Considering the praise justly heaped on Dimmu Borgir's 1997 "Enthrone Darkness Triumphant" and especially their last album, "Death Cult Armageddon," it may seem like a stretch to put "In Sorte Diaboli" at the top of their output, but it is very difficult not to be floored by the musical commitment displayed on this album; it's at the same level of effort as a Pantera album, or a late Death album. And while 5-stars are fairly often given out (I do it myself), sometimes the 5-star rating means a truly definitive musical statement. This is such a case.
I can imagine some critics (or fans) seeing this disc as Dimmu Borgir simply re-treading the same water they did so well in "Death Cult Armageddon," but even if that is the case, this disc makes me want to listen to it again and again; "Death Cult Armageddon" I pull out from time to time. There's definitely something "more" here, particularly for those who set aside any nostalgia for Nick Barker and listen to what Hellhammer serves up on drums. This is a good case in point, since the difference in the drumming (and everywhere) is in subtleties. Subtlety is generally not a mainstay of this kind of metal but, as they say, the devil's in the details.
The weakest element of "In Sorte Diaboli" is its concept (a priest discovers his affinity for Satan, the powers accrued thereto, and is burnt alive), but while it is fairly slight in itself, the task of telling a story seems to have made the band more musically conscious of how to sequence both the songs and the disc overall.
"The Serpentine Offering," at 5'09", opens with a Gothic orchestral war march, complete with chanting chorus, then restates the orchestral theme with a full metal workout. At around 90 seconds into the song, however, you get your first taste of Dimmu Borgir upping the ante on what they normally do so well. The guitars and drums here are not just punishing and huge, but the keyboards (or strings) shrill in the background to add a literal edge to the music. The cuts in vocal style here are also particular vicious, and lead immediately into a gargantuan and relentlessly punishing rift. Another quick riff, then its back to the orchestral theme, followed by a 100% melodic clean vocals section, lushly produced, and gargantuan again. (I had to say gargantuan twice.) Some spoken vocals lead back into the second theme again, which hammers its way out the end of the song. A complete showcase of a song, beautifully put together and executed.
"The Chosen Legacy," at 4'17", starts with the familiar death metal vocal roar and a frantic smash-fest of guitar, drums, and bass. However, not content with this, at 60 seconds, another moment of Dimmu Borgir exceeding themselves occurs. A second riff starts, sounding almost in an unusual time signature--a sawing kind of thing, with an arpeggiated guitar chord to top it off--which then is imitated on keyboard as a set up to the return of the riff again. It's the contrast here that particularly shows the intensity of this disc--the brief keyboard bit makes the guitars that much heavier, and their return that much more gratifying. This kind of contrast is a Dimmu Borgir staple, but it hardly seems that they have ever so consistently put it to such excellent use as they do on this album.
"The Conspiracy Unfolds," at 5'24", with its drum-guitar blast to kick it off, harkens back to earlier days. And while the song stays fairly safely in the lines of what Dimmu Borgir fans have come to expect--including the vaguely angelic choir of keyboards floating over the top of grinding guitars--even here there is more attention to detail than on previous outings, like the dog-barking vocals as the second riff comes sawing in, and the atypically interwoven drums and guitars around 3 minutes into the song.
"The Sacrilegious Scorn," at 3'58", seems almost to mock Dimmu Borgir's identifiable signature, by starting with a somewhat cheesy Gothy keyboard kind of thing such as one finds all over "Godless Savage Garden". There's even a tongue-in-cheek "ah" to make it seem like one shouldn't take it too seriously. But this opening is kicked soundly in the head by the thundering riff that follows. For the chorus, the usual death rattle gives way to giant melodic metal again, as displayed so gorgeously on the opening track. Another detail: at the end of this melodic chorus, it just sinks away, as the opening guitars take over again (there is a sweet, nasty shrieking squeak at 1'24" as well). See, it's all about the details. A death metal piano ballad then ensues for a few seconds, complete with keyboards and King Diamond like choking gasps. Following a literal avalanche of drums, the band then comes back with even redoubled (retripled?) force to crush its way up to a false stop, and then a quick brutal reprise of the opening. Really, a whole lot of variation in a fairly short space, but it all hangs together--and it's this kind of "narrative complexity" that helps make the songs so compelling.
"The Fallen Arises," at 2'59," (you can guess the plot element by the song title) is a soundscape mostly, keyboards, choir--altogether mellow and a pleasant enough decompression from the intensity of the previous four songs.
"The Sinister Awakening," at 5'09", takes obvious delight in blistering off the pleasant skin of semi-calm the last song provided. The first 90 seconds or so are "typical" Dimmu Borgir, although the production sounds better than ever, but even so, buried in the back of the mix are these glass-like whips of noise--subtle, but effective. At two minutes, the music shifts, the keyboards are cleverly buried in the mix, and the vocals are fed through various freaky effects to great effect, joined by the inevitable chanting choir of dark-spirit types. Around four minutes, another piano death metal ballad kicks in to keep things interesting, as the band slides toward the kind of super-grand, even sublime musical horizonscape they've been aiming to create for a long time. There is a lot of music out there that wants to sound like a lot of this song, but again, the devil's both in the details, and the variation of parts used to construct the songs.
"The Fundamental Alienation," at 5'17", starts off with cello, timpani, corrugated tin roof, and choir of dark spirits as a moody intro, once again quickly dispelled by the kind of wide-open sound that opened the album. One can really hear here how the keyboards have become excellently integrated into the music--far less does it seem like the keyboards are just floating over the music in a semi-campy invocation of all things dark and Gothy. Here, they effectively add to the mood. Around this point, the disc may be beginning to sound self-repetitious, and perhaps that's true, but there are numerous musical backward glances in this song that seem to be drawing together strands of the album's conceptual plot.
"The Invaluable Darkness," at 4'44", starts off loudly, and with shifting rhythms, as if to throw you off balance; the vocals and main riff also seem very start-stop at first, but then settle into a warp speed hammerfest, that avoids dullness largely through vocal variation, and an almost swing-feel to the guitars. The swing feel is brought out all the more by the distinctly melodic vocal chorus--it's hard not to see the guitars as paving the way for the chorus' vocals; yet another example of Dimmu Borgir outdoing themselves. At 3 minutes, another riff that feels like it is in an unusual time signature breaks up the straight ahead hammering for a bit, and then the swing-rhythm takes over again. You know the chorus is coming, but surprise, the song ends instead.
"The Foreshadowing Furnace," at 5'49", kicks off the last song with a clanging bell and an angry crowd (hellbent on burning our anti-hero at the stake), and then a foreshadowing bit of the main riff, which is a heavy, stomping thing with leaping chords (one of the more compelling ones on the disc), rather than the usual grinding. A series of quick changes follow, including a slow-down and an in-your-face vocal snarl, and then a big messy barrage of jagged guitar notes with the bass and drums grinding away underneath, lots of good howls and treated vocals ("I am from beyond your god"). At last, as expected, the opening riff returns, but one hardly minds; one's been waiting all song for it. Three croaking gasps, and then the sound of rushing flames closes out the disc.
An exceptionally listenable, varied, and above all committedly-accomplished album. It really seems as if Dimmu Borgir set out to make a point with this disc; perhaps to prove that no one else can approach the domain over which their dark castle rules. If so, they certainly seem to have succeeded.