In 2007, with the release of In Sorte Diaboli, Dimmu Borgir could have recorded an album of Christmas carols with their signature sound and it would still have been incredible. In 2010, when Abrahadabra came out, many were left wistfully wishing they had stayed on the same venomous black metal path they had been following until that point, while bemoaning the loss of ICS Vortex and Mustis’ contributions.
But then, as one of the disillusioned, I swallowed my pride and actually listened to Abrahadabra. With each successive spin, it became clear that it was still the same band, with the same values and same songwriting, just presented with a newer, evolved sound. All the bombast, ferocity and musicianship since the Enthrone Darkness Triumphant days were still firmly in place. And approaching Dimmu Borgir’s latest, Eonian, in this more philosophical perspective – with no preconceptions, no expectations and definitely no history – is the way seasoned fans can get hooked in.
What many fans forget is that the remaining core members – Shagrath, Silenoz and Galder – are not machines in a black metal factory, they are musicians – artists with unique viewpoints, inspirations and styles. And like any artists, these change with time: if they kept churning out the same product over and over again, they would cease to be artists and instead be relegated to mere craftsmen. For this reason, Eonian is going to annoy black metal purists, and anyone expecting another For All Tid or even Death Cult Armageddon; but that is to be expected, as good art should engender discomfort in its audience.
Take, by way of example, the visceral, unsettling nature of Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographic collages. These dark, disturbing images are not to everyone’s taste, but are undeniably beautiful and masterfully executed. Eonian translates in much the same way: it may not be the Dimmu Borgir people know, but it is still dark (if not black, at least far towards the darker end of the monochrome spectrum), thought-provoking and executed in a way no other band can reproduce. So paradoxically, Eonian is pure Dimmu Borgir, without being anything like prior releases.
Strap on your climbing gear and try scaling the “Interdimensional Summit”.
What it is akin to, though, is a musical journey crafted in hell: exactly what may have happened if Andrew Lloyd Webber had started his famous partnership with Anton LaVey instead of Tim Rice. It’s a huge, moving and dynamic series of orchestrations, rather than compositions, all cascading around a central musical theme of bacchanalian excess and self-indulgent pomp. And while all this is put together with crystalline precision, it does translate as a trifle soft. Caustic riffs rip and on-point leads still shimmer through, but the overall effect is muted by the over-reliance on choral elements. It’s as if Dimmu Borgir, following the success of their Forces of the Northern Night DVD venture with the Norwegian Broadcasting Orchestra and Schola Cantorum Choir, have put together an album expressly designed for the same treatment. Unfortunately, on songs like “I Am Sovereign” the assault of the tremolo intro gets lost under layers of beautiful, but inescapably clean symphonic histrionics. “The Empyrean Phoenix” suffers the least from this on the album, as the choirs are gorgeously contrasted on top of blasting rolls and followed by mournful, gorgeous lead work.
It’s not just the metal that gets drowned out, either. Some tasteful electronics rear their heads on Eonian, too – such as the album introduction and the quasi-industrial rhythm passage on “Archaic Correspondence” – but these, too, are swallowed by the light, clean keys and deep swelling strings. “Alpha Aeon Omega” is no less than cinematic in its atmosphere, but there is so much more going on that this emphasis on orchestration seems a shame. The contrasting percussion that shifts between uptempo blasts and simple, metronomic sections is particularly evocative of 1990s second-wave black metal.
That said, there are still plenty of moments where Eonian’s metal ancestry shines through: “Lightbringer” kicks off with strongly stirring twin-guitar riffage, punctuated with snarling artificial harmonics. This track also best recalls the Shagrath of old in terms of rasping, traditional Norwegian black metal vocal performance, making it the most likely to gain traction amongst die-hard fans hoping for a revival of Dimmu Borgir’s days gone by. The power of the album introduction on “The Unveiling” with its dissonant, hanging notes is also 100% metal.
If you don’t behave, then you just may just face the “Council of Wolves and Snakes”.
The other standout musical aspect, for me, is the compositional influence from Galder, though: the melodic nature of the guitar work channels Old Man’s Child in a number of places. “Interdimensional Summit” and “Rite of Passage” both manifest this facet of the Dimmu Borgir triumvirate very strongly, but parts of “Ætheric” could have been lifted straight from Slaves of the World without anyone noticing. This is by no means a negative criticism, though – I have long held that Galder’s guitar technique is one of the best and most underrated in extreme metal: not showy, but highly accomplished, sensitive and packed full of groove. The tribal rhythms in “Council of Wolves and Snakes” are also illustrative of Dimmu Borgir’s willingness to embrace new inspirations into their compositional process, but it does beg the question of why they didn’t exploit this further.
While Eonian definitely pushes the musical envelope, making the result fresh and different, it is still unmistakeably Dimmu Borgir. Personally, I may not find it their best work, but they have crafted an album that nobody else could – or would – and it is still an impressive achievement.
Eonian Track Listing:
01. The Unveiling
02. Interdimensional Summit
04. Council Of Wolves And Snakes
05. The Empyrean Phoenix
07. I Am Sovereign
08. Archaic Correspondence
09. Alpha Aeon Omega
10. Rite Of Passage
Run Time: 54:19
Release Date: May 4, 2018
Record Label: Nuclear Blast