A Tale of Pagan Tongue: Borknagar’s “The Olden Domain” Turns 20
1997 was a year of flux for black metal. Ulver was ending their tenure under the genre banner, Arcturus made their first forays into strange, avant-rock, Solefald playfully made fun of black metal, and so many more. This was the beginning of what would originally be called "post-black metal" -- the age after Norway's classic second wave collapsed in on itself. It was complete mayhem, a complete abandonment which gave way to boundless creativity.
Of course, "boundless" is the key word, and some people pounced on the opportunity to append this newer, more progressive nature to a classically black metal base. Borknagar's self-titled album, released the year prior, was a defining release in the Norse folk-inspired black metal realm, but band-leader and chief songwriter Øystein Brun had an ace up his sleeve. Having been raised on his father's progressive rock record collection, Brun's overall plan for Borknagar was to very quickly take it into lush, progressive territory.
The Olden Domain, which turns twenty years old today, is, without a doubt, Borknagar's defining work. Some look to the dark romanticism of their first album, which is held in a similar esteem to Nattens Madrigal, but the two are different faces on the suddenly Janus-like band. Suddenly bright and intricate, the album set the blueprint for the rest of the band's discography (to this day, Brun states below). In terms of tone color and timbre, The Olden Domain paints itself as the polar opposite of its darker predecessor, taking on a new character of warmth and adventure. Though still as atmosphere heavy as their impetus, Borknagar's second wave's atmosphere is more music-heavy, relying on a variety of techniques instead of a buzzing blast. This newfound dynamism almost makes it seem like this record was made by a different band, and, as a source of inspiration for the band, manifests itself as a second beginning -- a new square one from which Borknagar moved forward.
Though the album itself is a testament to the age and a glorious example of punctuated musical equilibrium, The Olden Domain also marks the end of Kristoffer 'Garm' Rygg's (then 'Fiery G Maelstrom') tenure as a traditional black metal vocalist. Though it can be said that his performance on La Masquerade Infernale (and, eventually, The Sham Mirrors) could be considered within black metal canon, Borknagar's new age brought about the end of Rygg's signature scream, but a new beginning for his voice. An impassioned, varied performance, Rygg's final harsh performance is equally as throat-shredding as Nattens Madrigal, which was released earlier that year. However, his clean singing is suddenly more recognizable, abandoning the rich baritone in favor of the more plaintive, enunciation-heavy, expressive voice which defines the lion's share of his career. Though Rygg left Borknagar after this album, The Olden Domain shaped his singing voice for years to come.
Have you listened to Borknagar lately? Take the time to revisit the intricacies of The Olden Domain and place it in context with the rest of its era, and maybe move forward with the rest of their discography (there is never a dull moment). I discussed the creation of the album, what it means, and its placement in Borknagar's oeuvre in separate interviews with both Øystein Garnes Brun and then-vocalist Kristoffer 'Fiery G Maelstrom' (Garm) Rygg below.
Øystein Garnes Brun
Looking back across your lengthy career, does The Olden Domain truly feel twenty years old? How does it feel knowing two decades have passed following its release?
Both yes and no, to be quite honest. In one way, it feels like the album belongs to another era or even another life. In fact, I just recently had a walk down Memory Lane, looking at old photos from that era and about, and it just hit me how old the photos looked. Bleak and faded colours, we looked like a bunch of schoolboys, no hair loss and so forth. And you know, everything about album productions back then was fundamentally different from how things are done nowadays. So it is, evidently, a long, long time ago. And last, but not least, the world was just different back then. But, that said, The Olden Domain was a game-changer for me as a musician and the band as a whole. We took a daring leap and pushed a lot of musical boundaries back then but yet it was very well received and remained our best selling album for many years. This album pretty much ignited my career as a musician, so the album has been a dear companion at my side ever since. In that perspective it feels like the album was released yesterday- as pretty much everything I do nowadays somehow derives from The Olden Domain.
Though it feels like a different era to you, the album certainly was the beginning of a new era for Borknagar as a whole. Hot on the heels of the self-titled debut, which was a masterful exercise in the classic "Nordic folk black metal" sound, The Olden Domain paved the way for the much more progressive sound upon which you base your music today. What brought about this shift in style and composition?
Rather than a shift in style and composition, this was more like a planned transition according to my "evolutionary masterplan" so to speak. Since I was a small kid, I have always been very attracted toward atmospheric music (of all sorts) in general. My father had a huge collection of LP's that he imported from England, just about everything that was released on vinyl during the '60s' and '70s'. So I spent a lot of time listening to different kinds of music during my childhood and been a huge fan of Pink Floyd, Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull and such since I can remember. Later on when I started to play guitar myself in the mid/late 80' I was very hooked on obscure death metal, the more extreme the better. So when forming my first band Purgation, later Molested, in 1990 it was all about being as brutal as possible. The band was up and running for about 4 years, each spent intensely rehearsing every second day, no matter what, the testosterone was through the roof. When this band imploded due to mandatory military services, educations and so forth, I was really eager to get back to the origin of my musical preferences.
So when starting playing around with ideas for Borknagar in 1993, it was initially an acoustic based project I had in my mind. In fact the very first songs I wrote for that album were the acoustic pieces. Looking back at the debut now, I think that came about as it did, because I personally was in the middle of a musical transition from the utterly extreme to a more atmospheric spectrum of music. But at the time we signed to Century Media Records and got the chance to record in a high end studio in Germany there was really no way back. I wanted to push musical boundaries, fully utilize the possibilities we had and so forth. I remember I wrote all the songs on The Olden Domain on acoustic guitar and had a very clear vision about melting together my "musical childhood" with a modern metal expression. I wanted to make my own musical universe, and so we did.
Do you remember how it felt melding these two distinct eras of your life together? Was there a degree of difficulty as it fell in a transitioning period, or was it a more natural approach?
I remember I felt a profound rush of satisfaction when the music for The Olden Domain started to come together in terms of writing, producing, and, even more so, when the album was finished. Finally, I felt that all the pieces of the puzzle came together in a way I had never really felt before. On the previous recordings I was involved in, there were always some issues or compromise I had to struggle with both during production and afterwards -- musically or production-wise. But, with Olden, things just fell into place, it felt spot on. To me, this transition came natural, very much so. I firmly believe, in honesty, when it comes to making a genuinely great album, there is no shortcut in the long run. Yes, I challenged myself musically. We challenged ourselves musically as a band. Yes, we intentionally pushed musical boundaries, but we didn't force it. It was more a question of daring to rip off the chains of conformity and follow our musical visions all the way.
Have you felt a similar, natural flow of creativity when composing subsequent works since this career-defining album?
Yes, and I actively try to both protect and cherish the notion of natural flow in the creative process. Being a composing musician, there is a few golden rule that I don't compromise on whatsoever. I don't stress it, I don't force it and I don't do anything that doesn't feel right, and, last but not least, the day I start going in circles I am done. Music in general is a very specific human artifact and the creative process of it should resemble life. To me life is a journey, not a career or profession. In the end of the day Borknagar is all about musical autonomy, in fact that is why we have a fully constructed band name. When starting out back in the days I wanted to have a name in which represented nothing but the band.
Could you go more into what you mean about the name Borknagar representing "nothing but the band"?
Back in the days when I started to ponder about this musical adventure I was aiming at, I was determined to establish a band name in which was ethereal or neutral, in a way. A name without any pre-set meaning or association that I had to drag and twist into my own context. My basic idea was to start fresh, fill in and define the meaning of the band name myself- through the music. And nothing else. I wanted to establish my own musical universe without any bonds to any obscure pages of the Oxford Dictionary, a specific music style, Lord of the Rings or whatever. It may sound cheesy, but musical and artistic independence was and is very crucial to me. And I am very consistent about it.
Though the themes of nature and mythology remained consistent, The Olden Domain featured the first Borknagar songs to have lyrics in English. What caused this embracing of a different language?
To be quite honest, I didn't feel comfortable expressing myself lyrically in Norwegian. Norwegian, especially the old and native dialect I used on the debut, is truly poetic in certain contexts as poems, trad songs, folk music and so forth. But limited in terms of nuances and diversity. I was aiming at the stars and quite frankly needed a broader scope on the horizon. And, hence my musical background, english just felt more natural and expressively potent. There is so many beautiful languages around the world, but in the end of the day there is no doubt in my mind that english is the most musical language out there.
Was it difficult expressing these poetic thoughts in a foreign language?
Foreign language or not, I have always thought that expressing myself through lyrics is a challenging matter. Simply because I think the most precious or golden art is found beyond words in my opinion. Art forms like music, painting, sculpture and so forth are, in a sense, universal. But lyrics are more of a rigid matter that presuppose understanding of a certain language, education and all those things. That said, I think lyrics play an important role in our music as some sort of expressive spearhead. In the same sense as cover art, layout and videos. But in the end of the day, it is the music that holds the true weight of our work.
So I understand you hold a strong reverence for this album in the larger Borknagar canon. Though, as you've made clear, the progression to The Olden Domain was planned, would Borknagar be the same band, or even still be around, if it was a different album or a continuation of the debut's sound?
This is hypothetical of course, but I am pretty sure Borknagar you see today would not be the same if it wasn't for the musical leap we did back in the days with The Olden Domain. Maybe the band would not be around at all, maybe I would not still be a musician, I really don't know. But what I do know is what made Borknagar special back in the days, was the fundamental ideas about progression and musical evolution that was sort of uncommon in the Norwegian BM scene back then. I remember Kris (Fiery G. Maelstrom) and I discussed these topics a lot back then, and I must admit that I am eternally thankful for the times we shared back then: the talks, the creative processes. Even though I wrote most of the basics in terms of music and lyrics, I would argue Kris had an equal important role helping out processing and refining the material. Actually I think we both shared the same urge to sort of get away from the musical stereotypes that was on the rise back then. To advance and create a more sophisticated musical expression. I simply think we hooked up at a time in our respective careers where we both was a bit tired and fed up of lo-fi prod, buzzing one-string-riffs, screaming(or growling) from start to finish and so forth. We pretty much wanted to do the opposite.
Given your desire to do the opposite, would you consider the album a denial of black metal in favor or something else?
No not at all. Speaking for myself, there was no kind of denial or opposition towards black metal or anything else really. To me, it was all about avoiding conformity and utilizing the full potential. I remember when I got my first acoustic guitar, which was actually a Christmas present from my parents back in the day. At that point, I had already been grinding (death metal) on electric guitar for some years. The more fuzz, distortion and detuning, the better. I remember how the nuances, resonance and sustain from an acoustic guitar really triggered me. I was experimenting a lot with chords, often very unconventional stuff as I had absolutely no scholarly training whatsoever. I had a guitar teacher that gave up on me after two or three sessions. At some point I just realized that there is so much more to the 'tool' I was holding in my hands than distortion and so forth, and it connected to the emotional spectrum on a much broader sense. I also got the idea that the true magic in music is not the chord or tone itself, but rather the moments and gaps between two chords, so to speak. I simply wanted to bring all this into my music. Later on, when we had the first line up going, I got sort the same notion. I felt privileged having such a talented constellation of musicians involved, and I had this urge to really utilize the actual musical potential therein. Would be a shame to just grind out another black metal album along the safe, already lit, road. I didn't want to hold things back or keep it safe. I didn't want to go in circles. And I think that is the essence of the band in many ways. To always move on, to experiment, to always utilize the full potential and then go further. From my point of view this truly came into shape with The Olden Domain.
Kristoffer 'Fiery G Maelstrom'/'Garm' Rygg
Was there a sense of finality or an impending end when you approached this album, having decided you were going to step away from Borknagar?
There was. The story is that I was originally invited by Infernus, who I knew from before, he’s the one who asked if I would be keen on doing the vocals for the first Borknagar album. It was presented as a one-off type gig, I think. I said yes, and I enjoyed the occasional hangs in Bergen and being a ‘gun for hire’ immensely. But by the time Borknagar were about to record The Olden Domain, signing to Century Media and becoming a lot more ambitious in their own right, it also became clear that I could not really be in three bands. Especially not one that had its base in Bergen. Nattens Madrigal had recently been released and I was planning my next moves with Ulver. That year I was also preoccupied with Arcturus’ La Masquerade Infernale album, which was, for the times, a rather ambitious production – one we spent a lot of time and effort on.
Nonetheless, Øystein and I had become good friends, and of course I agreed to go to Germany and Woodhouse Studios for a bit of a ‘one last time’ trip. I think this was early summer, and it was a great way to end my tenure as vocalist. I remember some wild days, and nights, in and around the Dortmund area, hooking up with the Century Media family and getting blasted with the Type O Negative guys among other things. The studio experience was also fun and educational, and it was of course awesome to suddenly find myself in a place where so many records I was a fan of had been made. The process itself was fairly quick. I think it took two or maybe three days, as that was what there was budget for. I also remember the engineer was Eroc from the old German band Grobscnitt – he had taken over the tracking by then and also mixed the album – he and I got along really well. I was working as an apprentice in a mastering studio in Oslo (Strype Audio) at the time and was just getting into more, eh, explorative techniques and such… He (Eroc) was amazed that I had brought this crude DigiTech rack with me to use when mixing the vocals. Only reason I did that was that I sort of knew exactly how I wanted my screams to sound, hehe.
Anyways, I went back to Oslo, to all things Ulver and Arcturus, and parted ways with Borknagar on the best of terms. I guess I was probably the one who suggested Simen fill my shoes. A more than capable replacement, without a doubt.
Though your post-Borknagar career has had its own, unique (to say the very least) trajectory, did you ever wonder what it would have been like and "bit the bullet" to continue with them? I have to admit, your guest spot in "Winter Thrice" (in 2016, alongside Simen "ICS Vortex" and Andreas "Vintersorg") was really wonderful.
Thank you for saying that, man.
The thought has crossed my mind, of course, but I think it was the right decision to step down back then. I have had my hands full with Ulver and other things in the years that have passed since. And the truth is that I don’t think I would have been a very ‘good member’ if I continued, if that makes any sense? I always felt the band deserved someone who could devote themselves and commit more fully.
When Øystein one day called me up to ask about some guest singing for “Winter Thrice” that was of course very easy to say yes to. There’s an aspect of camaraderie and commemoration here… It started a few years earlier when they coaxed me up on stage in Oslo to sing along to the very end of “The Dawn of the End” *laughs*. “Winter Thrice” has a sort of lyrical lineage from that tune going on, even though it is musically referencing the old song “Dauden” – the only song with clean vocals from the debut. Not sure how many people has actually picked up on that?
There is definitely an air of intensity to your vocal performance on The Olden Domain, like you were meeting the rest of the band in, what Øystein calls, pushing their collective boundaries. For such a busy time, what did this boundary pushing, utilizing the extreme ends of your performance styles on Nattens Madrigal and La Masquerade Infernale, mean to you in your musical evolution?
The Olden Domain represents a maturing process, both performance-wise and with regards to overall sound and production. 20 years later, one can, of course, argue that certain things sound too forced, over the top or whatever. And while that is, of course, true – we were still relatively young – it is also true that the album shows a band that has come a long way from the first album. With regards to my own contributions and what it meant, I don’t know man... I was still finding my feet, or ‘inner voice’, around these times. But things were starting to sound more confident overall, more ‘signature’, I think. I guess this was around the time I decided to leave screaming vocals behind and focus more on developing as a ‘normal singer’ and producer of sorts.
You can buy The Olden Domain from Century Media Records.