The Norwegian black-metal band Dimmu Borgir released its first new studio album in four years, In Sorte Diaboli, on Tuesday, but you might not have guessed as much from the first hour of the set the band played at the Nokia Theatre Times Square on Thursday night. The new disc, a very strong one, is -- of all unfashionable things -- a concept album, a song cycle that loosely tells the tale of a priest who breaks with the church and pursues a darker path.
Given that this performance took place in the very heart of New York City's theater district, I honestly expected the band to come out and play it complete, perhaps with selected hits from previous releases before and after. Instead, what we got was a fast-paced set of the band's greatest hits, starting with its best song so far, "Progenies of the Great Apocalypse" (from its 2003 disc, Death Cult Armageddon), and touching on most of its previous releases.
The kind of black metal that's currently in vogue among trucker-cap hipsters is the ultra lo-fi isolationist strain currently offered by the likes of Xasthur and Nachtmystium: groups and one-man projects that deliberately set out to emulate the weedy sound of black-metal pioneers like Bathory, early Mayhem and Burzum, who literally couldn't muster enough technique or cash to sound any better. Dimmu Borgir, inspired by the latter-day efforts of Norwegian forebear Emperor, goes for the opposite extreme. It revels in bombast, both lyrical and musical: "Progenies of the Great Apocalypse" is as bombastic as it gets, all thundering power chords accompanied by a full orchestra with French horn swoops worthy of Richard Strauss. The first single from the new album, "The Serpentine Offering," sticks rather close to that formula; it's somehow fitting that the video is shot in widescreen format:
Dimmu Borgir's members can all play their instruments extremely well; the group's aesthetic aims for Wagner, and manages something like Danny Elfman. Mixing elements of darkwave electronica and industrial music into the mix alongside red-blooded thrash, this band paints its diabolical tapestries on massive canvases. Onanistic extended guitar solos are kept to a minimum; majesty and brutality are paramount.
What had ultimately made Death Cult Armageddon start to finish Dimmu Borgir's best album was the chemistry that had developed between the founding members and their recently acquired collaborators. Dimmu Borgir was originally the product of two young men, vocalist Shagrath (whose grotesque croak sometimes suggests a demented Popeye) and guitarist-composer Silenoz. As the initial lineup dispersed, the founders subsequently surrounded themselves -- à la the New York Yankees -- with top free agents and carefully selected draft picks. Guitarist Galder, architect of the ornate one-man band Old Man's Child, and keyboardist Mustis considerably broadened the band's sonic signature, while bassist-singer I.C.S. Vortex, drafted from the proggy Borknagar, offered heroic "clean" vocals as a counterpoint to Shagrath's demented screech. Completing the band was drummer Nick Barker, an imposing powerhouse drafted from another second-generation black-metal band, Cradle of Filth.
Barker was eventually ejected, à la Yankees pitcher David Wells. His replacement on In Sorte Diaboli was Mayhem drummer Hellhammer, an unquestionably phenomenal player whose obvious prowess could at times be obscured by his reliance on triggering: achieving inhuman feats through the electronic equivalent of steroid doping. That old urge to drive things over the top...
But when you're watching someone like Mark McGuire or Barry Bonds belt balls over the fence all night long, you tend to forget about artificial enhancements and just go with the ride. That's the way it felt Thursday night, as Hellhammer provided ridiculously thrilling blasts throughout Dimmu Borgir's show. His succinct solo, between two In Sorte Diaboli tracks ("The Serpentine Offering" and "The Chosen Legacy"), was like a tornado caught in a bottle. And his cymbal work, untouched by triggers, is something special.
Among black-metal purists, Dimmu Borgir inspires some of the most colorful scorn to be found on the Internet. ("Dummy Burger" and "Drama Burger" are commonly found epithets.) But the truth of the matter is that on a good night, this is one of the best metal bands in the business. And of the five Dimmu Borgir shows I've caught since 2001, this one rated near the top.
Setlist: Intro / Progenies of the Great Apocalypse / Vredesbyrd / Cataclysm Children / Kings of the Carnival Creation / Sorgens Kammer del II / Indoctrination / A Succubus in Rapture / The Serpentine Offering / drum solo / The Chosen Legacy / The Insight and the Catharsis / Spellbound (by the Devil) / Mourning Palace / Outro: The Fallen Arises
The Conet Project (Irdial)
Neurosis - Given to the Rising (Neurot, due May 22)
Mayhem - De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (Century Black); Grand Declaration of War (Necropolis); Chimera and Ordo ad Chaos (Season of Mist)