By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
If you answered "I forgot" for the first two and "no one's supposed to enjoy it, that's why it's great" for the second, then you're ready to upgrade from run-of-the-mill grind-core, industrial, thrash and death metal selections to black metal. It's sweeping the nation one fjord at a time, thanks to the efforts of Norway's Dimmu Borgir, who now find themselves at the forefront of this brutal and godless musical movement.
It has long been a Yankee belief that when a woman speaks Norwegian, it's sexually enticing, but when a male does so it sounds like he's ingesting nasal spray. Dimmu Borgir's lead singer Shagrath has two vocal inflections that staunchly avoid this wimpy generalization. First, he uses a lead voice that recalls a strangled Popeye as he's being blown down, then he switches to the other, brutalizing much like archrival Bluto gargling the blood of virgin Olive Oyl. Hmmm, maybe that second one comes from bassist Vortex, who is credited in the liner notes with "clean voice," but if you ask me, everyone here sounds like they're cleaning their pipes with Liquid-Plumr.
After ditching their native tongue to sing in the King's English on their 1997 breakthrough album Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, Dimmu Borgir, freed from cumbersome clusters of consonants, surpassed the sales figures of gloomy rivals like English muckrakers Cradle of Filth and homeland contemporaries Emperor.
Now, the band's latest opus, Death Cult Armageddon, continues the upward trend; it's the first black-metal record to crack Billboard's Top 100 album chart. That only serves to demonstrate how far the genre has come since early pentagram pioneers like Venom and Merciful Faith first laid it down.
Why has so much anti-religious ranting originated out of Scandinavia, and why are American squirts worshiping it now? Before talking to Shagrath himself, I asked Spanky, a pal whose current occupation and last name I still don't know but can remember him co-hosting KUPD's "Into the Pit" radio show from 1996 to 1998, which included Dimmu Borgir in its rotation of Cookie Monster mayhem from time to time.
"If you're born in Denmark, you are born into the Evangelical Lutheran Church," Spanky tells me. "The same thing in Sweden and Norway. There's no way out of it. To them the church is a symbol of authority and hate. In the early '90s, some of these bands started with a bunch of teenagers listening to Black Sabbath who got ahold of the Satanic bible and said, Hey, let's go burn down a church,' where others really studied their Nordic heritage and took pride in it. And they said, We're gonna break away from the church, but we're gonna create rather than destroy. Instead of being a scourge on society, we're gonna be musicians instead of terrorists.'
"Black metal has been around since the '80s," Spanky continues. "American kids have been following it through the underground. A lot of it is word of mouth. A lot of tape trading, because a lot of people don't like it. Even a lot of metal heads, they draw the line at black metal. But thanks to the Internet, younger kids are catching on to it, from places like Fuckwad, Nebraska. And if you're 13, 14 or 15 years old, you want an album that's gonna make your parents yell, What the fuck is this?'"
Oh, the ransom we'd pay to see Mom and Dad's faces when Junior cues up Death Cult Armageddon's "Allegiance," which sonically resembles John Williams being flushed down to the bowels of hell for recycling his "Darth Vader" theme way too much. You've got Shagrath screaming about the futility of war while drummer Nicholas Barker, who bolted the aforementioned Cradle of Filth, continues his impersonation of the world's loudest Teletype machine in this bone orchard. Every second of hellfire sounds like it could've propelled Al Pacino's scenery chewing in The Devil's Advocate. But if you wanna talk about unholy unions, try a black-metal band jamming with the 45-piece Prague Philharmonic Orchestra!
Shagrath has no recollection of the session, and with good reason. He wasn't there. "We had many tour commitments," he says. "We used a hard disc recording system, and the hard disc was flown from Sweden to Prague, where the orchestra was recorded in three days. We had to spend two weeks and do a lot of time stretching because there were some time problems and we had to replace it with keyboards in some spots. We've always had symphonic elements with the keyboards; now we have a budget to do the real thing. Live, we use keyboards and samples, and it sounds more aggressive."
Ain'tcha gonna phone ahead and see if maybe you can con a local symphony for a few dates, like maybe for the Cajun House show?
"A real symphony would be too much hassle or too much work."
Ummm, disappointing answer, Mr. Shagrath, but I'm not gonna ask the kids to leave the room just yet. By now, I'm getting the distinct feeling that Shag is a really nice guy and that the occasional sniff I hear in the background is either a stifled laugh or . . . nasal spray! "Buffalo -- it's pretty cold, but not as cold as Norway," Shag remarks before the conversation steers comfortably back to Satan and why America needs more of him.
"We have been concentrating on the American market. In the U.S., heavy metal is more about drinking and partying. Black metal is very serious," Shagrath says later. "Very anti-religious, very anti-Christian, and it's based on Satanic elements. It's very evil music."
But I suspect that it's not quite as evil as Shagrath suggests. In an attempt to soften Dimmu for the American market, the album's packaging includes photos of hot nurses in plastic suits and girls on leashes, just like Spinal Tap's rejected Smell the Glove art. Young kids dig Satan, but they're more scared of hot chicks during those emotional Wonder bread years. So it works both ways. But my girlfriend wants to know why they put the tree of life in artwork for "Unorthodox Manifesto." Is Dimmu cuckoo for the cabala now, and are the lyrics "A bringer of evil I am/And therefore also a carrier of Light" a spiritual tip of the hat to Madonna?
"That was a concept of the art director," says Shagrath, whose matter-of-fact tenor shows he has no interest in any tree that doesn't have a pile of skulls in front of it. Frankly, neither do we. What we really want to know is -- are the spiky pants for real, or are they rubber protrusions like the ones worn by KISS?
"Our spikes are made out of very light metal material used for airplanes," he says, beaming. "It's very light but very hard. They get caught on things all the time. Custom-made for us. They're very dangerous. They could be a murder weapon, and we always bump into each other onstage."
Of course, if these guys tried to board a commercial flight wearing them, they'd be arrested before you could say, "Sons of Satan Gather for Attack." When was the last time you could say that about Marilyn Manson leisurewear?
But here's a question: How Satanic can a band be if it lets onetime drummer Tjodalv take time off for paternity leave? Or consider that in the band's 10-year history, they've totaled 15 members in the lineup. That's a lot of upside-down crosses. But perhaps people leave because Shagrath's such a swell boss -- and they signed on only to be teeth-gnashing servants of the final holocaust.
Forget you heard me say so and just remember that Dimmu Borgir is here to stay, with strings attacks, with goddamned cellos, but always with the atmospheric, depressive touches parents will hate. When you show them the CD art, be sure to tell them the big carbuncle on the front is, as Shagrath puts it, "the shaft or hole to Armageddon and we're all just going down it. One way."
Insert your diabolical Drano-ingesting bellows here.