Dimmu Borgir’s last album, 2018’s Eonian, their first new music in eight years, was great. But it wasn’t really a Dimmu Borgir record. And while heavy metal is full of bands who ride very close to the band that inspired them the most, it has in truth always been most clearly defined and sustained by those bands who can’t be mimicked accurately.
Which is why it really needs the “proper” Dimmu back and doing what made them them.
Heavy metal has, and probably always will, depended on its individuals, its iconoclasts and its brilliant lunatics. For all the legions of thrash bands, metalheads have never stopped screaming “SLAY-ER! SLAY-ER!” and skipping past their imitators whenever they hear THUD-THUD-THUD announce ‘Raining Blood‘. For all the thousands of duelling leads and Boss HM2 pedals that littered the late noughties, you’d struggle to find too many people suggesting any of those bands really filled the void At The Gates left in our subculture before they came back for good. (And I’m still not convinced Gary Barlow didn’t write that song for them.) And however many ridiculous spandex-and-denim warriors teach themselves to sing stupidly high, Iron Maiden have and will never have a true rival at what they do.
When those bands are gone with no chance of return, metal will be poorer for it, as they can never be replaced – only succeeded. And while there have been many similarly unique bands who have emerged since (and continue to do so, much signifying what a superb creative place the genre is in right now) there have never been so many that we can afford to lose a single one unnecessarily.
Dimmu Borgir are one such band.
Whatever the more underground-exclusive end of black metal’s fandom have tried to insist, the truth is that there has and probably will never be anyone quite like them, however many bands try (and Christ, have too many tried…).
I’ve never made any effort to hide how much I bloody love Dimmu Borgir. They’re absolutely up there with the bands who get me to lose my shit the quickest. Some of my favourite songs in the world are theirs.
But there is also no way around what a tough time the last decade has been if you hold that opinion.
While some may find this more of a barrier, I can firmly look past the significant drop in the quality of the live shows that came almost immediately they went from being a band to being Shagrath, Silenoz and Galder with a rotating cast of live musicians. Dimmu Borgir were never Blind Guardian, who, for all their symphonic bombast, had such a firm underpinning as a guitar band that they could translate the recorded output into a live show that captured what they do. Live Dimmu Borgir could be good, but it was a hugely different beast to the one that existed on record – and the moment the inimitable ICS Vortex left, that beast was dead, and Dimmu had to reinvent themselves to succeed as a live metal band – something they have simply not yet managed.
(Incidentally, you can now went off to the absolutely superb Borknagar, who firmly count as one of those unique, idiosyncratic genius acts I spoke of above.)
Getting back to the Demon Burger, however, the real problem has been that area where they were previously absolutely stonkingly, stupidly brilliant, and also fabulously consistent. The problem has been that, as the decade dawned, they felt like a band at a fork in the road. And then they stood there for 8 years without making a choice – and then chose the route that led into much more crowded lanes.
Abrahadabra was a good record, but it was very much at the edge of Dimmu Borgir’s defining characteristics. The increased bombast and melody was all ace, but that came at the expense of some of the thunderous, dangly-bits-gripping fury they’ve previously managed to base their sound in. That said, in amongst the more melodic hook songs like ‘Gateways‘, that fury was still there (in ‘Born Treacherous‘, ‘Chess With The Abyss‘, and ‘The Demiurge Molecule‘, in particular), as was that idiosyncratic weirdness that really separated Dimmu Borgir out from their peers from the outset.
Listen back to their first truly great record, Stormblåst (which, even back in 1996 sounded about as weird as an edition of Match Of The Day hosted by Matt Hancock, scripted by a pre-Hollywood Simon Pegg, and where the football highlights have been replaced by cat TikToks played at 3 times the normal speed). Then listen to Abrahadabra. Sure, there’s a huge amount of change between the two, but it’s doubtful you would fail to spot an essence of weirdness that links the two.
Roll the clock forward to 2018, and listen to Eonian, and that’s completely vanished, as is the fury they still managed to incorporate in their last outing. In fact, if anything, it sounds more like Epica doing a black metal record. Sure, there’s none of Mark Jansen’s obvious death metal or prog influence, but if you imagine he went on a binge of Aleister Crowley and Old Man’s Child, had a massive row with Simone Simons, and got a big budget boost, Eonian sounds pretty close to what might happen next.
And as much as that sounds fun as hell, and I had a lot of enjoyment listening to Eonian, it simply doesn’t scratch that Dimmu Borgir itch. When I want Dimmu, I don’t go for the Epicu Borgir record, I go for something they released from Stormblåst to Abrahadabra – a run that, while each entry is very different, is all scratching the same area, and is shockingly consistent in its quality. Which actually helps.
If I want the ultra-weird stuff, Stormblåst is the answer; if I want goth, it’s Spiritual Black Dimensions; if I want a bit more black metal thunder, it’s Enthrone Darkness Triumphant; if I want my face blasted off, it’s In Sorte Diaboli; if I want them to bring the camp more, it’s Abrahadabra; if I want everything above, it’s Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia; and when I want all just fucking epic, it’s Death Cult Armageddon. There’s a Dimmu Borgir for whatever my mood.
But when I want Dimmu Borgir, it’s never, ever Eonian. That comes back out when I want something completely different, and am feeling just that bit more frivolous – and, to be frank, when I’m generally happier and want music that reflects that. If I’m anywhere other than the mode where I’d happily listen to power metal for two hours, I’m not going anywhere near Eonian, as it’s just not got the weird, jagged Dimmu edge.
More problematically than whether or not it fits my mood, what it really lacks are the trademarks that mark the band out. Absent are those complete changes of pace coming without warning.
Dimmu’s classic trick is to gallop in rapid strings, tremolo sheet-metal guitar riffs and double bass drum kicks, then suddenly fall away into yawning chasms of atonal or modal lead guitar lines, sustained orchestral chords, and either a chant from Shagrath, or clean vocal from ICS Vortex (on those records he’s around for – the guest vocalists do the same role on Abrahadabra). That’s not there. Nearly 20 years on, that sudden deceleration in ‘Kings Of The Carnival Creation‘ still surprises me every time; Eonian lost the ability to surprise me within a few days. Structurally, it’s much more predictable – and while that meant I found it probably their easiest album to get into, it doesn’t feel like them.
Similarly, lashings of choirs everywhere is simply not them. While ‘Interdimensional Summit‘ feels the size of a small moon/space station because of this technique, at times, the guitars are reduced down to purely harmonic instrument, and Dimmu Borgir’s riffage is one of their most criminally underrated aspects. Sure, ‘Progenies Of The Great Apocalypse‘ is heavily dominated by its orchestration, but it’s still driven as much by the chugging canter of the riffs as it is by its melody or Nick Barker’s killer drumming. But Eonian buries them in choirs. This is not a criticism – on the contrary, it’s why it sounds incredibly massive, which is great – it’s also something another band could do.
Death Cult Armageddon spawned a thousand imitators almost overnight (and fuck was that a boring few years for black metal…) but none of those bands ever really got it – or if they did, they lacked the skill to execute it. Carach Angren’s spooky brand is its own thing but even during the time they spent trying to establish their own sound, they never came close to capturing Dimmu Borgir. Abigail Williams were… I don’t know what the hell they were, really, but they certainly weren’t the Norwegians. And much as The Demonstealer makes no bones or apologies (and nor should he) about how much he loves Dimmu, Demonic Resurrection are so good in part because his guitar style is too distinctive to ever allow the two bands to be appealing to the same bit of my brain (although, perhaps because DR so clearly love power metal, they do light up the same bit of my cerebral cortex that Eonian does).
Demonic Resurrection. They’re not good because they’re like Dimmu Borgir, they’re very good because they’re themselves
When my brain wants Dimmu, only Dimmu will do. Not Epicu Borgir. Not the bands who they inspired. And if someone tries to tell me Cradle Of Filth are even vaguely the same, I’m going to get them to ask Dani Filth dumb questions after he’s got so drunk on cider he can’t remember the name of his own band.
Silenoz said recently that they are working on more guitar-orientated stuff for the next album, and holy fuck was I pleased to hear that, and holy shit do I want them to follow through on that. Because as much as I love the overblown theatricality, I don’t want them to lose sight of who they are.
If you become more like the crowd, you become harder to stand out in it – even if you’re wearing giant white fake fur coats and corpsepaint.
Heavy metal simply doesn’t need bands that blend in. It needs bands who stand out.
Bands like Dimmu Borgir at their fucking brilliant best.