Depending on which side of the spectrum one lies, Dimmu Borgir is either the most loved or most loathed of Norway's black metal exports, having ridden the road to popularity without any of the usual apologist backpedaling, firmly ignoring the necro diehards that think of them as the very symbol of what they never wanted to happen to the genre. Through it all, the band have consistently written albums that have by no means sucked as hard as they are given credit for, arguably peaking creatively with 1997's Enthrone Darkness Triumphant and making budgetary allowances with the formula since, since the band can now afford to work with actual choirs and orchestras rather than just a keyboard player.
On the other hand, they've not been quite as good as some make them out to be, either, at least not for a decade plus change. Oh, they'll occasionally have a song on their hands that is difficult to deny, like the catchy "Progenies of the Great Apocalypse" which has been used in numerous films, commercials and whatnot. I even found the previous album In Sorte Diaboli to have its moments, but despite the band's ability to create massive, sweeping orchestral black metal epics these past few forays, they never seem able to nail a true masterpiece. Their latest album, the tragically (to some) titled Abrahadabra, we have another case of a symphonic tour de force, that despite all its best intentions and the efforts of the remaining Dimmu core (Shagrath, Silenoz, and Galder), just doesn't really last well beyond the initial impressions made when anyone hears the simmering strings, serious business choral sections and creepy organs.
Since the band parted ways with bassist/clean vocalist ICS Vortex and synth player Mustis a year or so back, there were a few holes to fill here, and they did so using Snowy Shaw for both bass and vocals. Shaw's been quite the metal mercenary of late, working with the recent but sadly mediocre Therion outfit, and he's certainly an adequate replacement here. Drums are played by Darek 'Daray' Brzozowski (Vader, Vesania, etc), with the professional thunder expected of anyone to wield that seat in this band, and there are additional vocal guest spots here from Agnete Maria Forfang Kjølsrud and Kristoffer Rygg (Ulver). Andy Sneap is in the mixing both, and the band have chosen to use the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and Schola Cantorum Choir to round out the proceedings.
I'll add that never before has a Dimmu Borgir record been such an ambitious undertaking. Most of the prior albums had their 'symphonic' element, but this is actually pretty evenly a symphonic black metal record, with the former just as pronounced as the latter. There is so much to take in at any given time that I often found myself listening back through specific segments of tracks to listen for particular melodies I thought I heard. The production is stunning, integrating the orchestra with the largely Spiritual Black Dimensions core of the songwriting. A few of the songs carve out an even further ambition, like Silenoz having his way with some shredding in "Renewal", or the bleak an intriguing dark ambient intro to "Ending and Continuations", with its creepy Shagrath narrative.
But the bulk of the record is sheer drum & orchestra driven fare, like a more distinctly aggressive, black metal alternative to Therion (circa 1996 and beyond), and this is where it both excels and begins to fall apart. Rousing monoliths like "A Jewel Traced Through Coal" and "Born Treacherous" center themselves around traditional Dimmu blasting rhythms and thick, charnel house chords, but the metal riffs themselves almost never seem to be nearly as interesting as what is going on around them, serving only as vehicles to the next sweeping vista of grandeur. This is not for lack of riffs, mind ye, for Silenoz is often churning out a dozen or so per individual song, and he's developed a proficient technical ability. But for some reason, you get the feeling that if you stripped out the orchestra and choir shouting 'Born treacherous!', it would be a middling affair at best, with fast and frenzied but ultimately forgettable guitar lines.
There are a number of 'treats' on the album, so to speak, tracks where the hard work here really comes together, like "The Demiurge Molecule", which has a fresher, more spontaneous feel as the guitars crash along to Shagrath's snarling, subtle currents of symphony choosing submission to the simplistic, slow escalation of diabolic majesty. The pure orchestral pieces like "Xibir" and the bonus track version of "Gateways" show a clear influence from a Hans Zimmer or John Williams, and both make suitable soundtracks to whatever grandiose fantasy you're about to indulge in. Huge choir-driven tracks like "Dimmu Borgir" and "Chess With the Abyss" have their moments of bristling cheese, but despite Silenoz' great playing in the latter, and the mountain high majesty of the former's bridge, they just didn't resonate with me for very long.
Like any release from this particular band, message boards will flare up, virtual battles being waged between the firmanent & purgatory of the bands' lyrical Acheron by anonymous twats and cable modem scholars the world round, Abrahadabra being either praised as the second coming of Death Cult Armageddon or blazed into the cinders of the same prepackaged hatred that always follows the big Norse acts like this around. In reality, it's an album the band have put a great deal of work into, which sadly is just not all that great. Individual components meet their polished prime, perhaps, and one cannot really fault a lack of musical skill or foresight in the structure of such an undertaking, but the moments that lapsed me into an inattentive coma sadly outweighed those of edge of my seat rapture.
If you truly appreciated the band's past catalog beginning with Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, and you've hung on to the edge of your own seat through offerings like Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia, then you'll likely wrench an appreciation out of this roiling mass. If you hate the unconsecrated ground the band walks on, well then take a number, and if you're lucky you'll get to voice a complaint at the front desk before you're forced to shift over to the Cradle of Filth line. Personally, I'm not impressed other than the palpable amount of effort here, but neither will I greet its yawning, pseudo-Satanic eaves with an unending tirade of expletives.
Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]