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The “Live & Plugged” franchise was a shortlived home video series wherein German metal conglomerate Nuclear Blast Records sought to promote upcoming new signees through concert recordings and candid interviews. The series spawned a  total of two installments, and was discontinued upon the advent of DVDs as the popular storage format. The first installment included recordings of Darkseed, In Flames and Evereve on the German club circuit, whereas the second part coupled live recordings of Norwegian band Dimmu Borgir, and Swedish death/thrash metal titans Dissection as part of the shortlived “Gods Of Darkness” festival.

Recorded during the Gods Of Darkness Festival at Live Music Hall in Köln, Germany as part of “The Rape and Ruin of Europe” tour in 1997 supporting Cradle Of Filth, and co-headliners Dissection. Dimmu Borgir was the opening band for the tour, as In Flames at that point had a more established reputation as a melodic death metal band. Promising an “in-depth” look at each of the bands the video includes a professionally filmed live set, interviews, and each of the band’s official music videos. While the package at least delivers what it says on the tin, it is riddled with errors, major and minor, from front to back. The live portion of the package is the least problematic – the interview segments don’t offer up any new information that couldn’t be found through alternative means even back when this was released. The “Live & Plugged” video opens with Norwegian band Dimmu Borgir, and is followed by Swedish death/thrash metal outfit Dissection.

Even though Dimmu Borgir was lower on the bill than its Swedish peers Dissection, the Norwegians get to open the video on the strength of its divisive third album “Enthrone Darkness Triumphant”, its first for the label. The first notable error is that the highlight opening reel plays to “The Darkest Day” by composer David Arnold from the “Independence Day” movie soundtrack instead of a studio outtake of the band’s own songs. The opening segment sets the tone for the remainder of the home video. Being that Dimmu Borgir was at this point still a support act there are barely any lights during the show, and for the majority of its set the stage is underlit to say the least. Shagrath was still uncomfortable in the frontman position, and this leads to amateurish in-between song banter. The set itself is a representative cross-section of the band’s material up to that point, even though it curiously omits its earliest releases, specifically the meandering “For All Tid” and its lukewarm companion EP “Inn I Evighetens Morke”.

In the setlist only ‘Dodsferd’ and ‘Alt Lys Er Svunnet Hen’ represent the band’s pre-Nuclear Blast catalog. Understandably the set focuses heavily on the lamentable “Enthrone Darkness Triumphant”. “For All Tid” is ignored altogether. Only ‘Raabjorn Speiler Draugheimers Skodde’ appears in its re-recorded form during the end credits. Each of the members is enthusiastic and energetic, although drummer Tjodalv sometimes struggles to keep up during the transitions in new songs. During the many keyboard solos, the top-hatted Stian Aarstad can be regularly seen staring blankly into space. The interview hardly justifies its inclusion as it offers up nothing novel (even this early in the band’s career), and its needlessly breaks up the flow of the live set. Stian Aarstad and Tjodalv don’t appear in the interview segments at all, and Shagrath only appears sparsely. Not a lot of care was put into this part of the video, as at one point Nagash is missspelled as ‘Naqash’ during the interview segments. Dimmu Borgir’s part of the video is concluded by the promo video for ‘Mourning Palace’ which mixes live footage of the concert the viewer just saw with stock war footage.

During the Dissection part ‘At the Fathomless Depths’ is played over the opening credits, why another David Arnold composition from the “Independence Day” soundtrack wasn’t used here is anybody’s guess. Tobias Kjellgren substituted for Ole Öhman on drums for the “Storm Of the Light’s Bane” touring campaign. The band plays a representative selection of its two albums, but also includes ‘Elisabeth Bathory’, a cover of Hungarian black/thrashers Tormentor – and ‘Son Of the Mourning’, an old demo song that never appeared on any of its official albums, as part of its set. The band deliver an energetic set with enlived performances from each of the members. bass guitarist Peter Palmdahl, and substitute drummer Tobias Kjellgren are subjects for the interview instead of Jon Nödtveidt, the actual frontman, lyricist and creative force behind Dissection. In fact Jon Nödtveidt, and Johan Norman don’t appear in the interview segments at all. The Dissection part of the home video is concluded by the promo video for ‘Where Dead Angels Lie’, which on the backsleeve of the video is misspells as ‘Where Dead Angles Lie’.

On all fronts the Dissection segment of the live recording is the superior shot of the two productions. Given the band’s bigger profile at the time (the band co-headlined with British dark metallers Cradle Of Filth, with support coming from Swedish then-melodic death metal band In Flames and Dimmu Borgir) it is not entirely unexpected that they were given a better stage sound and lightshow. Likewise does Dissection receive better filming and editing. Most members share equal screentime, only rhythm guitarist Johan Norman is often ignored in favor for lead guitarist Jon Nödtveidt. It’s apparent that Dissection on all fronts was a better-oiled machine and a tightly-knit unit compared to Dimmu Borgir’s semi-amateuristic showing on the same festival.

In all it was understandable that Nuclear Blast decided to scrap the “Live & Plugged” series at the dawn of the DVD format. Its contents and the dubious quality of the interviews did not justify the existence of the franchise. For what it attempted to accomplish “Live & Plugged” was functional at the very least. It was a budget line alternative to dedicated, single-band live recordings that offered a bit of everything for the casual fan. In light of the advent of widely-spread live recordings it was virtually inevitable that “Live & Plugged” was bound to become redundant, which it did. With the live aspect as its primary selling point the video has nothing resembling worthwhile additional footage. “Live & Plugged” was good for what it intended, but ultimately the brand didn’t proof resilient and strong enough to warrant further revisits.

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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.