Neo-Romanticism or silliness incarnate?: Dimmu Borgir and Abigor

Old days are passing into younger days. In the late 1990s, with the millennium on the horizon, black metal was established enough, and ubiquitous enough, to have a ‘typical’ version of itself. Variations abound. But by this time there was now such a thing as a ‘standard’ black metal riff, usually made up of minor chords, open strings, tremolo strummed. But like any form of art that reaches this stage in its evolution, some variants are decidedly shitter than others. Raw black metal’s greatest crime in the mid-1990s was to be boring. But the symphonic leaning that developed around the same time was guilty of a far graver sin. It became black metal’s answer to pop music, and it invoked disgust and revulsion as a result.

For a lot of metal fans, Dimmu Borgir are synonymous with shit. And it is true that from 2000 onwards they played up to the overblown, corpse-paint-cabaret, self-parody vibe with ever increasing gusto. But there is worth in their earlier works. Their debut, 1995’s ‘For all Tid’, was a low-fi offering that still managed to drip with charming melodrama and sorrow. It also began their proud tradition of shoving three unrelated words together to name their albums. Follow-up ‘Stormblast’ was more focused and mature, but lacked in creativity. Then in 1998 ‘Enthrone Darkness Triumphant’ dropped. For whatever sins this release has in the twinkly, camp department it makes up for in sheer charisma.

This is a focused unified release that does nothing more than be very good at poppy, melodic black metal laced with rich keyboards. It does not offer a reinvention of the wheel, nor does it pretend to new levels of northern obscurity. The production is fatter than previous releases. The guitar tone would be at home on a Swedish death metal album, and the flatness that made ‘Stormblast’ so boring has been filled out with more dynamics in the rhythm section and a more creative keyboard player (one who does not rip their ideas from prog rock and video games). The drums are frantic but exist to serve transitions from one passage to the next, never overstepping their bounds for music that already boasts its fair share of instrumentation.

Vocals are of the mid-range black metal distortion variety, but each lyric is perfectly audible. The riffs themselves would be more at home on a melodic death metal album. Gone is the ethereal tremolo strumming, in are power chords and palm-muting. Keyboards are put front and centre in as a lead instrument, offering up arpeggios, harmonies, and melodies, as well as filling out the sound with deep synth strings. When looking at EDT in the light of follow up releases it comes across as a work of restraint compared to the excessive ear candy that Dimmu Borgir would later indulge in. But love them or loath them, Dimmu Borgir did exactly what they set out to do on this release, and good music was the result, even if it left many furious.

A more authentic approach to busy symphonic black metal can be found in Austria, and a band called Abigor. In the 1990s Abigor released a string of frantic black metal albums so burdened with ideas that they seemed to fall over themselves to get the riffs out. Silenius of Summoning fame contributed vocals to these early works, and although his voice can only be described as standard black metal distortion, it has an unmistakable croak to it that immediately betrays his presence. 1998’s ‘Supreme Immortal Art’ was their fourth LP and pretty much sounds as typical as any Abigor album of that period.

So what is a typical Abigor album I hear you ask. Well, imagine Emperor’s ‘Anthems to Welkin at Dusk’ but without the patience to stick to one riff, theme, or idea for more than thirty seconds and you will come pretty close to approximating the sound on ‘Supreme Immortal Art’. I really struggle with Abigor. The musicianship is spot on. Tremolo riffs abound. Keyboards ooze atmosphere. Silenius’ vocals drip with reverb. A rhythm section able to switch from breakneck blast-beats to a marching tempo seamlessly. On paper it all sounds great. In reality they never stick to one idea long enough to embed it in my mind, so it all washes over me without leaving any lasting impact at all.

Busy music in itself is not how this album falls down however, it is structure and focus that is wanting. There are moments where the music lets up, and we are treated to passages that could be described as melodic industrial. But they are scant, and not noteworthy enough to save this album from being a frustrating collection of half-finished ideas. This style can work. Abigor’s previous offering, 1996’s ‘Opus IV’, pretty much nailed it. It was frantic certainly, but it had the patience to offset this with builds, tension, contrast, and yes, structure. On SIA all this is missing. And it simply washes over me, all but forgotten.

So, to the horror of the purists, my pick of the week is Dimmu Borgir’s ‘Enthrone Darkness Triumphant’. Don’t get me wrong, this artist would never release a worthwhile album again, although ‘Death Cult Armageddon’ has its moments in an excessively ridiculous way. But on EDT they managed to walk the line of silly, poppy black metal bolstered up with enough imaginative riffcraft and musicianship to get away with it. Abigor is certainly the more sober and mature approach to symphonic black metal, and their works previous to ‘Supreme Immortal Art’ all have their moments, but here their crime is one of boredom. At least the worst excesses of Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir invoke a reaction in people, even if it is extremely negative. But for a style so frantic, so laced with ideas, composition, and instrumentation, to inspire boredom in the listener is really quite remarkable.

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