It is impossible these days to discuss Norway’s biggest mainstream export, Dimmu Borgir, in any context other than a defense or an outright attack. I, too, have felt the sting of more than one of my favorite bands (Dimmu included) rising from obscurity in the US to become the next hot topic at, well, Hot Topic. Who can forget the downfall (no pun intended) of Children of Bodom? Said blow was heartbreaking to me because, like many sixteen year old high school boys, Alexi Laiho was my hero (my sides are splitting with laughter at my own expense at this bit of nostalgia). Every day things happen to bands we all love that we recoil in terror from, yet have no control over. Much of this is due to equal parts selfish, introverted elitism on our parts, and legitimate, factual evidence of bands making it big, undoing their figurative flies and letting their figurative guts hang out. Experiential evidence has proven that many bands lose their creative edge after being assimilated into the mainstream. It’s also true that legions of a new kind of fan can run the old kind straight out of the park. But after a band becomes the flavor of the week, there is only one question that matters: do they retain their artistic integrity?
I generally find myself agreeing with what most people have to say about Dimmu Borgir these days. They tend to make themselves look like idiots, even if in theory they have an exciting, high budget, dark gothic aesthetic. Case in point: Shagrath being injected with drugs in a hospital bed by a sexy nurse. Galder really does look and act like the bald vampire from the horrid 30 Days of Night movie (that one is actually my observation). Thematically and lyrically they are about as interesting as Children of Bodom, and even on their earlier, more respected albums, they tend to have a few flops for every one great song. It certainly is hard to take a black metal band that plays shows with Korn and has a Hot Topic edition of their newest album seriously. But, I’ve always called myself a Dimmu fan because, for the most part, they have not done anything artistically other than what seems to have always been their desire.
My friends like to refer to Dimmu Borgir as “Star Wars metal.” To them it is an insult, but since I listen to far more “Star Wars-y” metal than Dimmu, and my own brainchild is a symphonic epic metal band, it is a perfectly honorific term by my standards. Dimmu is certainly not the first, nor can they be called the best symphonic metal band. As someone who lists Bal-Sagoth as one of their all time favorite bands, I feel qualified to judge how well Dimmu Borgir does epic. Fortunately, I am thoroughly impressed with their newest album, ABRAHADABRA. From the inspired and serious orchestrations to the atmospheric industrial elements, there is no sign of any of this being pulled off to make a buck. The voices and choir on this album are especially exciting, the throaty guttural drones in the album opener “Xibir,” come to mind, for example. Shagrath’s vocal performance itself is surprisingly laid back, which is something of a letdown because his voice is so very commanding. I was not too impressed with the guest female vocals on “Gateways” which I found irritating (as is the woman’s presence in the promotional video), but Snowy Shaw’s appearances are fantastic and blend beautifully with the overall atmosphere in a way that I dare to say is even better than the recently fired Vortex. “Gateways” on the whole is an impressive track, however, and not the only strong point the album has to offer.
“Chess With the Abyss” is a powerful and rather unconventional rocking track with some huge strings and choirs, and the song I had the most doubts about, “Dimmu Borgir,” has become one of my favorites. In fact, it sounds a lot like something I would do myself. Of course the lyrics, evoking strange imagery of northern barbarians trick-or-treating, are as silly as might be expected from Dimmu. Indeed, the majority of the lyrics on ABRAHADABRA seem to center on a non-literal English idiom that Shagrath does not seem to understand is an idiom, and make much of “burning bridges.” Even tantalizing titles like “A Jewel Traced Through Coal” lead to tracks which feature largely incomprehensible lyrics dealing with the typical Dimmu subject matter of “them and their lies etc.” Equally confusing is the choice of the evocative title, “The Demiurge Molecule,” once again prompting questions of the extent to which the band understand the words they are using. Fortunately, nitpicking about the lyrics aside, the strength of the album is little affected by them. The choirs chanting the album title in the closing track “Endings and Continuations” send shivers down my spine and the proggy freshness of the track calls to mind Symphony X in a most positive way.
Not everything Dimmu Borgir does is interesting to me, even if it seems like something I would be into. I sold Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia after a few listens even though there were some good ideas on it, in theory. I was ashamed with their decision to re-record Stormblåst, and equally bothered by the revelation that they had stolen music for the original. Admittedly, I avoided In Sorte Diaboli, influenced by the “sellout” stigma as much as anyone else. To this day I have never listened to it beyond the single/video tracks, and I just may never bother with it, because its successor is far more interesting to me at the moment.
For those still worried about Dimmu’s mainstream position, let’s not forget the fact that numerous metal icons have crossed over into the mainstream and still retain their status. Bands like Megadeth and Slayer are revered by metalheads everywhere, yet they are all over Hot Topic and Ozzfest. Their stickers are peeling off of pickup trucks from Florida to Alaska and they share every aspect of their existence with mainstream acts like Lamb of God et al. Iron Maiden has risen to be one of the most prominent metal bands the world has ever seen; yet calling them sellouts would constitute heresy even though their shirts are available at Kohls. The degree to which Maiden retain their integrity is debatable on an individual level, yet there is something more than just the fact that they are metal icons keeping them in the true metal pantheon. I can’t say I much care for some of the new Iron Maiden material, but I can’t call it “selling out” because it sounds like they put their hearts into it. Likewise, there is nothing on the musical level that suggests ABRAHADABRA is an example of Dimmu Borgir looking to sell the gum on the bottoms of their shoes. The music is inspired, strong, not in the least watered down and there are no filler tracks. The band’s choice to have a theatrical appearance is apt for their artistic vision and using that as a card against them carries no true critical weight. I encourage disenchanted fans to try to give ABRAHADABRA an unbiased listen; they may be greatly rewarded, as I was.
-Bryan A. Wysopal