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Amidst the allegations that they had finally 'sold out', Dimmu Borgir's 'Death Cult Armageddon' was, and is an album that is met with raised eyebrows throughout the black metal community. True enough, there was an increasing trend towards a more polished production standard and even- dare I mention- melodic hooks, yet the bat continued to proclaim that they were simply trying to 'spread their message to more people'. Now, whether you may love Dimmu Borgir or hate them, it's difficult to deny that they have been ambitious with certain aspects of their music, most notably their incorporation of a symphonic orchestra into their Norwegian black metal sound. 'Death Cult Armageddon' is arguably Dimmu Borgir's most confident use of the symphonic aspect to date, and makes for a cinematic black metal experience, although some of the band's other elements aren't as fleshed out as they should have been.
'Progenies Of The Great Apocalypse' was the first song I ever heard from Dimmu years ago, and it is a fair indicator of the direction of the album, if not its quality. This single would lure me in with a bombastic performance by the Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague (conducted and arranged by Gaute Storaas), as well as some high production values that I wasn't used to for black metal at the time. Although there is nothing else on the album that quite matches the quality of this teaser track, the song's mixture of film score-worthy orchestral music and black metal runs throughout the entirety of 'Death Cult Armageddon'. Although the symphonic sound is nothing new to metal, only a few bands have the dedication and resources to commission a full-blown orchestra to fulfill their sound, and it is realized beautifully here.
As far as Dimmu Borgir (the band) goes themselves, they are still at centerstage in the music. Many of these songs run in a similar fashion; with chugging guitars and thunderous drums rumbling in parallel with the orchestra. Bassist ICS Vortex even occasionally delivers some wonderfully dramatic clean singing here and there, an element of the band's sound that is far too scarce, in my opinion. Frontman Shagrath's vocals here are very distinctive from the average frostbitten howl, but his rasp feels a little underwhelming and cold, thanks in large part to the sense of overproduction that runs throughout the album. A clear sounding production can work without robbing black metal of its atmosphere or ferocity- look no farther than Watain for an example- but there is very little left to the imagination here.
For what the band may lack in atmosphere or ferocity however, they do make up for it in terms of their ambition and dramatic intensity. Without the added non-metal elements to 'Death Cult Armageddon', this would have been a barely decent work. Dimmu Borgir performs with skill here, but the true limelight is on Gaute Storaas and the Prague Philharmonic. Coupled with an interesting, albeit ridiculous packaging, 'Death Cult Armageddon' is an album I went into with dubious expectations, but I am finding myself now impressed by what they have done here.