Dimmu Borgir: Symphonists in Satan’s Service

Dimmu Borgir: AbrahadabraDimmu Borgir: “Born Treacherous” (Abrahadabra, Nuclear Blast, 10/12/10)

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“Every album is a new beginning,” says Dimmu Borgir guitarist, co-founder, and principal lyricist Sven “Silenoz” Kopperud, “but this album is even more so.”

Formed in Oslo, Norway in the early 1990s, Dimmu Borgir has been at the forefront of symphonic black metal for the better part of two decades.  Abrahadabra, the band’s tenth and newest album, marks the most ambitious undertaking of its heralded career.  Though it’s not the band’s first to feature an orchestra, it’s far and away its most sweeping, epic creation, backed by more than 100 orchestra players and choir singers and featuring the arrangements of classical composer Gaute Storaas.

Looking back to “Det Nye Riket,” the five minutes of dramatic, baroque-flavored keyboard swells and piano that open the band’s 1994 debut album For All Tid, it’s no surprise that orchestral collaborations eventually figured into Dimmu Borgir’s work. According to Silenoz, Dimmu Borgir had its sights set on working with orchestras from its inception. And even though neither he nor co-founder/frontman Stian “Shagrath” Thoresen have ever had any musical training, the music that they write together is naturally suited to blend with classical. In fact, the pair, which now comprises the band’s creative core, cites composers such as Antonín Dvořák and Richard Wagner as primary influences.

“We want songs to breathe and flow and be catchy so that people remember them easily. You can’t do that with a song that has ten thousand riffs in it.”

“We’ve always been epic and symphonic from from the get-go,” Silenoz says.  This time, however, he and Shagrath expanded their reach considerably. Drawing on their previous experiences with the Gothenburg Opera and Prague Philharmonic orchestras (for Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia in 2001 and Death Cult Armageddon in 2003, respectively), Silenoz and Shagrath were also able to fine-tune their approach to working on such a large scale. In addition to the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Abrahadabra also prominently features the 40-piece Schola Santorum Choir. Both were recorded at the Norwegian National Radio Channel’s NRK studios in Oslo.

“It’s a really nice studio, still,” Silenoz recalls. “We ended up using some of the old vintage mics from the ’50s and ’60s that they still have working there.  Other producers would probably kill to get them.”

“You always want to try and push yourself,” Silenoz says of the process. “After the Spiritual Black Dimensions album [in 1999], where we got heavily symphonic, for the next album, Puritanical, we decided, ‘Why not try a small orchestra and see what it sounds like?’ It turned out fairly good, but it was rushed. So on Death Cult Armageddon, we took it a bit further. We were more prepared. Even then, though, there were things that we couldn’t fix in the studio in Prague, so we had to do a lot of post-production work in our main studio in Gothenburg. But for the new album, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra was pretty much spot-on everywhere. There was hardly any editing we had to do in terms of time stretching and things like that. It’s got to be one of the most professional orchestras in Europe, at least from what I can see.”

According to Silenoz, the members of the orchestra – Kringkastingsorkestret in Norwegian, or KORK for short — were “really grateful because this music was so close to what they usually play in a classical setting. They’ve done shows with pop and rock artists, and they told us that playing their music was so much more difficult.”

Aside from the proficiency, adaptability, and enthusiasm shown by KORK’s musicians, much of the smoothness in the process can be attributed to Storaas, who translated the band’s ideas for Abrahadabra into formal charts. Dimmu Borgir’s working relationship with Storaas goes back to ’99, when the band was slated to perform live with an orchestra at the Norwegian Grammys. The orchestra backed out, but the connection lasted, and Storaas ended up providing charts for Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia and Death Cult Armageddon, much as he did again for Abrahadabra. This time, he too was able to take longer to prepare.

“For this album,” Silenoz explains, “it was definitely a lot easier because he was part of the process early on. We had demos of parts of the songs where we knew we were going to have an orchestra. We went through them with him, and he came back with his charts and his ideas of how it was going to sound. Even if we knew how to write notes, it would be impossible for us because we don’t have the same background as Gaute does.”

And how does Storaas relate to metal? Silenoz explains that Storaas’ familiarity only goes as far as household names like Metallica. Nonetheless, the communication flows nicely between him and the band. “He’s very good at understanding how we see our music,” says Silenoz, who in spite of the compliments from KORK’s players is reluctant to take too much credit when asked if the band possesses an innate grasp of classical music. “It’s hard to say,” he answers, “because we’ve never taken any lessons.”

“A person like [Aleister] Crowley – yeah, of course he has a dark side, but we all do. The difference is that he explored that dark side and made it into something constructive. And that’s something that I feel extremely close to.”

What he proposes instead about the band’s writing acumen is surprising given the sheer size of its music and stage show: “We look at an idea from a simple angle first, and then we build it from there. There are so many bands out there that think about technicality first and song structures second. But we do it the other way around. We don’t bring too much technical stuff into our music. We want songs to breathe and flow and be catchy so that people remember them easily. You can’t do that with a song that has ten thousand riffs in it.”

Likewise, in spite of a final mix that sounds rather grand, Silenoz falls back on the old studio adage that for a piece of music to sound large as a whole, all of the individual parts have to be made smaller. “When you mix an album like this,” he chuckles, “it’s a huge challenge because there are so many layers. One song might have 250 tracks! That’s when the compromising part comes into the picture. That’s also the difficult part. Sometimes it’s too difficult to find a place for absolutely everything, so you have to concede that less is more.”

Silenoz thinks that mixing the album was as much a learning experience for mixing engineer Andy Sneap as it was for himself and Shagrath. “I think it challenged him in a lot of ways,” he says. “He even had to get some new tools for the process, which is a good sign. When we went through all the stuff — Shagrath, myself, and Andy — there was so much to devour, and we didn’t really have a reference to any album that was done in this way in the past. So we just had to kind of go with the flow and go with a gut feeling. But when we were all sitting there nodding our heads, we knew, ‘All right, now we’re getting somewhere.’”

An appropriation of Aleister Crowley’s incantation “abrahadabra” (a modification that Crowley made to the ancient spell-casting term “abracadabra,” or “I create what I speak”), the album’s title is intended to signal a new beginning, an infusion of new magic and energy for the band.

“I dove more into Crowley’s works and symbolism this time,” Silenoz explains, “because he was very heavily into the idea of reincarnation and renewal and rebirth. Symbolically, we had a lot in common.” Silenoz is quick to point out that he and Shagrath don’t preconceive their creative decisions. “We don’t even have to talk about doing something new,” he clarifies. “It just happens. If we were the type of band that sat down and had a meeting to decide what the next album is going to sound like, it would be a fiasco. If you look at other bands that consciously decide to change their musical style, it hardly ever works. I’m glad that everything with this band happens in a natural evolution. We didn’t have to decide much, apart from that we wanted to use an orchestra, make it all sound big, and make as dynamic an album as possible.”

One thing that they did decide, back in the earliest days of the band, was to avoid the negativism and violence that plagued Norway’s black-metal community, as well as to stick to their melodic guns at a time when so many musicians and fans imposed rigidly narrow definitions on what black metal was supposed to be. Silenoz thinks that “rigid” isn’t a strong enough word to describe what Dimmu Borgir was up against.

“I would rather say fanatical,” he contends. “Because in the beginning of the ’90s, people didn’t really know what they were doing. They were just teenagers who had read a couple of books and decided to kill people and burn some churches.  To me, and to most people, that has nothing to do with Satanism. It’s the same as if a cowboy goes into a saloon in Texas and guns down a bunch of people and Johnny Cash is in the newspapers the next day. But people grow up. I’m really glad that we never got involved in the criminal aspect of what people think of when you say ‘black metal.’ We just stayed away and focused on the music very early on. We were also very young, so as much as we were fascinated by what the others were doing, we felt like ‘that’s enough.’ We didn’t want to get in trouble or get kicked out of school or lose our jobs and family.”

For the record, Silenoz ascribes to a metaphorical brand of Satanism, and he is quick to distinguish Dimmu Borgir from Satanists whose practices stem from a religious foundation.

“I would say that we’re very anti-religious when it comes to being Satanic,” he explains. “We see it from an individualistic point of view. What’s best for you is ultimately going to be better for the people around you. It doesn’t have to be people thinking of everything as so fucking negative. To me, a person like Crowley – yeah, of course he has a dark side, but we all do. The difference is that he explored that dark side and made it into something constructive. And that’s something that I feel extremely close to.”

“That’s pretty much the way I live as well,” he continues before chuckling, “although I don’t attempt to climb K2 or indulge in sexual orgies every day. But the way he looked at life, balance, and equilibrium, and also the feeling that things come in cycles, that’s where I personally feel very close to his ideas. So when we use the word ‘Satanic,’ it’s definitely from an individual point of view, not from a religious point of view.”

As for its live performance, Dimmu Borgir is forced to compensate for the absence of an orchestra with a combination of keyboards and pre-recorded backing tracks. But a live performance with KORK is tentatively slated for May of 2011, and with that, the band may achieve the full realization of one of its earliest visions.

Either way, Abrahadabra is the new benchmark for the band’s career, one that has been forged as much out of melodic beauty as it has from darkness. By continuing to reach higher to fulfill the initial promise of symphonic black metal — a genre where it’s still relatively rare for bands to work with symphonies on this scale — Dimmu Borgir has made an album that both encapsulates the genre and suggests that its next chapter is yet to be written. For bands pursuing this direction, they’ll have to elaborate on the strides that Dimmu Borgir has made with Abrahadabra in order to leave a lasting impact.

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