[31 January 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Any time a popular artist decides to re-record their early material, they’re always playing with fire, and more often than not, such an exercise results in an outraged fanbase screaming bloody murder. Oftentimes, the bands in question just want to revisit their early days for a bit of fun (Anthrax recently rehashed some old tracks with singer John Bush on the well-received The Greater of Two Evils), but in other instances, the reasons are much more insidious. In the most reprehensible example in recent years, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne re-recorded the rhythm section tracks of Ozzy’s two classic solo LPs, Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman, not because they wanted to improve the albums in any way, but merely to spite two former band members who were suing the Osbournes for unpaid royalties. Needless to say, the new versions of both albums were embarrassments, leaving longtime fans disgusted.
If there’s one set of music fans who will always have the verbal knives ready if any band tried to tinker with their early work, it’s black metal enthusiasts. Always arguing whether or not a certain black metal band is “kult” (or to put it more blackly, “kvlt”), to the point where if a trace of high fidelity recording is evident, screams of, ”Sellout!” erupt from the peanut gallery, black metal fans are the hardest metal fans to please, which makes the recent antics of Norway’s great Dimmu Borgir all the more admirable, as their bold decision to re-record their 1996 classic Stormblåst dares to challenge any fan who thinks black metal should be performed one, and only one, way. What arrogance, what, as the Norwegians would say, testikkels, for a band like Dimmu Borgir to do such a thing, and in the end, thank goodness for that.
In all seriousness, this isn’t a case of a band completely disowning an early version of an album like Ozzy has done. Band members Shagrath and Erkekgetter Silenoz both admit to being unhappy with the final mix of Stormblåst, and feel that it would be an interesting exercise to put a more modern, high-gloss spin on an album that many consider to be seminal, but what is in actuality a rather overrated piece of work. And why not? If there’s one thing that has always hampered the original 1996 version of Stormblåst, it’s the production. Heavy on mood, but with a punchless mix that’s as foreboding as a high school goth working at Cinnabon, guitars are drowned out by synthesizers, and the very odd-sounding drums sound pillowy, a far cry from Mayhem’s legendary De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas from three years earlier, which boasts a drum sound seemingly recorded from the very bowels of hell. Recorded on a shoestring budget, with an engineer that was not the choice of the band, it’s really no surprise that Shagrath and Silenoz would get the urge to set things right, which they do on the 2005 version.
Recorded and produced by the duo and longtime collaborator Peter Tagtgren, and featuring guest drummer Hellhammer (he of the demonic beats on the aforementioned Mayhem classic) and keyboardist Mustis, Stormblåst Version 2.0 is a massive improvement in tone, wisely eschewing the huge, orchestral soundscapes of such recent albums as Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia and the near-masterpiece Death Cult Armageddon in favor of a much more direct approach. Guitars play a considerably more prominent role, as double the guitar tracks were used this time around, basslines are much more defined and fully fleshed-out, and Hellhammer’s drumming is as prooficient as one would expect. Most noticeably, Shagrath’s vocals are more up front in the mix, his dark snarl more refined and unique than the token screech of a decade ago. The sonic improvements enhance the actual songs, too, the staccato guitars and cascading keyboards complementing each other on “Alt Lys Er Svunnet Hen”, while the thunderous “Broderskapets Ring” sounds even more stately than the original, Silenoz’s guitar melodies taking center stage. Some alterations have been made, as the new version of “Sorgens Kammer “ (aptly appended with the title “Del II”) is completely revamped, the original keyboard instrumental (an overly long mood piece) replaced by a similarly themed, yet much more aggressive, full band performance. The percussion provides the muscle the original lacked, and Hellhammer plays a large part in the revitalization of both the title track and the blastbeat-driven “Dodsferd”.
The last album Dimmu Borgir would sing in their native Norwegian, Stormblåst was followed up in 1997 with the much revered Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, as the band, with Tagtgren’s help, would take their brand of melodic black metal to a completely new level, earning them worldwide recognition. While the original Stormblåst is steeped in effective atmospherics, its production flaws are simply too obvious to ignore, and while most fans wish the band would focus more on recording a new album, the 2005 version of Stormblåst not only tides the fans over for the time being (not to mention sparking furious debate on message boards), but, to our great surprise, doesn’t so much supplant the original as re-energize it, making us appreciate the band more.