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Dimmu Borgir – Enthrone Darkness Triumphant

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.

This 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….