Dimmu Borgir: Embracing the occult
Words: Brian Fischer-Giffin
Latest release: Abrahadabra (Nuclear Blast/Riot!)
“And it fuckin' pisses us off!” Dimmu Borgir guitarist Silenoz says, laughing. “It's always fallen through for some reason: dodgy promoters, or bad timing... There's always a fucking stupid excuse for it. But now, we are on the ball again. We never give up and we're working on coming over [again]. It's been a dream for so long.”
The Norwegian band’s two previous attempts at touring Australia having been thwarted, Silenoz is cheerfully hopeful that they will be able to finally make the trek in 2011. But he’s not saying when. Instead, he’s keen to discuss Dimmu Borgir’s new album Abrahadabra, due at the end of September. It’s the first time the band has consisted of primarily three members, himself, vocalist Shagrath and guitarist Galder, but it also sees the band tinkering with their sound even more than previously.
"It's a step forward for sure! Maybe more of a leap,” he says of it. “I would consider this our most complete album to date. We have again incorporated a full orchestra, and a choir for the first time as well, so I think the combination of these elements comes together better now than in the past. Death Cult Armageddon had a full orchestra as well, but I think this time it just has more impact I think and it just sounds bigger than before. We kept the elements we are known for of course, but we've also experimented a bit."
Dimmu Borgir has never allowed themselves to stagnate creatively, taking on new elements and aspects with each album, whether it be developing the melodic side or expanding the role of the guitars. A new album is a new chapter, a new step forward toward the perfect beast.
"For each album we do something new,” Silenoz says, which ties in with the concept behind the album, as he explains later. “I think that it has been a much smoother album this time, but at the same time it's been more work. I wouldn't consider it hard work, but it's more work for sure. We paid attention to small details and all the things we overlooked in the past. The previous album was spontaneous and direct, but this time we incorporated the idea that it was going to sound huge from the beginning. So we started thinking in a primitive way when we put the songs together. So we paid a lot more attention to dynamics and the flow of the songs."
I last spoke to Silenoz when they were just about to break out of the underground with Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia almost a decade ago. Since then, Dimmu Borgir has become one of those bands that seemingly everyone has heard of and many namecheck on playlists and influences lists, even some who don’t otherwise dabble in extreme metal.
"It's just been a continuous ride upwards," the guitarist says of the period since then. "It's been a lot of hard work and stress but it pays off in the end in that we get to concentrate on what we love to do most in our lives, which is making music and being creative. We knew pretty much early on that we had something special that we should pursue, but I guess it wasn't until around the time that we did the Puritanical album that we made a direct decision about whether we do this full on or did it half-assed with a paying job on the side. There was a time when there was a lot of struggle and we didn't have enough money to even eat properly... But you know, times change and it's much better now that we can finally concentrate fully on the music."
Dimmu Borgir’s formative years were spent in the turbulent world of the Norwegian black metal underground surrounded by the likes of Emperor, Mayhem, Darkthrone and Burzum. It was a scene embroiled in violence and stupid acts of extreme criminality that resulted in the deaths or imprisonment of many key players. Yet like Immortal, Dimmu Borgir slipped through the chaos unaffected, allowing them to shape their sound, develop and mature. Over the last decade or so the band has expanded and enhanced the symphonic elements of their style, experimenting with orchestras and now, as mentioned, a complete choir. The changes from the primitive melodic black metal of the early 90s to the sophisticated, bombastic symphonic metal of today have been gradual and controversial, but Dimmu Borgir only seems to have surged forward at each stage.
“Sometimes as a musician you get impatient and you want results right away. But it's also important to think ahead more than just three months. It's very difficult now in this industry to think more than three months ahead because such a lot can happen in such a short time, but we've always been a band that has been gambling. If you don't gamble,” Silenoz says, “you certainly won't win. We've taken any challenge and any opportunity that's come our way and considered it heavily. But we've never been as reluctant to do stuff that many of our contemporaries in the so-called black metal scene have, and still do. They're so afraid of stepping out of the boundaries and "Oh, what will other people say if we do this or that, let's stick to the formula... blah, blah, blah" The only formula we have is to not to stick to anything! I think that's what separates us from many other bands. We work harder, and that sees bigger results as well. And that of course is in combination [with being] in the right place at the right time. For sure we have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, so many times!”
While there are some who continue to define Dimmu Borgir as a black metal band, Silenoz not only suggests the term is no longer relevant to them, he goes even further.
“I don't think it really ever had [any relevance], either. It's just a term,” he says. “I think when you listen to music, it's still a subjective thing. If you call your music black metal, that doesn't decide if the music is good or not. It's always up to the ears to hear and it's subjective. At this time in our career, we don't take too much notice of it. We know where we come from, but at the same time we have taken several steps further. Bands from the same genre have stagnated either because they can't take it further or just because they want to stay there. We always look forward: full on, full ahead, forward.”
There was a time when the very idea of a band like Dimmu Borgir touring with someone like Korn would have been not only unheard of, but unthinkable. Yet this September, precisely that will take place when Dimmu opens the Ballroom Blitz tour across Europe. Silenoz is quick to point out that his band has featured on festivals and tours with non-aligned musical artists since the mid-90s, and laughs off any concerns he might have that the upcoming jaunt with is going to harm their reputation.
“There was some weird responses [from fans],” he admits, “and that was expected. For some fans it might be something really risky and dramatic, but for us it's not really. We've always been about challenging ourselves and indirectly challenging the fans. It's not the first time we've been asked to support Korn, and this time the timing was OK and there's no restrictions on sound or stageshow or anything like that. If there was, we wouldn't do it. We feel that as much fun and pleasureable as it is to play in front of your dedicated fanbase, we as artists also want to branch out. It's again something we don't see the drama in. Because ever since 96-97 we have played all these different alternative festivals all over the place, where one day you play with Faithless and the next you play with fucking Meatloaf!”
“For us it's nothing new, but I can understand that for the 15, 16-year old fans, it might be something not "true" or whatever,” Silenoz says with a laugh. “You always have a certain percentage of your fanbase who are very conservative... they stick to one thing. But the majority of Korn's and Dimmu's fans are open-minded enough to let some other impressions sink in. It's all about sharing our music with as many people as possible. Preaching to the converted all the time is not going to make that difference!”
He laughs again, before entering into an explanation about the lyrical inspiration behind Abrahadabra, their ninth full-length album. The title comes from Aleister Crowley’s Liber AL vel Legis, the central text of his religious philosophy Thelema, and the album delves into many of its concepts. Crowley has long provided inspiration for metal and its followers, often through his complex and misunderstood association with Satanism and the media’s representation of him as the Wickedest Man in the World. But as a devotee of the man, Silenoz has a deeper understanding of Crowley’s philosophies and beliefs.
“It's not like when we were 15, 16 years old and we were extremely fascinated by him as a character,” he says. “After you grow up [you] get the perception and understanding of his works a lot more, from a different perspective. He was such an innovator and opened up many doors to the occult to the common man so he could understand it too. I've taken a lot of inspiration from that, and how I see things. Aleister Crowley was obsessed for much of his life with the idea of rebirth and reincarnation and conceptually that works so well with some of the lyrical themes from this album, for we see obviously that with each new album we renew ourselves. It's a new start, but it's even more so than ever with this album. That's why it all connects symbolically. I don't want to talk too much about the lyrical content this time because we want those who are interested to see it from an open point of view and I don't want people to have the perception that it's all cliched and all about how Aleister Crowley was the most evil man in the world. No, he wasn't. He was quite a different person from most of us, but he did what we have done for our whole career. We have followed our True Will, without our caring about, as much as an inch, about what other people say about us negatively.”
The idea of True Will is at the core of Thelema, a way of behaving and believing that is in harmony with Nature, leading to spiritual transformation.
“We've always been taught that we should restrict our instincts in some way,” says Silenoz. “And at the end of the day, we are an animal, and we have those instincts. Yes, we are probably the most rational animal but when you start to put a lid on those feelings, not only do you limit yourself spiritually and mentally, it's gonna burst eventually. If you go with how you develop yourself as a person, take it step by step, it's gonna make you good. It's not going to do harm. And that's what people totally misunderstand when it comes to a lot of the occult.”
Like mention of Crowley, for many people the term “occult” beckons visions of nefarious evil doings and black magic. For Silenoz, however, it is the occult that nurtures free thought and the essence of the individual, the exact opposite of what he sees in the traditional religions.
“For me, what is "black magic" is what a lot of the Christian groups do these days,” he says. “The way they attract weak minded people and take advantage of them. To me, that's fuckin' evil! [laughs]”