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“Abrahadabra” sees Dimmu Borgir, never the most gifted band to begin with, in the latter stages of creative decay. After acrimoniously splitting with keyboardist Øyvind Sven Mustaparta (Mustis) and bass guitarist/clean vocalist Simen Hestnaes (ICS Vortex) the band reformulated itself as a trio. Where its post-“Spiritual Black Dimensions” output has been uneven at best this new record has the core trio charting new lows. It is the most turgid and belabored of all its Nuclear Blast Records releases available to date. In what was a long way coming Dimmu Borgir repositioned itself as a heavily orchestrated symphonic metal band, even though they kept up the black metal charade for the sake of its established brand name. “Abrahadabra” is the high-budget, populist equivalent of its unforgivingly slapdash 1994 debut “For All Tid”. Almost two decades after forming Dimmu Borgir is at the same spot as they were when they formed.

dimmu_16The addition of choral parts, along with an even stronger reliance on the orchestra, slightly longer song lengths, and minimal keyboard enhancements give the illusion that these songs are complex. Upon closer inspection these are still the same dull songs Dimmu Borgir has always written. It are the same directionless, trudging midtempo tracks that they have been peddling since “For All Tid”. As with its often forgotten past all these cuts are full of chugging, power chords and various, admittedly wellplaced, vocal – or orchestral breaks, but nothing beyond that. While the trio’s standing, visibility and production values have increased the songwriting has stagnated, if not outright regressed in its most crucial parts. Dimmu Borgir has sunken to new creative lows with “Abrahadabra”. For all the bells and whistles it certainly is one vapid, turgid album. The record is loaded to the brim with guest singers, and whenever one of these guests appear they only expose further how terrible songwriters the main trio are. Agnete Kjølsrud and Kristoffer Rygg are sorely wasted on what “Abrahadabra” amounts to. A good 16 years after “For All Tid” and despite the increase in overall skill, resources, and visibility the band is still at the same spot creatively as they were when it started…

Nothing about the record sounds remotely threatening, or morbid in either its songwriting choices or the atmosphere the band aims to convey. It mostly sounds very expensive, and a bit unsure of itself. This uncertainty mostly comes from the band throwing together disparate elements from its recent past (2001 and onward) in a desperate bid to sound coherent. Thankfully there are no more experiments with industrial and electronic music, so at least they learned something. The first record without long-time keyboardist Øyvind Sven Mustaparta (Mustis) and bass guitarist/clean vocalist Simen Hestnaes (ICS Vortex) is a simplified version of “Death Cult Armageddon”, itself a watered down version of “Enthrone Darkness Triumphant”, which in itself was a vanilla edition of various popular metal styles, with a speed boost as heard last on the incoherent and rightly maligned “Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia”. At least it subtly breaks from tradition by being only the second album (and the first on Nuclear Blast Records) so far to not have a gimmicky three-word title.

A good portion of the lyrics are meaningful this time around as that they deal with the acrimonious, much publicized split of its two former members, and the rebuilding of the brand during the aftermath. Almost half of the songs are dedicated to the subject (‘Chess With the Abyss’, ‘Dimu Borgir’, ‘Ritualist’, ‘Renewal’ and to a lesser degree ‘The Demiurge Molecule’). The lyrics to ‘Born Treacherous’ seem to at least mildly suggest that the trio is content to be lost in its own little fantasy world, detached from reality. ‘Dimmu Borgir’, the band’s ideological vessel in the face of recent tribulations, even sounds strangely uplifting and life-affirming – which is about the worst thing that could happen to any self-respecting metal band (power metal excepted), let alone one which goes out its way to sell itself as black metal, of all things. No doubt the production work is excellent, but it is completely and utterly wasted on a band of this ilk. Imagine what Bal-Sagoth could pull off with this type of leverage and resources at its disposal.

dimmu_borgir_image_band_hands_look_12311_1920x1080‘The Demiurge Molecule’ is a much slower cut, thus playing up more to the band’s limited skill set, and one of the few highlights of the album. The lower tempo recalls the band’s earlier pre-Nuclear Blast material, and it is probably the only cut worth remembering. That the band is at the exact same place as songwriters as they were when they formed in 1993 is a telling fact. ‘A Jewel Traced Through Coal’ is a fast song that recalls the stronger written cuts of the “Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia” era. At its most potent and inspired this songs here aren’t able to hold a candle to Emperor’s or Limbonic Art’s prime era material. The keyboards are thankfully kept to a bare minimum, merely functioning as an atmospheric enhancement in the background in most of these songs. If there is one upside to the schism within the band’s ranks this must be it. Shagrath is a better keyboardist than he ever was a singer, guitarist or drummer. The band has become so reliant on the backing of the orchestra that the moment they lose its services the carefully constructed façade (and much of its repertoire) comes crumbling down. Less is more, but in Dimmu Borgir’s case they need more to hide how less is actually going on in these songs. For a band that was once considered an innovator in its niche they have little to show for it after all these years.

The guitar leads/solos, appearing only in two instances, aren’t played by any of the core trio as one would reasonably expect given the acrimonious split that led to the conception of the album, but by producer Andy Sneap. We are indeed a far way from the bygone times when Australian transplant Jamie Stinson (Astennu) pushed the band to the very limits of its abilities, and into more muscular territory in his lamentably short tenure. The bass guitar is audible, but it hardly does anything worthwhile. A lot can be said about Simen Hestnaes, but at least he would craft funky bass licks if the material was up to the required standard. “Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia”, an album mired by its horrid experimentation with industrial, at least was redeemed by its throbbing bass lines and relentless drumming. Speaking of which, Polish musician Dariusz Brzozowski (Daray), most famous for his run with stalwarts Vader, is another in a long line of underutilized drummers, but he is given nothing worthwhile to work with. Along with the bass guitar he is demoted to merely interchangeable studio musician status.

While the band’s output over the years has been pitiful at best, and downright terrible at worst – this supposed comeback album has failure, exhaustion and desperation written all over it. The very same critical flaws that (for some hitherto unexplained reason) make the band’s pre-“Enthrone Darkness Triumphant” material loved appear here only magnified to the point of annoyance and excess. From the endless chugging and needless repetition, the atmospheric breaks to the poorly stitched together songs with little to no attention paid to coherence or flow. Nigh on two decades after its lamentable debut “For All Tid” there has been no evolution to speak of, or worth noting with Dimmu Borgir. Despite the expensive high-end production values, the numerous guest vocalists and ornate stage outfits the undynamic trio of Shagrath, Silenoz and Galder haven’t evolved as musicians in the slightest.

The artwork by Jeremy Luetke is stylistically nearly identical to that of “Death Cult Armageddon”, but it is as inconsequential as everything with this unit. The orchestra, as was the case with “Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia” and “Death Cult Armageddon” before it, does all the heavy lifting for the band in terms of arrangements and moods – while the trio is content to just chug along. Regardless of its increase in production budget, resources and visibility on the market the band’s lack of growth as songwriters here spells certain demise. “Abrahadabra”, regardless of its big-budget production and extensive marketing campaign, has Dimmu Borgir at its lowest.

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After an interpersonal meltdown led Fear Factory to fracture in two opposing factions, each carried on in their respective projects. Olde Wolbers, and Herrera regrouped with Bell enrolling Canadian bass guitarist Byron Stroud to continue under the Fear Factory brand name. Dino Cazares meanwhile put together Divine Heresy, a melodic metalcore band with death metal alumni Tim Yeung (Decrepit Birth, Hate Eternal, Aurora Borealis) on drums and journeyman bass guitarist Joe Payne plus an interchangeable frontman. In the interim Fear Factory had inked a new record deal with Liquid 8 Records, which proved to be just as damaging and toxic as the original recording contract and label imprint they finally sought to get away from. “Archetype” was the first of two Cazares-less Fear Factory albums, and it is as good as could be reasonably expected given the difficult and suboptimal situation from which it was conceived.

Fear Factory_02_großChristian Olde Wolbers moved to the guitar slot vacated by the removal of Dino Cazares. Byron Stroud took Olde Wolbers’ place as bass guitarist. On the whole it is a decent approximation of the “Demanufacture” sound, but fails to recapture the same spirit and conviction that album held. “Archetype” sounds like an imitation rather than a continuation. Freed from the constraints of its heavy-handed sciencefiction concept “Archetype” is far more direct, personal and confrontational in its subject matter. The spirit of “Soul Of A New Machine” looms over “Archetype” in the sense that it is far more loose than its carefully constructed predecessors, but that freedom comes at a price. The record notably loses steam in its second half, and most of its functionally impressive first half can’t hold a candle to the band’s best material of the Roadrunner Records days. That it was the one but last to feature the most identifiable rhythm section of Christian Olde Wolbers (guitars) and Raymond Herrera (drums) speaks volumes of how far the band had fallen to the wayside in order to remain marketable and musically relevant.

Most of the lyrics are less sciencefiction oriented and far more personal. Specifically, the band’s soured relationship with its former contractor Roadrunner Records is subject of several songs (‘Slave Labor’, ‘Corporate Cloning’, ‘Bite the Hand That Bleeds’), as is the fall-out from the highly publicized and acrimonious split with Dino Cazares (‘Cyber Waste’, ‘Archetype’). Other recurring themes are condemnations of religion, war and corporatism. It doesn’t help that “Archetype” is plagued by an inherent sense of duality. On the one hand it wants to stay in favor with the crowds that latched onto it post-“Soul Of A New Machine” yet its increased density and overall level of aggression at least suggests that the band intends to explore harsher realms again. The lack of a unifying vision allows Bell and company to explore any subject they wish, but it is detrimental to the overall pacing. Past Fear Factory records worked around a conceptual template, and each of the cuts was written with a predetermined objective in mind. “Archetype” has no such template, and this is particularly notable in its second half as it is littered with a number of aimless groove numbers that effectively dampen the experience.

Olde Wolbers does a commendable job in imitating Cazares’ rhythm-only staccato, and Herrera does the best with what he is given. The entire second half of the album, and some of the gentler moments expose an important difference. Instead of being rooted in forms of extreme metal, they instead sound like amped up alternative rock chords. When the band then chooses to cover the Nirvana track ‘School’ (from its often-ignored “Bleach” debut record) it is rather telling as to where Olde Wolbers’ true interests lie next to his established love for all things hiphop. Especially the soft bookends of the title track, ‘Default Judgment’ or the entirety of the power ballad ‘Bite the Hand That Bleeds’ should make this abundantly clear. Herrera’s drum patterns are mechanical as they always were, but they are far less complicated compared to past works and consist of straight up pop/rock beats elsewhere on the album. The keyboards and studio effects by John Bechdel fit the songs well, but don’t come close to matching Fulber’s best work. The artwork by Torsten Gebhardt fits the spirit of the record, but it hardly matches up to the high standards set by Dave McKean in the band’s classic trio of conceptual records.

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As per tradition the band opted to track the album at a different facility than before. For “Archetype” Fear Factory recorded at Rumbo Recorders in Lagona Park, California with Ken Marshall producing. After the pristinely produced Cazares efforts “Archetype” sounds, for the lack of a better term, honest and crunchy. Past records tended to be on the overproduced end of the spectrum, and if there’s one thing to say about “Archetype” it is that it’s honest about its intentions. Gone is the overproduction, gone is the gloss – the record sounds closer to an actual thrash/groove metal record than the band had sounded in a long time. By abandoning its sciencefiction narrative (at least temporarily) it lit a fire under the remaining trio of Bell, Olde Wolbers and Herrera to prove that they were still relevant to the genre, and its fractured fanbase after the Cazares debacle. In order to give the album the proper market push promotional music videos were shot for ‘Cyber Waste’, ‘Archetype’ and ‘Bite the Hand That Bleeds’. Alas its new label partner Liquid 8 Records would sabotage the band’s reformation just a year later. That the label folded shortly after its cooperation with the band ceased seems only just in hindsight.

“Archetype” doesn’t so much revitalize the band’s sound as it cements that the trio can hold its own even with its central songwriting partner exiled. After the cinematic exercise that was “Obsolete” and the poppy vapidness of “Digimortal”, “Archetype” was a much needed reality check that had the band going back to basics. Competently written and produced, “Archetype” formed a workable template for the reconfigured unit. The goodwill generated by this record would be shortlived as its successor would tarnish the band’s somewhat repaired reputation, which eventually led to the band’s second split. It isn’t the best effort from the band by a long shot, but given the difficult circumstances from which it was conceived at least makes it a reliable, if lukewarm affair. In many ways it is the first non-canonical Fear Factory release, despite rekindling the band’s sense of purpose and direction. The very matter-of-fact presentation, and loose thematic of the band’s sudden self-awareness of having spawned a subgenre make it a confused but halfway efficient effort that scrapes by on more than just its disarming honesty.