and far less clean singing. And that's why I was all prepared for Borknagar to start fresh with a whole new line-up. They've got Tyr on bass (he was the touring bassist for Satyricon and Emperor); and Asgeir Mickelson (drums) and Lars A. Nedland (keyboards) are now full time members. Perhaps the most noticeable change is that Vintersorg (of Vintersorg and Otyg) now handles the vocals.
With all of these changes, it was hard to predict where Borknagar might go. Lesser hands would have muddled up everything they had going because of all the line-up problems. But Borknagar has manged to craft a quite enjoyable release here despite any of that, and I'm all the happier for it.
Empiricism is Borknagar's fifth release, and it is their most mature album yet. It has more of a progressive edge than past releases; the drumming is more technical, and the keyboards play a more noticeable role. Whereas the bass playing on past releases was all but inaudible, you can hear it clearly, and Tyr's talent is very evident. Yet at the same time, this isn't just a more progressive Borknagar. In fact, in some ways it has an even stronger folk influence than before. Several of the songs are slower, earthy sounding tracks that aren't as aggressive as past Borknagar. They move along at a pretty mild pace and are full of some well performed clean singing. Even acoustic guitars weave their way into the sound now and then, adding to the organic feel.
Every member contributes a surprising amount to the feeling on Empiricism. The improved production lets the drums and bass shine through, and the technical yet fitting performances mix with the rest of the sound perfectly. The keyboards are more pronounced and varied than before, and I particularly like their use on the instrumental "Matter & Motion." Vintersorg's vocals are actually quite fitting to the sound. He can handle the whole growly aspect of Borknagar's vocal sound, but more often than not he's using his clean voice. For some reason, his vocals in Otyg and his solo band never really appealed to me. I'm not sure if he's just continued to grow as a vocalist or if he's altered his style somewhat for this Borknagar release - but it works. The guitars are, as always, very entertaining. Oystein G. Brun has always come up with some really creative riffs, and Empiricism is no exception. There are even a couple of memorable solos that enhance the songs they are on. The solo towards the end of 'The Genuine Pulse' is a prime example.
Quintessence wasn't a bad release, but I did feel that it was a bit rushed and messy, and failed to live up to The Archaic Course. I don't know that I'll rank Empiricism quite as high as The Archaic Course, but the albums are different enough that no competition between them should be necessary. Borknagar has improved their sound a great deal, and Empiricism has some of their most well composed and thoughtful songs to date. I'll probably never like Vintersorg's vocals as much as Simen, but even that isn't much of an issue. Vintersorg isn't trying to emulate Simen in any way, and he has a pretty unique sound of his own. After Simen's mostly deathy sounding vocal performance on Quintessence, I think Vintersorg is actually a refreshing change of pace. He is quite capable of accompanying the more folkish and progressive sides of the Borknagar sound.
If Borknagar can maintain this line-up for any length of time, I think we'll see them put out some really unbelievable material. For now, Empiricism is far above average and is a worthwhile listen for fans of Borknagar or Vintersorg and Otyg. Be sure to check out whatever MP3s Century Media posts, and last time I checked there was a full version of "The Genuine Pulse" up on Borknagar's own site. That's one of the album's more aggressive and progressive tracks. Overall, Empiricism is worth the time of anyone into this style of metal. You probably know who you are.
Borknagar - Official Web Site:
Century Media Records: