SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: DIMMU BORGIR RETURN WITH IN SORTE DIABOLI
“My descent is the story of every man/ I am hatred, darkness and despair.” So begins In Sorte Diaboli (Latin for “By the Choosing of Satan”), the return, after four long years, of Dimmu Borgir, one the foremost black metal bands in the world. And it’s a good reminder of how Dimmu Borgir claimed such a prestigious spot in the metal world: they understand that black metal has to be about more than satanic growls, ridiculous make-up, and blast beats; they understand not only the value of strong, traditionalist songwriting, but the importance of finding ways to make the typical black metal subject matter- namely, the occult- less abstract and more personal for the listener. Even if In Sorte Diaboli ultimately falls short of being the masterpiece it clearly aspires to be, it’s still a killer listen from start to finish.
In Sorte Diaboli is a concept album- I can’t believe it took Dimmu Borgir so long to make a concept album!- that tells the story of a priest’s assistant (I didn’t realize they needed someone to pick-up their dry cleaning while they were out doing God’s good work, but I guess if movie stars get them…) who, in the words of guitarist Silenoz, “has this awakening and realizes that he has different abilities and different powers and is leaning more to the dark side.” In other words, this is the Norwegian black metal version of Revenge of the Sith. What keeps it all from seeming kinda silly, then, is the way the lyrics so often assume the first person, putting us inside the head of the story’s protagonist, allowing us to view the entire thing as a metaphor for the importance of individuality in modern society (Yes, that may have been the most pretentious thing I’ve ever written, but the opening lines of the video for lead track “The Serpentine Offering,” only bolsters my point: “What you believe to be true is false. What you thought right, wrong.” If that can’t be interpreted as a message to all those who follow our current leaders to the edge of apocalypse, I don’t know what is.). Consequently, this is a much stronger concept album than, say, a recent offering by one Trent Reznor; it doesn’t matter if the story gets bogged down in sci-fi/fantast tropes- we kind of expect it to- it’s that the story is too convoluted to follow clearly. Dimmu Borgir don’t get so distracted by their own political rhetoric.
Musically speaking, I’d be more than a little curious to know what a really hardcore, old school black metaller thinks of a band like Dimmu Borgir; except for some guitars that sound like they were recorded in an echo chamber towards the end of “The Conspiracy Unfolds,” this disc is largely devoid of the progressive influences that have kept their peers in bands like Melechesh and, especially, Enslaved so interesting these past few years. The songs are short and sweet, and don’t really wander off any place too unexpected.
But to this reviewer’s ears, at least, Dimmu make up for it with their deeply satisfying, baby’s butthole-tight performances and epic, groove-laden riffs. Simply put, the songs here rock; Silenoz and fellow guitarist Galder throb deep in your skull, and the contrast between frontman Shagrath’s devilish, gutteral growls and bassist ICS Vortex’s booming, heavenly vocal interludes still proves to be a potent one-two punch. And drummer Hellhammer knows that double-bass drumming the listener to death isn’t the be-all, end-all of metal; on “The Invaluble Darkness,” he proves he listened to John Bonham as much as he did Dave Lombardo, and on at least three tracks- “The Chosen Legacy,” “The Conspiracy Unfolds,” and “The Sinister Awakening”- he utilizes, so help me Satan, a disco beat. And, believe it or not, it sounds pretty cool.
All of these good things being said, I do have two complaints about the disc: while keyboardist Mustis obviously contributes a great deal to this band and their sound, giving him what ostensibly amounts to a solo track (the admittedly sweet “The Fallen Arises,” a Middle Eastern-flavored instrumental interlude that should most definitely be used as the main theme for the next rip-off of The Exorcist) seems a bit much given that album is already criminally short: besides “The Fallen Arises,” there are only eight songs, and the whole disc runs under fourty-five minutes- after four years, it seems that this band should have a much greater wealth of material.
Mustis’ moment to shine calls special attention to itself because, unlike the band’s last album, Death Cult Armageddon, there’s no live orchestra here- just keyboards doubling as string section. And that’s exactly what they sound like- keyboards standing in where a full, majestic orchestra ought to go. Maybe it was the band’s intention to sound a little more stripped-down, maybe some members of the band felt a little overpowered in the past, or maybe it was just a financial concern- but the end result is that the song’s are robbed of some of the epic quality that makes them so damn fun in the first place.
Still, these often seem like minor issues, and In Sorte Diaboli ultimately proves to be worth the wait. Black metal fans, glory be the powers of the devil: Dimmu Borgir have returned with full force.
(four out of five horns)
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