h, the all-acoustic album: the perfect way for a metal band to (a) recycle songs, (b) get female fans, or (c) "show the fans another side of the band." When Godsmack and Korn are going acoustic, the apocalypse must be nigh. But for all the Stainds MTV Unplugged has left in used record store bins, metal has come up with some quiet winners—Alice in Chains' Jar of Flies, Opeth's Damnation, Green Carnation's Acoustic Verses, and now Borknagar's Origin.
One indicator of probable acoustic success is previous dabbling. When Borknagar formed in 1995, it played fairly straightforward black metal. However, even on its debut, the group experimented with acoustic guitars, tympani, and melodic singing. Over its next five albums, the Norwegian band further explored these elements, culminating in the lush, aptly-named Epic.
A look at Borknagar's lineups is telling. Its ranks have included members of Enslaved, Ulver, Arcturus, and Solefald, all groups that have departed from black metal's blueprint to incorporate other influences. Current singer Vintersorg has a prog/folk project of the same name; he and guitarist Øystein Brun recently collaborated on Cronian, a keyboard-heavy hybrid of prog and post-black metal.
Thus, when Brun announced last year the band was going unplugged, few were shocked. Indeed, it was almost logical for Borknagar (a nonsensical name Brun coined). All that melody had seemingly come to a tipping point. Origin is no campfire sing-along, though. With piano, organ, bamboo flute, recorder, cello, and violin, the album is a richly orchestrated blend of folk and '70s prog rock. Warm, natural production captures the squeak of strings and the wood of instruments. Vocals are sonorous; melodies are bold, even romantic. This album evokes a Viking nobility no Manowar album could express.
But while Origin has the requisite paeans to nature, its concerns are often more abstract. The astral sweep of "The Human Nature" recalls the spacy musings of Atheist and Cynic. "White" describes a room with "No doors or windows / No entrances or exits / Only bright light / Forming a shining empire / Of electrical impulses." The song then darkens with vaguely tense strings, building to an abrupt, indefinite conclusion.
Only a few things blemish this album. While it is strong, especially on the majestic "Cynosure," Vintersorg's voice occasionally strains on higher notes. A guitar in "Oceans Rise" repeatedly hits an out-of-key note; this oversight is puzzling for an otherwise carefully crafted album. Nitpicks aside, though, Origin is lovely and should please fans and non-metalheads alike.