Classic black metal


November 7, 2003



Generally speaking, the results are disastrous whenever a heavy-metal band attempts to record with an orchestra: Witness the mock-symphonic efforts of Metallica, Kiss, and Guns 'N Roses. But Norway's Dimmu Borgir has produced the rare orchestral metal album that actually works.

Since its formation in 1993, the group (pronounced "dim-moo bore-gear" and named for the lava fields east of Lake Myvatn in Iceland) has become one of the leading proponents of black metal -- a subgenre that blends the aggression of thrash or death metal with industrial production techniques and the lush grandeur of classical music.

Regrouping after a series of personnel changes with what fans consider its strongest lineup ever (vocalist Shagrath, guitarists Galder and Erkekjetter Silenoz, keyboardist Mustis, drummer Nicholas Barker and bassist Simen Hestnaes), the group recorded its recent "Death Cult Armageddon" with the 48-piece Philharmonic Orchestra Prague.

Dimmu Borgir, Nevermore, Children of Bodom, Hypocrisy

*6:15 p.m. Sunday
*House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
*Tickets, $20
*(312) 923-2000

I spoke with Silenoz about making the album and the inspiration behind the group's pummeling yet beautiful sounds shortly before the start of a U.S. tour that brings it to the House of Blues on Sunday.


Q. We're talking before the last show on your European tour in Sweden. Are you looking forward to returning to the States?

A. Oh, yeah. We're definitely enthusiastic about coming back, especially with a really good lineup when it comes to the band.

Q. Tell me about making this album; it must be an extraordinary experience playing with the power of an orchestra behind you.

A. Actually, that was done in just one day or two, the orchestra. It was done down in Prague, in the Czech Republic, and it was sent back to the studio in Sweden and we edited and mixed it. But it was really cool to hear how the songs came out with a proper orchestra.

Q. So you didn't get to see the orchestra recording?

A. No, it was only our keyboard player and the producer who went down. But we got to see the orchestra that was used on the last record. They were only 15 pieces, but you know, we could see how they worked in the studio. I guess it was more or less the same down in Prague.

Q. It must be strange to have these tapes come back with a whole other dimension added.

A. Exactly. We had to take away some of the stuff when we listened back to the demos, which only had keyboards on them, and we found that some of the songs actually sounded better when we used keyboard instead of orchestra. There were minor bits that we changed here or there, but overall, it was amazing.

Q. It seems to me that the kind of grandiose sounds and larger than life emotions in classical music are very similar to those in metal.

A. Yes, and also I think that both classical and metal are two extreme forms of music -- so they have that in common -- and they're both heavy and for some people they're hard to digest the first time they hear it. It's kind of a learning process for both kinds of music styles.

Q. Have you ever been able to tour and perform live with the orchestra?

A. No, we haven't. That's going to cost us way too much money right now. It could be possible in the future perhaps, but I think we need some more mid-tempo songs, because it means that we have to play off the click track and we have to rehearse it a lot. When you play live, you only have one chance to make it right, so if you [mess] it up, then it's [messed]-up. And the expense could ruin you. But it would be cool to maybe do it once or twice and film it and do something special with it.

Q. You mentioned the lineup being especially strong now. There have been so many different incarnations of the band in the past that it must make your head spin.

A. It did, but not right now! We have a really stable lineup right now, and it's the most productive lineup we've ever had, as well as the one that works best on the personal level. It's cool to feel that we have a really strong and stable lineup.

Q. Why do you think the membership has been so turbulent?

A. It's a demanding lifestyle, and we are also demanding the same things from the other members that we do from ourselves. I think that has been in most cases the reason why people were forced to leave the band or were told to leave the band. We have to be really devoted, and then it's hard to combine family life with that for some people. That's understandable, but we cannot sit back and wait for other people to get ready; that's just how it is.

Q. The metal underground is constantly slicing and dicing things into ever narrower subgenres. How do you feel about term "black metal," and how do you see yourselves fitting into the genre as a whole?

A. If you have to put a term to it, there's no secret that we have a black metal rooting to our music, so to speak. We take it for sure to the next level, and the level after that, because we don't sound like the usual old-school black metal stuff. We don't want to sound like that, so we have found our own expression within that kind of term. I guess we're somewhat of a modern or symphonic form of black metal. It's OK to label music, but for me, it's only good and bad music.

Q. I've never interviewed any musician who enjoys being put into a box. But the good thing about labeling is that some kid who has no access to the metal underground can read on the Internet that, "If you like Emperor, you'll like this."

A. That's OK, but you can be fooled by it, too. The music can be in the same direction, but is the production the same as the Emperor CD or whatever? That can be a bit fooling, but it is good if you don't have a record store close by and you have to order from the Internet.

Q. Where does this desire to merge the worlds of classical and metal come from?

A. We all grew up with metal from when we were kids, so when we set out to do music, it was going to be something heavy and extreme. And of course we tried to find our own way of doing it, instead of copping too much from the other big bands that we listened to when we were kids. Of course, you cannot get around the fact that you draw some influences from the past, but you just try to be a little further on.

Q. How do you know when you've written a good song?

A. Basically when everyone in the band nods their heads. That's when we feel we have the right direction. That's sometimes hard, but mostly that's what happens.

Q. What about the lyrics?

A. I'm responsible for the lyrics on this last album. Of course, we cannot use something that the other guys can't stand behind, so obviously I have to explain what I mean with different stuff, because some of what I write is kind of heavy and pretty deep stuff. That's also what happened this time when we had two Norwegian lyrics. I don't know why I actually wrote them in Norwegian, because we haven't done that since the first or second album, but they liked what I wrote and they said, "It doesn't matter if it's Norwegian or English; let's use it anyway."

Q. What inspires you when you sit down to write?

A. All the bulls--- and injustice from religion and all of the negative, destructive side of mankind, which sounds pretty weird, but that's the inspiring factor. For me, that's a positive thing to write about. Whether people like it or not, the world moves forward, and that should be for everyone. If you don't like how the world moves forward, then that's fine, but keep that to yourself. I'm not going to go into politics, because I don't think politics has anything to do with music, but it's clear that many of our problems come from people not understanding other people, whether it's Christians and Muslims or whatever. Mostly that's caused by religion and differences in religion; it's kind of childish when you can actually say about people's religions, "Oh, my religion is better than yours" or "Mine is the only right one." There's bound to be conflicts and devastation from that.