Last year, Norwegian symphonic black metalists Dimmu Borgir released In Sorte Diaboli, it's ninth studio album and first ever concept album. However, those who thought of the concept album in the usual sense — from Pink Floyd's The Wall down to Damnation and a Day by Cradle of Filth (a band often associated with Borgir due to their similar combination of heaviness and accessibility) — were in for a surprise. Diaboli had no voice-over narration, no grand orchestral interludes (perhaps all the more striking for a band famous for incorporating classical elements) and the songs are your standard four- to five-minute lengths.
"It is the complete opposite, but we didn't do that intentionally," says guitarist/lyricist Silenoz (Sven Atle Kopperud). "We wrote the songs without really thinking that they had to be 10 minutes or with interludes in between. It was much more jam-based and back-basics, where we just worked on riffs and things we thought sounded good. It was a lot more spontaneous, as opposed to cutting and pasting."
Diaboli tells the story of a medieval priest who not only suffers a crisis in faith but also realizes that he possesses dark supernatural powers. In fact, he's on the fast track to becoming the Antichrist on Earth. Conceptually and lyrically, Silenoz says he was inspired by King Diamond's The Eye and Iron Maiden's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.
But the album's protagonist was directly inspired by certain childhood experiences that turned him against Christianity for life.
"Even at 6 years old I saw what religion did to people," he says. "I wasn't brought up religious but I grew up in the Bible Belt, where the only time to really interact with other kids was at Sunday school. Then one day I said something; my own idea that went against what the teacher was saying. From that day forward, I was treated differently."
Although the medieval setting suits the Black Metal genre's traditional motifs and iconography, Silenoz says the themes on Diaboli are just as relevant today.
"The times of the Inquisition and early Renaissance were dark and difficult and that imagery is appealing," he says. "But contemporary times are dark enough and the album does symbolize today in many ways. All the major conflicts of the day are religious conflicts. As long as there is religion, there will never be peace."
Dimmu Borgir's themes are far from uncommon among members of the Black Metal genre (or in Metal overall). It makes one wonder what exactly the role is for a Black Metal band in this jaded time, where shock value has become a non-factor and the parents of today's teens came of age listening to Ozzy Osbourne. One way to take it to the next level might be to actually live what is being sung about, as opposed to genre godfathers like Slayer, who treated Satanism and random violence as gimmicks or topics of amateur scholarly interest.
In Borgir's native Norway in the early 1990s, for instance, the Black Metal scene was marred by church burnings and an actual murder between rival band members. According to Silenoz, however, Borgir was always more interested in music and playing for people.
"We don't really care how people perceive us," Silenoz says. "We've created our own entities. We know what the band is and when we have to prove something, we prove it to ourselves, which I guess is easier because we sell more albums. I wouldn't say we have a particular message, just an opinion."
When asked whether Borgir ever got it from both sides at home — the question of authenticity from the Black Metal underground on the one hand and guilt-by-association accusations from the mainstream culture on the other due to the scene's criminal reputation at the time — Silenoz claims the former but never the latter.
"We're old boys from the countryside, and that (crime) stuff took place in the cities," he says. "We were young, too, coming in when that was ending and we were consciously smart enough to stay out of trouble, receiving recognition for our music, not non-musical activity like some of the other bands. We still get people who say you can't have keyboards with Black Metal, but we always thought Black Metal was supposed to be satanic, in which case we're more Black Metal than anyone. When we started, we always wanted to get out there and play and hopefully sell some records, which in itself is an achievement. If you're not interested in that and just want to stay in your basement, that's fine, too — but then don't complain."
Silenoz elaborates by saying he feels he has struck the perfect balance between commercial success while staying true to himself.
"Bands can compromise without knowing it," he says. "That we haven't is something I'm very proud of. We're pretty much anti-everything. But we don't see it as our duty to preach, but to enlighten using symbolism and metaphor. What people tend to view negatively, we see it as positive.
"It's like the character on (Diaboli). He's moving from the so-called light to the dark, but he sees it as the other way around. He's shedding the uncomfortable clothes and embracing his humanity, his faults and the knowledge that whatever you do to people; people can come back and do the same to you." ©
DIMMU BORGIR plays at Bogart's on Saturday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.