Borknagar deliver a masterpiece album, proving why they are leaders of the progressive black metal sub-genre.
If Borknagar aren't already known as "the thinking man's black metal band", then they should be, because there is no other black metal band out today with their level of progression and creativity. In fact, Borknagar truly fit better with the progressive metal scene, often rivaling Opeth and Dream Theater with their forward-thinking arrangements and daring sound. Their aggressive tone and black metal roots separate them from their more mainstream counterparts, but fans of either band will enjoy most of Borknagar's work. Since bringing in vocalist Vintersorg on 2001's Empiricism, Borknagar have gotten bigger and more ambitious with their sound. The effort has paid off, helping Borknagar separate themselves from the rest of the black metal scene and establish an identity set completely apart from their peers. Universal, the Norwegian sextet's latest album, is a grand epic that pushes Borknagar even higher above other bands in their scene.
The sound on Universal centers on the keyboards, which are the most noticeable instrument on most of the album's songs. Lars Nedland does an extremely good job providing a solid base for the other instruments to follow, while simultaneously creating a huge, atmospheric soundscape that rivals most power metal albums. The use of a traditional grand piano and a Hammond organ only add to the band's unique sound, creating a sound reminiscent of Pink Floyd and Rush in certain songs. The keyboards also help to join the songs together and create an overarching feel to the whole album, eliminating any possible sense of disjointedness. Any keyboard enthusiast will love Universal, because every memorable moment on the album, be it aggressive or ambient, is made more memorable by the keyboards.
Vintersorg's vocal performance on this album is also top-notch, blending the lyrics into the album's atmosphere so that they almost become another instrument rather than a voice. He doesn't try to be at the forefront of the sound during acoustic sections, and that makes his singing performance even more impressive. His harsh vocals are equally fantastic, sharpening the black metal parts of songs and providing greater contrast for the folk and acoustic sections. Borknagar also pay a small tribute to their past by bringing back former vocalist ICS Vortex to perform on the song "My Domain", and he delivers an excellent performance with his signature operatic singing voice.
Borknagar have truly carved a niche for themselves with their recent albums, and almost no other band comes close to their sound, with the ironic exception of Vintersorg's eponymous side band. Universal cements Borknagar's place as the leaders of the progressive black metal movement, and should help to bring more recognition to the band. Fans of Opeth's early work and Enslaved's recent albums will definitely find a lot to like on Universal, and other progressive metal fans with tastes ranging from Porcupine Tree to Katatonia to Mastodon should give this album a shot. Borknagar have created something completely unique, and it's time they were recognized for it.