Nuclear Blast, 1999
I am coming to this album a little late perhaps - maybe that's a good thing in that I can write this review without being influenced by all the hype that surrounded the release or all the 'controversy' that follows this band when it puts out new material.
I think I'll start by saying that I haven't really ever been impressed by Dimmu Borgir - for whatever reason. To me their albums haven't lived up to their reputation as 'new Black metal' pioneers - or whatever the media is painting them as this week. If you take an honest slow look at their work so far you won't see anything particularly groundbreaking or original. In retrospect it might seem this way, but only when you forget the other 100 bands that released similar material at the same time and have since fallen out of the limelight. Dimmu Borgir have staying power because they have the 'push' of Nuclear Blast behind them now. Their imagery, stage presence, and lyrics are never anything more than contrived and calculated, and their music is a pale reflection of their image. It holds very little meaning for me - but then again I am very biased when it comes to black metal, so I'll try to present this review with an objective stance.
I think that if you forget for a second the history of the band or all of the extramusical information that is thrown at you concerning this album if you are in any way involved in the underground, you might just be able to appreciate this music on its own terms. The key, I believe, is to divorce this music from your understanding of black metal - because this is not black metal, really, in any way. It is something else, something new.
Dimmu Borgir paint involving soundscapes through the use of melodic keyboard passages, and those keyboard parts are what define the songs and carry them along. What really stands out are the vocal passages contributed by Simon of Borknagar - after a few listens I just look forward to those moments when I spin this thing. Unfortunately you can't base an entire album around two minutes of backing vocals. The guitars really only serve to echo the keyboards or provide a heavier layer of sound underneath - very rarely does the guitar music serve to carry the main themes of the song or offer anything new to the ear. Even when the high-register keyboards drop out and Dimmu throw you a little slice of crunching rhythm guitar work, it doesn't have anything astoundingly original in it to wake you up from your treble-induced stupor. In fact you could probably set the EQ on your stereo to completely filter out the guitar parts and you wouldn't miss that much. Having said that, there are some solos in here that break up the monotony somewhat...but they aren't anything spectacular, and in fact they really sound like synth loops more than anything else. I think that on this entire album there are maybe two guitar melodies that are memorable or moving. What Dimmu really needs is a new understanding of rhythm, and they need more contrast between the sound of the guitars and the overwhelming presence of the keyboards.
Of course this is a Tagtgren-produced work, so everything is set to achieve some sort of perfect 'balance' in the mix, and none of the instruments really stand out - never riding above the wash of the synths. It's all blended together so well it really just sounds like elevator music - the drums especially...they could have been done with an Alesis and it would have sounded the same.
What is the purpose of writing music like this? The notion of trying to gain mass appeal within the extreme metal scene is absolutely absurd. Even if every single black metal fan in the world bought this album Dimmu would not get enough in their royalty checks to justify their move to become 'more accessible'. They would just be giving all their money, of course, to Nuclear Blast. I wonder how much pressure their label put on them to produce this kind of music. If Dimmu is really writing this stuff because they feel that it moves them and is important...well, I just don't know what to say. It is difficult for me to imagine that kind of situation, and even more difficult for me to feel empathy for musicians who would think that way.
Alright...forget objectivity, I just don't like this album. Sorry, Dimmu. In my eyes what you need is to drop the keyboards, downtune the guitars, get a new drummer, and take the immense advance Nuclear Blast will give you for the production of your next album, drink it all up with Borknagar, and record the next album in a basement with a four-track and two microphones. Now that's black metal!