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One of the few good things that could be said about “Enthrone Darkness Triumphant”, outside of how catchy it was, is that it had a modicum of restraint and the good taste to rein in the band’s pompousness. The follow-up to that ill-fated record fares less well, as what little restraint the band had is thrown out along with their eternally top-hatted keyboardist Stian Aarstad. In his stead the band enlisted one Øyvind Sven Mustaparta (Mustis), Borknagar’s Simen Hestnaes was asked to provide clean vocals for the recordings, taking over on bass guitar once Nagash was cut loose. Dimmu Borgir also officially enrolled Australian expat Jamie Stinson (Astennu) on lead guitar to relieve Shagrath of said duties. The band returned to the prestigious Abyss Studio in Sweden once again and Per Gron was tasked with creating the artwork for the album. It is the second of a five-album cycle in which the band employed three-word album titles. So with two new members, one esteemed studio guest and the continued support of Nuclear Blast did this record end up being better than its forbear? Well, no. Not really.

What a difference one member makes. On the last album the synthesizers were already pushed up and front far enough to be irritating, but on here they overpower everything outside of the drums. One of the greatest jokes on Dimmu Borgir’s part is the fact that they boast two guitarists, yet all the guitars do is follow and double the synthesizer parts. The guitars never lead, and for the most part they just chug along with whatever the keyboardist throws at them. At this point the synthesizers dictate the songwriting. This was already apparent on the preceding album, but it is taken to its logical conclusion here. This is where Dimmu Borgir (Demon Burger, truthfully) became a symphonic band first, a metal band second, and a black metal band distant third or fourth – if they ever were one, to begin with – but that’s a discussion for another day. Every possible synthetic element of Dimmu Borgir is magnified tenfold with this album.

dimmu-borgir--large-msg-118253840847However, the guitars do have their moments. There are a couple of leads/solos on this album, and whenever they appear some care was put into their crafting. The solo’ing in ‘Behind the Curtains Of Night – Phantasmagoria’ is worthwhile, but it's surrounded by the most gimmicky, goofy sounding synthesizers imagineable. Granted the guitar work is at its most technical here thanks to the presence of Stinson, who pushed the band into this territory and was later re-thanked in kind by being thrown out in the streets and off the payroll. The drumming is also more varied than on the last album, Ian Kenneth Åkesson (Tjodalv) delivers his defining performance in what was to be his last recording session with this unit. Alternating between standard rock drumming, powerful fills and blastbeats, his progress behind the kit is one of the great things about the record. Nagash, still on the bass guitar, is mixed so deep under the guitars, multi-layered vocals and overbearing keyboards that you have to strain your hearing to catch a glimpse of his playing. Why was this mixed the way it was? I have no idea. This was the last album to feature Nagash, so Dimmu Borgir thanked him by mixing him out entirely? What’s this? An “…And Justice For All”-type band-related prank for the world to see?

The biggest offender, outside of the ridiculous synthesizers, is frontman Shagrath. While he never was the greatest or most versatile of singers on the preceding album there was diversity thanks to the presence of Silly-Nose (erm, Silenoz) and Nagash on backing vocals. With both men now being restricted to their individual instruments, Shagrath’s vocals now become a fixation for the production and songwriting. These songs aren’t written with guitars in mind, they aren’t written from the drum perspective. No. These songs are vocal-oriented and keyboard-driven exercises first, and the remaining instruments merely serve as windowdressing and give everybody an excuse to stand on stage on tour. It is here that Shagrath starts using processors and digital enhancements that only expose his limitations more than anything. Screeches, whisphers, supposedly spooky narrative bits – there isn’t any studio technique left unused to prove just how evil and profound this sorry band of musical chameleons think themselves to be.

There are good parts, however few. ‘Dreamside Dominions’ is an early highlight, ‘The Promised Future Aeons’ is a good song once you get past the corny synth opening and the plinking piano parts that usually annoy more than they help. Album high mark is ‘The Insight and the Catharsis’ which is the most ambitious song the band has ever written, before or since. The single ‘Arcane Lifeforce Mysteria’ is a nice change of pace, and its excellent use of dynamics proves that Demon Burger can write a decent song if they set their mind to it. So, 4 songs out of 9 are worthwhile – that still means more than 50% of this album is generic filler that only impresses the most easily impressionable, which usually are pre-teen boys and girls that shop at Hot Topic. This is means you are shit out of luck if you want good music, but I suppose since the average Dimmu Borgir fan is 14 years old and unexposed to the better bands in extreme metal, it is a start.

So, this leaves us with the giant elephant in the room, and that is the obvious fact whether or not a person should classify this act as black metal. No, Dimmu Borgir is not, by any stretch of the imagination, black metal. They are some vague form of metal, sure – but only the most unassuming, unambitious and pestilential strain of metal. This is a band unafraid to use death - , thrash – and traditional heavy metal riffs as their main ingredient. Couple that with the most unadventurous, standard verse-chorus song structures and what you have left is another useless, inoffensive extreme metal band whose biggest ambition is to be accessible to the masses. Every single thing that could put segments of their intended audience off is cut out and replaced by something safe and preferably generic. Yes, they all wear corpse paint, there are several uses of occult imagery and the lyrics are the sort of pseudo-intellectual (and incoherent) talk about infernal imagery, loose women and dark overlords – but to what end? Simen Hestnaes is relegated to a few verses on two or three songs, and his clean vocals are wasted on material this mediocre and a band this generic. This band wouldn’t recognize a good riff if it hit them in the corpse painted head. They write songs, but seldomly do they lead anywhere, and in the absence of song climaxes, they just blare the synths louder.

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That is not to say that this record isn’t enjoyable. It is. Just like “Enthrone Darkness Triumphant” this is a record best taken on face value, and not as a black metal record. From that viewpoint is a moderately satisfying exploration of extreme metal’s more symphonic avenues, and outside of the fact that the guitars are subject to the domination of the keyboards, this is a fun record that doesn’t demand too much from the listener’s attention. As far as melodic, keyboard-driven death/thrash metal goes it is tolerable, and even good in parts. The vocals are acquired taste and overdone for the most part. Most of the guitar playing, whenever it’s allowed to flourish and solo, is far better than on the preceding album, and the drumming is tasteful and fitting to the material. For good or ill, this is the last tolerable Dimmu Borgir album – because after this Demon Burger would descent into industrial banality and from there veer into orchestra-laden portentousness ever farther. “Spiritual Black Dimensions” is the last album where Demon Burger wrote songs, however lacking and thin as they were. There were songs.

It’s all downhill from here, folks…

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Dimmu Borgir, the Norwegian band to name itself after a purported gateway to hell in Northern Iceland, were a pretty stock atmospheric and lightly folk-tinged black metal act with their first two Norwegian-languaged albums “For All Tid” and the hugely atmospheric “Stormblast”. While their skills were never particularly impressive, these first two albums were engaging because of their honesty and simple native charm. Upon signing with German conglomerate Nuclear Blast Records somewhere in the latter half of the ‘90s, the band dropped all pretenses of being an actual black metal band. Not that that is a problem in itself. No, it isn’t. The way the band went about doing it is something else entirely. Being a high-profile, big-budget black metal band is tricky and troublesome enough (just ask Emperor), but pretending to be something you are not – that is an entire new level of artistic vacuity and plain, old school fashioned dishonesty.

dimmuborgir_enthronedarknesstriumphant_2This record is the first stage of the band’s ongoing transformation into what Ruthless Reviews’ lovingly coined as the Demon Burger concept. This concept equals the band to a hamburger dish. Popular with the masses, and while there is a variety of choices available, each of those is of low nutritional value and consuming too much of these goods inevitably leads to indigestion, constipation or much, much worse. It also equates popularity with The Great Unwashed, who are known to be indiscernible in their tastes, as a good quality – when that’s hardly the case. Because something is popular doesn’t mean it is actually any good. Need I refer to Rebecca Black and her hugely annoying song ‘Friday’ or, God forbid, Ke$ha, for a more recent example of this very thing?

This one is the first of a 5-album cycle in which they employed three-word record titles as an easily recognizable gimmick, which would persist all the way into 2007. There is no real meaning to the combination of words here. Why would enthroning darkness lead to somebody being considered triumphant – or how does being enthroned, now in darkness, make a person triumphant? I honestly don’t know, and don’t care about the minutiae of this title, or the supposed deeper meaning behind it. I’m sure there are some rabid fanboys out there who can explain it in some capacity to rationalize this crappy title making any sense whatsoever. But don’t bother, I’m not interested to know it.

So, with all this history and nitpicking finally out of the way, let’s dig into the actual music of this album. The album starts off with ‘Mourning Palace’, one of two lead singles for this recording, and the one most identified with this record in particular. The opening consists of a synthesizer melody, not a particularly dark or unsettling one – but it at least ushers in the idea that this might somehow be good. As soon as the riffing and drumming come in, that fragile idea has been collapsed. What you get is the most formulaic of watered down death metal riffing and third-rate pseudo-thrash riffs that even Machine Head would be embarrassed to use in their work. The drumming, while tasteful in its use of kickdrums and cymbal crashes, is that of a garden-variety rock band.

‘Spellbound (by the Devil)’ and ‘In Death’s Embrace’ follow the same setup as ‘Mourning Palace’ – by the time you heard the synthesizer introduce a song for a fourth time you wish this thing would finally be over, or that the band change things up a bit. It is not until the mid-album rocker (I refuse to call this ‘brutal’) ‘Tormentor Of Christian Souls’, which according to popular legend had so offensive lyrics that Nuclear Blast refused to print them in the booklet, is the first sign of life for this half of the album. The second half is introduced by the atmospheric ‘Entrance’, which is a much slower cut and a continuation of the band’s earlier style, albeit re-tooled to fit their current creative paradigm. For a second time there’s another rocker with ‘Master Of Disharmony’ while ‘Prudence’s Fall’ and album closer ‘A Succubus In Rapture’ are (once again) slower fare.

To their credit, all the songs except one are original and written specifically for this album. While the limited digipack (and first jewelcase prints) of this album came with a bonus track with the re-recorded ‘Raabjorn Speiler Draugheimen’s Skodde’ (off their “Inn I Evighetens Morke” EP and their 1994 debut “For All Tid”), the band was so kind to only re-record ‘Master Of Disharmony’ from the little heard “Devil’s Path” EP from 1996. But even taken as a whole from this early on it was clear that Dimmu Borgir was a spent creative force. Why so, you ask? Take, for starters, the riffing on display here. I concur that it is perhaps more melodic and tightly performed than past offerings, but the guitars never at any point lead the compositions. No, the lead instrument here are the synthesizers of the eternally top-hatted Stian Aarstad, the guitars (and their underachieving players) are content to just chug along. Chugging is what this record does, and chugging is what this band throws its collective weight behind. The only bright spots, however brief as they are, are the few leads/solos the band decides to throw in. Not that the leads and solos are particularly good, or even memorable – but at least these provide some respite from the mediocrity and “me-too” spirit on show here.

Other than the lame duck riffing and the unadventurous drumming much of what is passed off as black metal here is hardly that. There are thrash riffs, heavy metal riffs and death metal riffs even to be found aplenty here. The bass playing is docile and content to just chug along (hey, I detect a pattern here!) and the only good thing is that Nagash shares vocal duties with the horrible Shagrath, whose incessant screeching only tends to grate on the nerves. The lyrics are random disjointed images of supposedly evil scenarios. ‘Spellbound (by the Devil)’ and ‘Tormentor Of Christian Souls’ are both gore/splatter themed exercises, while ‘The Night Masquerade’ and ‘A Succubus In Rapture’ talk about loose women within a lightly overbaked and entirely uninteresting infernal context. It isn’t as outright and laughably bad as Diabolic’s ode to smut ‘Celestial Pleasures’ but it comes dangerously close to the territory. The booklet displays the band in full battle dress: leather, spikes, medieval weaponry and goofy corpse paint. They got the image covered, I’ll grant them that – it is unfortunate that it is complemented by such a weak musical package. The thing we supposedly shelled out hard currency for.

The roster of this album was different as it would be in subsequent albums. Shagrath besides being vocalist plays additional lead guitar on this record. Silly-Nose (erm, Silenoz) provides lead guitar and additional vocals on two tracks. Tjodalv handles the sticks, as he would on the next album. Stian Aarstad brings in synthesizers and piano flourishes. Nagash, on the first of two album appearances, plays the seldomly heard bass guitar and all guitar solos, in addition to providing backing vocals. This ranking of course begs the question, if Nagash was the one to provide guitar solos (which take more skill to do properly) – why then was he relegated to the backburner and forced into the unthankful position of bass player? Were it the insurmountable egos of Shagrath and Silenoz, or the fact that Australian expat Astennu was to play the lead guitar live?

Now, for a moment not considering that this is supposed to be symphonic black metal, this is actually a pretty tolerable keyboard-driven melodic death/thrash record. Not especially great, or memorable in the long term, but tolerable. Is this a band content with doing what it does, and not really pushing themselves technically and creatively? You bet. Why write something truly captivating and meaningful when you can just rearrange old thrash, death – and heavy metal riffs and overlay them with some fruity keyboards and pass it off as scary black metal? The band isn’t trying, and frankly, it shows. However, as an accessible form of death metal, say of a post-1999 era Hypocrisy variety, this record is pretty tolerable. Still not the greatest thing, but better. Produced by Peter Tägtgren at his infamous Abyss Studio in Sweden this record comes with the usual digital polish and lifeless gloss people have come to expect and love from the facility. What is more inflammatory is that Dimmu Borgir attempted to pass this off as genuine black metal, and it actually worked at the time. I will freely admit that they had me fooled when I was younger, although I was already exposed to the early records of Ancient Rites, Dark Funeral, Enthroned, Emperor, Immortal and Satyricon at that point.

It is here that Dimmu Borgir would stop progressing to any conceivable degree. The next album they changed a few people around, added clean male vocals to the palette, but it remained largely the same as what is on display here. Further down the line the band would go into a brief industrial stint, before venturing into the maligned orchestra-backed territory - which is best left for burned-out rock dinosaurs and certain San Franciscan bands whose name we will not utter here - that for some reason continues to persist to this day with this band. It ends here, folks. This is the point where Dimmu Borgir stopped caring about their music and became Demon Burger, a corporate entity here to provide its shortsighted, naive and often delusional fans with soulless product….