Monday, May 17, 2010

Dimmu Borgir - Death Cult Armageddon

Dimmu Borgir - Death Cult Armageddon
2003, Nuclear Blast Records

An armageddon scenario that affects me more powerfully than this entire album:

"No sanity/no fucking will to be/you kill yourself/you are dying"

- Gehenna's Sanrabb, at the end of the song "Slowly Being Poisoned"

"No sanity/no fucking will to be/you kill yourself/smiling/you are dying"

- backing vocals/chorus from the same song

"See the bodies/drenched in pools of blood/all of them dead/some by their own hand/seeking refuge in suicide/as terror spreads throughout the land"

- Sanrabb, a few moments later, in the next song "Eater of the Dead"

It's interesting, I wonder how many reviewers and their corresponding magazines, fanzines, or websites are judged by readers based just on how they would approach an album by this band. Dimmu Borgir continue to be a bone of contention in the underground, they seem to prompt extreme reactions on all sides. If you hate it, you hate it vociferously and you take advantage of every opportunity to say so, on internet message boards [always] if not in private conversations. If you like it, you usually leave it at that, perhaps try to stand up stubbornly against the wave of unholier-than-thou scene police who dictate what is and what isn't "worthy" in the underground, etc. If you are dismissive of the entire thing, perhaps suspicious of hyperbole on either side, or the commercial aspect of gossip, or just apathetic, you hopefully stay quiet and withdraw your number from the debate. That's in keeping with apathy, right? How many pretend to be apathetic while secretly listening to this band? Or even stranger - how many say they hate this band without even listening to them, or say they despise Dimmu and keep a secret cache of their CDs hidden beneath the floorboards, wrapped in newspaper to keep off the rats? How many say they hate this band because they are afraid of liking them, and how many people never give this band a chance because they are frightened by what their "friends" or acquaintances might say - how they might judge them?

More questions:

How many people think this band is important just because other people think so? How many writers review it because they know it's almost required in some way or another to "officially" declare one's opinion of this band in order to fix one's self in the aesthetic hierarchy of the scene-at-large? How many people review this band just to comment on the fact that other people are or are not reviewing them, or to comment on the politics that surrounds this band? How many reviews, as I have asked before, are only self portraits, pictures of how the reviewer wants to be seen by others, or how he wants to think of himself?

What if we all decided, tomorrow, that this band doesn't matter at all, and that we shouldn't talk about them anymore? If a band is not noticed by anyone, or relegated to scene silence and a vacuum of gossip, does it cease to exist?

Even more:

Why is everyone so intent on judging? Not just the band, or this album, but each other? Why all these political positions, these strange inter-scene manipulations and relations? Is Dimmu Borgir really that important? Or are people really that bored? Why does this strange relation between what one listens to, privately or publicly, and one's "worth" or one's "value" as an individual still exist? Why all of these pressures to conform to different standards? Is this just an inescapable ingredient of the community of the underground, or the sorts of power struggles and urges towards communal thinking that come about in any group? How are individual opinions and judgements really formed when it comes to underground art communities? What part does conformity - and the reaction against it - really play? How does one determine if a judgement is "authentic" or "true to the nature of the person" or just a sign of some kind of affiliation with/within a group? Can these things really be determined?

It also makes me laugh to see so many bands - especially black metal bands in this country - constantly derogate and abuse this group for fulfilling their own fantasies. I mean the fantasies and desires of the people who are criticizing. Most black metal bands have very similar aesthetics as Dimmu Borgir, very similar compositional ideas, and almost exactly the same career goals. How many low level black metal bands are just jealous of this group? Given the same amount of money, the same touring opportunities, the same push by a large label, would they not also fall into artistic and personal excesses of embarrassing sorts? What else does their "satanic" culture of extremism/bathos ever really rise to? Are they underground and "true" only because they don't have the skill, luck, or production values [read: money, and the power it holds] to appear on the same stage with groups like Dimmu? Is their imagery obscured only by unprofessional approaches? It is amusing to see that these bands, who profess to be cultivated, profound, earnest, and valid/pertinent can never rise to the level of their pretensions and create art that mirrors the way they see themselves. They never can. Is it the case of life imitating art, or the opposite? There is envy in everything they say, but there is also more than that…

Is Dimmu living out the dreams of all these other "minor" bands, and is that why they are so hated?

As a reviewer, one approaches a band like this with a fair amount of caution. I know this review is going to be read, by all sorts of people. I can't say that for all of my reviews, and to be frank this situation makes me nervous. I have started and stopped this review a couple of times because I was anxious about the misinterpretations that would be placed over it, like some kind of pall or shroud. I was concerned that people would actually read it! Why else am I writing it, you ask? I don't know exactly. Perhaps in order to make my own thinking on this matter clear to me. Language has the ability to do that…but also maybe because I am more than a little tired of the "controversy" [is there a word more riddled with contradictions and lapses of meaning that this?] surrounding this band. I don't see why it should exist, and I think it might just come about because of a few distinct/widespread errors in thinking. Number one with a bullet: the strange, malingering idea that Dimmu Borgir is trying to be a black metal band in the traditional sense, and they just keep missing the formula. How laughable! Are there any more bitter and angry arguments in the underground than the ones that are sparked by bizarre genre definitions? Are there any arguments that are more ridiculous?

I am also tired of the way in which metal fans divide themselves into little conformist camps of opinion and judgement and wage perpetual war on each other. I have dealt with that phenomenon for seventeen years now and, believe me, it has not been a positive thing in my life. I have wondered on more than one occasion what would happen if all metal fans just stopped the internecine wrestling, all of the kicking and spitting and scratching, and focused all of that wasted energy on creating new music and pushing this form of art into the future. There are those who say that these things are not easy contrasts or conflicted, and that struggles within the "scene" add to the energy of all of those involved and make aesthetic ideas/ideals prosper. This Darwinist approach to aesthetics is interesting, and there may be something to the opinion that all artistic movements come into being and express themselves through these types of judgements on what has come before and what, at the time, surrounds them, and that these skirmishes are necessary in order to "advance" the evolution of art. The question of the importance and use of this evolution for the individual aside, I don't know if the value of its actual existence can ever be proved conclusively. We can certainly not look back at another time when these combats did not exist and then compare that era with the current one. As long as I have been involved in the underground there have been wars and bitter feuds over the "worth" of different bands, different kinds of music, and dissimilar approaches towards the art. The friction between subjectivity and objectivity produces an enormous amount of conflicted energy. It doesn't help the matter that so many people enter the metal scene looking for some way to determine an identity and solidify segments of their own personality by comparing their opinions, beliefs, thoughts, etc. with those of other people. It also does not help the situation that there are so many people involved in the underground who simply can not ever think for themselves, and see their loudly offered "contributions" to the hurricane of opinion being bandied about as tokens of allegiance, as badges to be worn in order to fend off further judgement on the part of others, or in order to enable them [in the view of everyone] to grasp a higher place in the kangaroo court of criticism. In the metal scene, everyone is a critic, and often the "value" of one's opinion is based only on how loudly or how bitterly one expresses it. I have a difficult time seeing the positive parts of this situation.

I know I will be "judged", carefully and not so carefully, by people who read this review, and specifically by those who read it in order to judge. This review might be a statement of aesthetics, it might be a description of my reactions to a band's music, but it is also a type of political statement. It seems that I can't avoid that and I am resigned to it. I want to write this review, so I might as well take the consequences of that decision with equanimity. What else am I to do?

By the way, I am reviewing this album only because I was fortunate enough to find the mp3s. I did not purchase this album. Nuclear Blast did not send us any promos, and they never have. They do not support this archive in any way. In fact for the last four years they have completely ignored our existence. Thanks, Nuclear Blast.

A number of other reviews [research] I have read of this album stressed, first of all, the production of the recording, its weaknesses and strengths, and the ways in which Dimmu Borgir has advanced their approach to recording their own music and the ways in which the production can add or subtract to the effect of the material it supports, covers, and interpenetrates. To me this sort of thing, starting a review of an album by commenting on the production, has always been a bad sign, something to be noticed when reading. There are definite reasons why writers do this sort of thing…for example, a few are that they know that the production is important to the reader [metal fans are pretty savvy when it comes to that], the opinion of the production is the first thing in their mind to come to consciousness when they think of the album, or that they believe that the album's production is a "sign" of something else, some intent or adjustment in a band's aesthetics, or a marker that points to a decision being made somewhere as to the direction the band might be taking in the future. Reviewers often start out with judgements on an album's "worth", aesthetic value, and "importance to the scene" in the first few moments of a listening after the nature of the production makes itself clear. These judgements often [if not always] color, tint and tone their appreciation of the material encapsulated within the production. Can music be separated from the way in which it is recorded? For many reviewers, the answer is: no. For so many fans, the same thing...in the digital age the production of an album has taken on so much meaning.

So, let's start out in that way then. What about the production? It's excellent. Even in mp3 form it shines brightly, it is very refined and worked over, very clean, deep and wide-ranging in its reach across the listener's inner ear space. The recording, as far as I can tell, is more than adequate for this kind of music. All instruments [with the exception of the bass at times, but that's to be expected] can be heard equally well, with the vocals of course taking the place of prerogative or a leading role because this is a production style based on pop music, where the vocal lines and the "delivery" of the lyrics are the most important parts of the song structure or the progress of the material in time. The rest of the instruments [most noticeably the guitars] are sent to the background, and are slightly [almost inconspicuously] muted in a way that is very telling. To do so, to mute and "even out" the tones of the guitar and drums in the acoustic backdrop, and to submerge them under the main thrust of the vocals and keyboard melodies, is course to make a political statement. What that means is that Dimmu are not only trying to separate themselves from other bands that play this kind of music, but that their production is, in one sense, a sign of their ambitions. The guitars and drums are hushed and their tones are evened out [the drums mostly by triggers, but that's another story entirely] in order to make this music more palatable for people who can not stomach the rough recordings and ill-matched series of tones that metal music usually appears under. A "good" production in this sense just means one that doesn't have any rough edges, it is smooth, polished, and shines like a bright silver sphere. A presentation style like this just bleeds out the aggression in the material, and saps the strength of the songs' rhythmic drive - but for Dimmu's purposes, that is perfect. That's what they want. The 192 kbps mp3s I am listening to may wipe away and suffocate/suppress some of the low end [they usually do] but from trying, in my mind, to extrapolate from their sound, I know that this is just a beautifully maintained album, aside from what I just said above. The bland, even overall tone and masterly balance of the mix is evident, and whoever was responsible for that portion of the production deserves a nod in their direction, if not a raise in salary. I believe this was recorded at Studio Fredman, in Sweden, by scene stalwart Frederik Nordström. Dimmu's music combines a lot [50+ at least, all of the band's tracks and layers and then the 46-piece symphony] of different instrumental elements and they are equally spaced here, poised and secured with an invisible but strong grace. Because this will be an "upper tier" or "flagship" release for the label [well that goes without saying, who am I kidding?] and Nuclear Blast is in a position now to insert, through their commerce, an incredible number of albums in CD players all over the world, this album has to sound "good" no matter where it's played: in a car, in a boombox, a personal stereo, in a bedroom, at a party, at the beach. It has a major league production, believe me. It sounds better than any other CD I've heard from this label. Nuclear Blast and Dimmu should see that as a small victory.

Having said that…

Here is a short cursory description of my first reactions to this album, described impromptu in an email to Yury. I am repeating it here both because of its value as a first reaction/impression and because I am simply too lazy to edit it and turn it into "literature" for your consumption:

"Their music is so interesting to me. It's so devoid of any kind of real depth or emotional value. It's amazing. It's gorgeous, though, you know...so pretty and put together so well, but when you pierce past the upper layers there's just nothing beneath. It fascinates me. I especially like how their guitar writing is so meaningless. It's like pop music, but even worse, even more shallow. I like how they mimic brutality without ever being brutal. The drumming is fast, the guitars are screaming, and it's still pop music. The melodies are so sweet, there's almost no "dark matter" in them at all. The vocals have no real emotional impact. For me it's always like they are playing behind a wall, a veil, something that has to be ripped aside in order to see the real depth beneath, except there's no way to tear through that wall. Or, in other words, their music is a movie projected ON that wall, and if you were to tear through it you would just be on the other side of nothing. They are great songwriters, you know? They know how to leech every single bit of what could be considered "human", or fallible, in their music, and it's just like it's made by machines. It's pop metal, bubblegum black metal, even though they've never been black metal at all. There are so many contradictions in their music...to me their music is like a really fancy tea service, a samovar and china, but it's empty, there's no sustenance within. No tea, no milk, all sugar. All immediacy, nothing that returns to you...nothing you can project yourself into, nothing that reflects back to you. If you look at the artwork inside the booklet for their new album, even all of those images...they're taken from other places, other sources, stolen from other people. No original ideas at all. I don't understand how people can write music like that...that's one of the reasons I find it so interesting. I'm fascinated by beauty that's also completely shallow...it's like an aberration. Or is it the "real" beauty?"

That should tell you, briefly, what I "really" think about this album.

But, to specifics, and building on what I just inserted above:

The symphony orchestra. What to make of it? Yes, it adds an extra dimension [or many] to this band's sound, and [as said in the review referenced below] often "stirs" the band just when they seem to be fading.

"As great as synth technology is, and as impressive as the previous orchestration work on Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia was, the strings shimmer through incredibly well this time, creating a rich, epic sound that heightens and rejuvenates moments all over the album."

-David Perri, at http://www.digitalmetal.com/reviews.asp?cid=4456

Dimmu have always been "about" the synth work they could offer, from the very beginning. The guitars have been structural supports, background noises, fillers, rhythmic underpinnings, excess frequencies, etc. but they have rarely been the true carriers of a song's progress, and are almost never melodic heavyweights in the sound space. Like most "symphonic black metal" bands, Dimmu lets the keyboards [and now an actual symphony] shoulder most of the melodic mass of the aural tapestry while the guitars lay down a table or bedrock of ambient rhythms and distortion to mask the fact that aside from the lead melodies of the song almost nothing is happening. The guitar work in this collective is stunningly simple, which creates a good balance between the rhythmic and melodic essentials - something that one must have unless you want the music to become so complex that mainstream ears will flee from it. On this album the guitar writing reminds me in many instances of another symphony-addled band on this label, Therion. All that is really asked of the guitars is that they move the song forward through simple tremolo progressions or chunky palm-muted descents and ascents through the bottom of the fretboard. They work hand in hand with the bass drums to achieve this.

"Progenies of the Great Apocalypse", for example, follows this pattern exactly. The melodies only really appear in the symphony strings, the keyboard/piano sections, and in the stirring vocals of ex-Borknagar bassist Simen [why is he not the lead singer?] or, as he calls himself in this band, ICS Vortex. His part from 2:15 to 2:55 is the best [most moving] segment of this album, and I almost always leave the listening of it singing along with him. I'm not joking, he's a fantastic singer. Why is he wasting his time in Dimmu? Why is he not fronting his own band? Any melodies that are sent through the guitars are doubled or tripled through other instrumental elements, as if Dimmu is simply afraid of depending only on guitar playing. The material that Galder was allowed to influence [I'm guessing "Lepers Among Us" was the primary one, as it sounds exactly like Old Man's Child] deviates from this formula a little and allows the six-strings a little more openness, flexibility, and breathing room. Even so, the riff work is simply derivative and sounds clichéd or dated, as if taken from ten or fifteen years ago - it is busy referencing older thrash bands while Dimmu is supposedly echoing/sponsoring the "advancement" of this genre.

Odd.

Yet this is just another contradiction within the heart of this band. On the surface they are commercially avant-garde, or satin-smooth "progressive" [very few people in metal even really understand what that word means], while beneath, inside the driving engine of their sound, pulses the archaic heart of a lumbering mid-'80s behemoth, maybe something even taken from the Bay Area. Metallica, Exodus? Why not?

I will say this for them: they can write hooks, and they are very skilled when it comes to creating catchy melodies, both the main structural melodies and then the little asides and additions, petty addendums, that strengthen song segments and give them some color or character. It also helps that most of their melodies seem to be copied from other places, other bands, other times, other musicians. Obviously, like any other "dominant" entity, they devour and absorb what they can use, reject what they can not.

Aside:

Galder is busy as a bee [and has been this busy for the last few years] writing the exact same song over and over. I wonder sometimes if…one day it will be discovered that since we are all made up of particles, and at the subatomic level particles often act like waves, we have in fact certain low-level genetic cell "codes" or series of frequencies that determine our "uniqueness". And then…the idea that all of us are, in some way, just a variation on simple melodies, based on these frequencies. If so, I wonder what happens when a musician, by an accident or through experimentation, learns how to play his own flesh-melody, the micro-melody that is encoded within him. Will he ever be able to forget it? Will it determine everything he plays from that moment on? Are all musicians just searching for their own particular melody, to "play their own identity", as it were? What happens when you discover your own melody, as a musician, and it not only bores you, but it bores other people as well?

What does that mean? I'm afraid that Galder's melody bores me, and I wonder if that means he will bore me too, if we ever meet. I'm pretty sure I would bore him.

You know how certain bands just have the ability to write interesting, original, meaningful melodies, things that are both catchy and evocative, hook-laden and obscure? Think: Burzum, Dissection, Darkthrone, Abigor. Melodies that seem to perfectly encapsulate everything the band wants to say, everything the writer wishes the audience to feel? Melodies that effortlessly take the listener to a different place, and submerge him or her beneath the pressing weight of a novel sensibility, inside something both alien and familiar?

Dimmu Borgir are not one of those bands.

They have just as much technical skill, I'm sure, as any of these other bands. They have, probably, twice as much songwriting ability - if such things could be measured. They are great songwriters, and the tracks here are masterpieces of metal structural writing. Yet…the true melodic gift, that unique essence of inventive/creative energy and the overwhelming feeling of transcendence it produces, or of barriers between worlds being broken though, just never appears in their music. It might be that they are afraid of putting too much of themselves into their music [of taking chances], or they just approach composition in a different way, seeing it as an abstract "craft" to be perfected and expanded instead of a means toward catharsis, or an essential expression. Whatever the reason, their material has just always left me cold. It moves, it breathes, it makes connections, it entertains, it can move your body, rouse your enthusiasm, etc. but when it leaves the stereo there isn't a feeling of absence, there is never a feeling that one has witnessed something important. Dimmu's melodies bleed from the mind easily, they are retained only with an awkward effort, with constant maintenance. I have listened to all of their albums many, many times over the years, and yet at this late date I still have a great deal of trouble remembering more than a few of their melodies. It's easier for me to remember their songwriting tricks, the structural twists and turns or clever little effects, than it is for me to recall the melodies draped over them.

In fact all of Dimmu's songs, when seen individually, one at a time, seem like variations on an essentially uncomplicated theme. When you move out a little and look at each album progressively you can see that they exist mainly as [almost random] groupings of similar songs, and the tracks aren't really linked together by some concrete standard of their approach to melodic expressiveness at that particular point in the band's career. They have always just said, through their melodies, the exact same things. In fact the identity of each song seems to appear in these different variations on the one theme, instead of some change of theme within the song. In other words: the ways in which they are similar are far more evident than the ways in which they differ. Some would just say that means Dimmu have always had a strong "vision" for their music, that they knew exactly what they wanted to say. That's one way of looking at it. Still, all that really changes through Dimmu Borgir's history is the nature of the production their albums get and the depth and breadth of the sound world they can summon, given more and more money. They fundamentally keep writing the same album - I guess it's the soundtrack to their imaginary world. That's what I think it is...it's the sound picture of a world they are trying to bring into being. They keep getting closer, and yet...

Speaking of soundtracks, "Unorthodox Manifesto" opens with a nice aural apocalypse-landscape, even if it is [to be truthful] overtly simple and not composed of that many different samples or elements. It could have been "thicker", more varied, filled with more clashing pieces and parts. The sound of marching boots fills the listening space, and joins in with automatic gunfire, sirens, some sort of distant artillery or kick drum hits, the drone of prop planes overhead, and then monotone washed-out male and female chants of "Hail Satan!", backlit and supported by twitching of rousing violins and what might be muffled brass. The images that this sort of thing sponsors should be obvious, and Dimmu are not the first group to combine the aesthetics/style/iconography of Nazi Germany with Satanism. Heil Lucifer? This audio tribute to Cold Meat Industry's monochrome visuals leads into the nine minute epic effortlessly, and the song proper begins with the usual rapid crunching guitar thrusts and parries, the standard ritual percussion backing thunder and later descent of a tom fill to triggered snare chain gun blasting, and Shagrath eases his eager tongue into the song like a geriatric slipping into a lukewarm bath. The ceremony begins again, and again…

Again and again...

One positive thing that I have noticed on this album is the fact that in many cases they have slowed down the pace of their material in order to let the songs expand and adjust to the added sound weight the symphony brings them. Instead of just building blasting segments that happen to have the idle hand of symphonic swells tapping on their shoulders, these songs take advantage of blending the classical instruments in with Dimmu's regular style to create an effective symbiosis, a new hybrid. It works very well for them. The "traditional" core band plays off the cues [yes, meant as in a soundtrack] from the symphony, and vice versa. So in one sense at least you could say this group now has 52 members. Larger than life, eh? Or, rather, so large that life is exploded outward and their ideal world takes its place. For bands like Dimmu Borgir, that's what metal is all about. Where will they go in the future? I think it's a safe bet to say: bigger, if not better.

You've heard this band, you know if you want this album, you know what to do...