Dimmu Borgir assemble their Forces Of The Northern Night

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Black metal’s best-known symphonic band that performs and records with symphonies has performed and recorded with a symphony for a new record. Ultimate realization, or unnecessary retread?

Fair warning up front: I’m going to switch off between “orchestral” and “symphonic” a bunch in this review. There’s just no way around it.

Dimmu Borgir have always had symphonic aspirations beyond simply writing black metal that’s heavy on keyboards. Melodies on songs like “Reptile” and “The Serpentine Offering” take inspiration more from film soundtracks than from the band’s corpse-painted peers, evoking cinematic sequences of advancing armies under storm-blasted skies, boasting ashen banners of a triumphant, enthroned darkness that promises to usher in atrocities from nightmarish, blackened spiritual dimensions.

In an effort to double-down on that muse, DB have been recording with an orchestra and/or symphony for each album of new material since 2001’s Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia – jump to 2010 and the band had fired two key members leading up to their most recent album to date, Abrahadabra, also featuring a live orchestra and choir. Working as a three piece, Shagrath, Silenoz and Galder were likely more than eager to showcase what they could accomplish on their own terms and booked performances in Oslo with the Norwegian Broadcasting Orchestra and Wacken with Czech National Orchestra, both accompanied by the Schola Cantorum Choir, and each performance featuring over a hundred musicians onstage. The resulting album (held up by several years of delays), Forces of the Northern Night, is a mix of tracks from these Oslo and Wacken performances.

With no new material to digest on this release, I’ll shamelessly steal the commenting format of our Flush It Friday posts and break this review down into the good, the bad, and the ugly.

THE GOOD

Most of these songs were written with an orchestra in mind, so the accompaniment is a natural fit. Symphonic elements are expanded and enriched, with the band mixed slightly down to make room for it all. The purely instrumental renditions are the album’s highlights, serving as palate-cleansing intermissions between bursts of bombast and giving you a chance to appreciate the layers of melody and instrumentation already present in much of DB’s recent and past work. “Vredesbyrd,” “Dimmu Borgir” (the song) and “Kings of the Carnival Creation” in particular benefit greatly from the orchestral accompaniment throughout their widely-varying sections, although the ICS Vortex vocals in the latter are sorely missed.

THE BAD

The album is almost certainly more impressive to watch than to listen to. Without the sweeping crane-cam views of cloaked choirs and a foggy stage, it can be hard to appreciate the amount of organization and effort going into cramming a hundred fucking people onstage to play these songs. This is a performance with live audience members (and DVD viewers) firmly in mind. Die-hard fans may even find themselves preferring the original versions since these songs lose a degree of punch and tightness live, and a few tracks like “Puritania” and “Mourning Palace” suffer from a bit of symphonic bloat, going all-in where staying minimal would sound more effective.

THE UGLY

That it took the band six years to release this material indicates that they may be getting crushed under their own weight – they’re slowly morphing into a Trans-Siberian Orchestra entity, unable to appear in concert with fewer than 75 musicians, two dozen roadies and several buses worth of equipment. A “return to our roots” album evoking the (comparatively) leaner, meaner sounds of their early work would surely be welcome among long-time fans, but then they’d risk alienating the legions of new fans who attend these shows specifically to hear the Norwegian equivalent of the Galactic Empire play soaring paeans to astral planes and elder gods. It’s a tough spot to be in.

This is strictly an album/live video for Dimmu Borgir completists and fans of metal-bands-playing-live-with-an-orchestra. Some songs sound fantastic, but others sound a little overstuffed. Since most songs have already been recorded with an orchestra for their respective original albums, seeing them performed live is dramatic, but feels somewhat redundant. Forces of the Northern Night is the apotheosis of Dimmu Borgir’s cinematic ambitions cultivated over the last 16 years, but where they go from here is anyone’s guess. A different orchestra on each song? Ten choirs? Scoring a film? Playing in space? Dubstep?

3.5 / 5 TOILETS OV HELL

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If you’re a diehard fan, you can pick up Forces of the Northern Night next Friday via Nuclear Blast.

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