When you’re easily the biggest band on your record label and one of the most popular metal bands in the world, who could blame you for trying to do whatever the hell you wanted? In Dimmu Borgir’s case, the Norwegian band has been experiencing a massive upswing in popularity over the last decade thanks to some very shrewd ideas: their bastardized take on black metal is a lot simpler than the more traditional sounds of the genre, the production is not so much clean as it is lavish, albums arrive riding a massive wave of hype, they tour relentlessly all over the world, and best of all, they have a garish image that plays up the “evil” and “Satanic” look to a wonderfully cartoonish degree. Purists love to slam the band for offering such a stylistically lightweight take on a sound that’s supposed to be extreme, but Dimmu Borgir has rightfully earned their huge fanbase by working hard over the last 17-odd years, not to mention the opportunity to take their music as far in any direction as it can go.
Still, it is quite a surprise to discover that the route they’re taking on their ninth studio album is a highly orchestral one. Not that they’re strangers to the symphonic side of black metal – they practically invented it – as 2003’s astounding Death Cult Armageddon married both styles of music brilliantly, but the curiously named Abrahadabra finds the band veering so far away from their black metal roots that it’s bound to be the most polarizing title in what’s already a much argued-over discography. In fact, this sounds closer to symphonic metal greats Therion than the Dimmu Borgir everyone has grown accustomed to.
As far as the “metal” side of Abrahadabra‘s symphonic metal goes, we could see its streamlined, diluted sound coming well in advance. 2007’s In Sorte Diaboli saw the core members of vocalist Stian “Shagrath” Thoresen, guitarist Sven Atle “Silenoz” Kopperud, and guitarist Tom Rune “Galder” Andersen eschewing the speed and aesthetics of black metal in favor of much simpler riffs, and although it was a far cry from such classics as “Spellbound (by the Devil)” or “Vredysbyrd”, when taken as a straightforward heavy metal album and not worrying about genre specifics, the album worked nicely. Abrahadabra, on the other hand, is structurally so much simpler that for a great deal of the record it’s actually up to orchestral arranger Gaute Storås to add the bombastic, complex sounds while the rest of the band performs in a rather workmanlike (some skeptics might say lazy) fashion. A good example is the lead single “Gateways”, which places so much emphasis on orchestration and choirs that we can barely hear the actual band itself.
The only way this album is going to win listeners over is if the songwriting actually holds up amidst the cacophony of more than 100 guest musicians and singers. “Gateways” is actually a very mediocre teaser for fans, a kitchen-sink metal epic that feels tossed off, arbitrarily pieced together, and lacking cohesion. Mercifully the rest of the album is stronger. “Born Treacherous” is built around a contagious, atonal riff that borrows heavily from progsters Meshuggah and continues musically where In Sorte Diaboli‘s memorable “The Serpentine Offering” left off. “Chess With the Abyss” settles into a groove that allows Shagrath to let his persona take over, the churning “Ritualist” is accentuated well by acoustic guitar and the cleanly sung vocals by Swedish eccentric Snowy Shaw (replacing fired bassist ICS Vortex), while “The Demiurge Molecule” boasts one of the band’s hookiest riffs in years. The best is saved for last, as “Endings and Continuations” brings the album to a highly theatrical climax, Shagrath’s snarl offset by the gorgeous singing of Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg from the great Norwegian experimental band Ulver.
Silenoz’s lyrics, heavily inspired by the writings of Aleister Crowley (the 1904 text Liber AL vel Legis inspired the album’s title), is a very welcome change from the band’s usual boring, heavy-handed anti-Christian rhetoric, and Shagrath continues to improve as a lead vocalist, as his lines are becoming easier and easier to understand with each new album. But perhaps it’s sometimes better that we not understand everything he’s snarling, as the cringe-inducing “Dimmu Borgir” attests. A similar mis-step to “Gateways”, the track is a mission statement of sorts that evokes the more comical side of Manowar than anything else, its sentiment arrogant (“Deceit is everywhere you turn / We weed out the weak and their weep”), the choir refrain painfully echoing the campy old Batman TV series theme. It’s another odd fit on a very strange album, one whose positives outweighs its negatives. But just barely.