Dimmu Borgir/Enslaved/Sahg, London HMV Forum, 21/09/10

Apparently it goes like this – if you don’t follow the tenets set down in this tiny little record store in Oslo in 1991, and your band aren’t signed to Deathlike Silence Records, or you’ve never burnt down a church, then YOU AREN’T TRUE BLACK METAL. It’s not really a club I’m that eager to join to be honest – I’ll stick with the, er, false black metal (?) for now

However, even those bands who aren’t allowed into that little clique tend to sound a bit similar. This could be due to having a similar world outlook, similar techniques or aspirations; or it could be due to having listened only to Venom, and having a stunning lack of ambition. Either way, sometimes, you just want some variety.  The ‘Darkness Reborn’ tour is a bit unusual, and somewhat special. All of the bands involved are known for not only being Norwegian, but doing things differently.

Opening band Sahg’s inclusion was initially a bit of a puzzler – they’ve got a psychedelic doom sound, and they seem to take their ‘heavy cues’ chiefly from doom legends Cathedral. Not really the openers you’d expect for a showcase of Norwegian Black Metal; but they’ve taken the Gloomy British doom sound and given it a frostier edge; an edge which makes most of those that got here early take note.

Sahg are a sort of a Bergen-based super-group, although it’s probably worth singling out their bass player, King.

Otherwise known as King ov Hell.

Otherwise known as the Bass player from Gorgoroth.

Free of the corpse paint, and, those BLACK METAL RULES he’s on wicked form, he looks happier (or something close to it).

While their first two albums (Sahg I & Sahg II) are closer in sound and feel to Black Sabbath’s ‘Master of Reality’ or ‘Vol. 4’, the disc they’re out to promote tonight (Sahg III – you see what they did there?) is a teensy bit of a departure. I can hear bits of Soundgarden, or Temple of the Dog: not your usual doom fare. These flourishes combine with the doom and give off a sort of ‘classic-rock’ vibe, which elicits nodding from everyone who isn’t queuing at the bar.

Pretty much everyone still has folded arms it’s true, but they ARE digging it.

Legendary Blackvikingprogfolksters Enslaved are a different barrel of pagans altogether. Originally a true(ish) black metal band, they swapped the spikes and Satanism which are all too rife within the black ‘scene’, and started off down a route exploring their own proud heritage through a (then) unique mix of folk and progressive elements (no, NOT like Bathory). And on record, it’s great stuff: most extreme bands seem to aim for a sound that would strip paint/varnish/skin from any given surface, Enslaved seem fixed on binding said surfaces with rough bark or moss. If they’re aiming to put you in mind of an autumn forest on a crisp day, they’re more than succeeding.

However.

What should have been utterly enthralling was just a little bemusing: the sound was terrible (And I’m choosing to ignore a frankly baffling lighting set up, which was WAY too strobe heavy).  I’m going to put it down to poor luck and nothing more.

Maybe a new sound guy or an unsuitable PA.

Who knows….. Guitarist Arve Isdal was VERY low in the mix, but compared to Singer/Bass player Grutle Kjellson’s predicament, he should count himself lucky. I know that I saw the tendons on Grutle’s neck strain when he roared or shrieked, and I can tell the bass WAS playing out somewhere (he was definitely tuning it to something over the monitors) but it didn’t come out over the PA.

Enslaved should have been a rare treat on this bill, and a very significant portion of the crowd had turned out for them. Occasionally flashes of the brilliance they’ve shown on record came through the muddy noise; and captivating it was when it did, but overall, and (no) thanks to a terrible sound, this wasn’t their finest moment.

On to Dimmu Borgir. And the chance to hear tracks from ‘Abrahadabra’ a week early.

YES, they’re singing about ‘darkness’; YES, there are vicious riffs, bloodcurdling screams and growls; YES, there are blastbeats…. I could go on; while there are the familiar trappings, the new stuff is GOOOOOOOOD.

When they’re symphonic, it’s majestic; when they’re bestial, they’ll rip you apart.

To call ‘Abrahadabra’ a ‘hotly anticipated new album’ is only telling half the story: gone are ICS Vortex (Bass, Clean Vocals) and Mustis (Keyboards), defining facets of the ‘Dimmu sound’, so this record could be viewed as a ‘make or break’ moment. But, this ISN’T a review of the album.

As the swirling strings of album opener ‘Xibir’ creep from a smoky, green lit stage, covered in pentagrams, inverted crosses and arcane symbols, one thing is immediately clear: in the new Dimmu Borgir, there are the 3 at the back, and three at the front – Shagrath, Silenoz and Galder. (There’s also an incense stick burning by a lyric stand, it’s not really EVIL, but it is endearing).

Clad in fur and white leather (pretty sure that that in itself is a rule breach) and ripping into a venomous ‘Spellbound (by the Devil)’ it’s almost as if the trio at the bands creative heart are out to prove that Dimmu existed before both Mustis and Vortex, and to prove it not only to us, but to themselves. And proof enough is found in the pairing of ‘Indoctrination’ and ‘The Chosen Legacy’. Whilst taken from vastly different points in Dimmu’s history, both are ugly and brutal pieces of work, and seem to be setting the scene for something bigger.

And it is MUCH bigger. While we are treated to a five song burst of new material, Shagrath’s onstage mask slips slightly, and he introduces new songs ‘Born Treacherous’ and ‘Gateways’ with a mix of ‘stage voice’ and ‘real voice’. It might be because this is only the second date of an album promotion cycle, it could be an element of nerves over how the new material will be received. It’s probably a little of both.

Having since heard ‘Abrahadabra’ in its entirety, it’s a bit of a leap forward from ‘In Sorte Diaboli’ in terms of production and scale. In some ways, more so in the live arena (and especially in the current venue), this sense of scale is a bit of a liability: it is painfully obvious that the strings and other orchestration are on a backing track, as are the female vocals from ‘Gateways’, and they’re too quiet. Here aspects of what used to set Dimmu apart seem like more of an accent than an integral part of the whole. With ‘Abrahadabra’ still to be released, this is a bit of a shortcoming: if the crowd don’t know the songs we don’t know, for example, if it is ‘a quiet bit’ or ‘a choral’ bit, so we’re bound to be more curious than enthusiastic. It doesn’t help matters if we’re not hearing what we’re supposed to be hearing. That said, stripped bare, the new songs seem to have taken another step further from the black metal blueprint, something Dimmu Borgir have always had in their sights.

As ‘A Jewel Traced Through Coal’ finishes, he admits that the new songs take a bit of getting used to, moving back to more familiar ground with ‘The Blazing Monoliths of Defiance’ and ‘Vredesbyrd’, the latter dedicated to Former Drummer Nick Barker, and, for me at least, the moment when the band find what resembles a comfort zone, and the pace shifts, and simply doesn’t stop till the end of the encore.

By thus time clad in black leather, Dimmu return with ‘The Serpentine Offering’ and ‘Progenies of the Great Apocalypse’, both are immense songs; both require Vortex’s vocals. There’s a neat trick here – the PA carries the clean backing track, Shagrath growls the words, the crowd roar them. It’s really something – you know it’s a little bit ‘stadium’, but you don’t care. And, some people will see the fun in it, some will feel cheated.

Between the two nestled ‘Puritania’. And it was just as taut and corrosive as its recorded version. This is the sound of a nuclear wind destroying everything in its path. It’s angry and spiteful: a squalling barrage of misanthropia.

They close with ‘Mourning Palace’, and leave the stage to ‘Perfection or Vanity’ and it’s pretty much ‘classic-Dimmu-by-numbers’.

And that, by the way, is a good thing.

Dimmu Borgir proved about a decade ago that they had the strength of vision and onstage presence to leave black metal and its prohibitive rules far behind. ‘Abrahadabra’ and its attendant tour shows that they are also now striving to leave their own legacy, and any expectations we have of them far behind as well.

Overall, this wasn’t a bad night, and was probably a ‘good’ one: it was just hindered a little by unfamiliarity, and a lot by sound issues. When the audience has had time to digest ‘Abrahadabra’ and the PA and backing track have been balanced a bit more, it’ll easily be a ‘great’ one.

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