[6 May 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The scourge of black metal purists everywhere, Norway’s Dimmu Borgir has proven over the last five years that not only can the darker side of extreme metal achieve mainstream success in America, but that a band with roots in one of metal’s most stylistically rigid subgenres can actually show some musical growth. The career trajectory of Dimmu Borgir is remarkable; at first strictly a melodic black metal outfit specializing in the same hallmarks of the genre that scenesters still adhere to (emphasis on mood over power, trebly production, fast tremolo guitar picking, the requisite corpse paint), the band started to gradually alter its sound, incorporating different elements like goth and symphonic metal, beefing up its production (working with two of the finest producers in the genre, Peter Tagtgren and Fredrik Nordstron), bringing in cleanly-sung melodic vocals to offset the demonic growl of lead vocalist Shagrath, and placing strong emphasis on visual presentation, including garish outfits and outlandish photography and album artwork. So bastardized has its music become now, that Dimmu Borgir can hardly be considered a black metal band in the “kvlt” sense of the term, but the band’s seventh full-length album proves that it’s time to retire the “are they or are they not ‘tr00’?” debate, and have everyone on both sides concede that this is one of the most gloriously bombastic bands in metal today.
2003’s Death Cult Armageddon was a brilliant exercise in seeing just how over the top a metal band could go. Accompanied by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, it was so garish and full-blown, that it was almost overwhelming, sounding as if Richard Wagner came from 1990s Norway instead of 19th century Germany, the combination of blastbeats, massive, layered riffs, and sweeping orchestral melodies unrelenting. In Sorte Diaboli, on the other hand, streamlines its approach somewhat, but is no less appealing, and is every bit as pompous. While Death Cult Armageddon was so dominated by the orchestral aspect, the more compact production by Nordstrom (at the helm for the third consecutive record) places the emphasis strictly on the six members, and not only does the resulting recording sound positively explosive, but it’s the band’s most focused, cohesive, and disciplined album to date. Which, considering the musical excesses these guys love so much, is one hell of an accomplishment.
The fact is that Dimmu Borgir’s songwriting has never been better, the band growing to the point where they now feel they don’t need to meander well past the six or seven minute mark like they have in the past. Each song is concise, yet remains epic in scope, the band never overplaying its hand, and additionally, the continuity from song to song is exemplary, not to mention well-timed, considering In Sorte Diaboli is the band’s first foray into the concept album format. Although much is being made about the album’s supposed storyline (Middle Ages priest refutes the Christian indoctrination of Scandinavia, devoting himself to Satan in the process), which includes an extensive preamble by lyricist Silenoz, the themes are nothing different from what we’ve heard from Dimmu, or any other black metal band for that matter, in years past.
Actually, the lyrics are secondary to the arrangements, which along with Nordstrom’s walloping mix, makes for a veritable bacchanal for the ears. While no actual orchestra was used, there are still plenty of symphonic flourishes courtesy keyboardist Mustis, who used MIDI samples of instruments to construct a lavish backdrop for the album. We get a dose of his ingenuity on the opening track “The Serpentine Offering”, as cascading strings, a fanfare of brass, and ominous tympani serve as a rousing overture for what is arguably the catchiest song the band has ever written. The entire band is in prime form, as guitarists Silenoz and Galder chug and churn away, bassist Vortex contributes his trademark melodic vocals, and drummer Hellhammer alternates between midtempo groove and jackhammering double-kick beats. Top marks, though, go to Shagrath, who turns in a charismatic vocal performance; no longer relying on a thin growl, his rough vocals are more textured, and placed much higher in the mix than on previous albums.
Hellhammer, who is best known for that stunning drum sound on Mayhem’s infamous De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, absolutely dominates “The Chosen Legacy”, anchoring the ambitious tempo changes, often coming to a sharp halt before completely shifting gears. “The Conspiracy Unfolds” contains melodic guitar accents that hint at melodic death metal, while Mustis’s keyboard work carries the cinematic, galloping “The Sacreligious Scorn”. High-octane riffs propel “The Sinister Awakening”, accentuated nicely by Hellhammer’s 16th beats on the hi-hat and the chanted invocation, “Antichristus Spiritualis!” The band shows they can still pull off a good black metal mood on “The Fundamental Alienation”, and the oddly-titled “The Foreshadowing Furnace” brings the album to a suitably dark, ominous conclusion, as the protagonist meets his fiery demise.
In Sorte Diaboli is by no means the most groundbreaking metal disc, but it is one of the year’s more extravagant pleasures. While a band’s integrity and credibility is always important among metal listeners, it’s always good to have a band like Dimmu Borgir around, to at least remind us that part of what makes metal music so fun it its larger than life aspect. These guys spare nothing in their attempts to give listeners a musical version of a Breughel painting, and right now, they’re at the top of their game.