Photo by Per Heimly
For my money, it’s only in certain European nations where underground metal subgenres get any kind of mainstream recognition. I’m talking about the album charts, radio play, and award nominations. For many countries, these bands turn out to be their main cultural export. In Norwegian black metal, it would be difficult to argue that there’s a bigger band than Dimmu Borgir. Norway’s prosperous image has always been at odds with black metal’s international appeal, but it does seem that Dimmu gets more mainstream attention at home than any other extreme band in memory. But according to guitarist and founding member Silenoz, the attention is usually fleeting.
“The media in Norway, they care about you if you have a new release or if you have a show” he says.
“Then you don’t hear anything from them after that, so we’re still very far from becoming anything mainstream, and that’s something I’m proud of.”
Over the years Dimmu has courted controversy in different ways. In the early days it was due to the perceived malevolent content of the music, but now it’s trolling from metalhead elitists who don’t approve of the band’s popularity and newer symphonic style.
“I think we have always been a controversial band, and we still are” says Silenoz.
“That’s something else that makes me proud because that means we’re doing something right. We have the two polarities, either people hate us or they love us. That’s the perfect spot to be in, for me at least. But we don’t do that on purpose. It’s just a result of who we are and how we make our music. It’s an honest thing, and if you’re loved and hated for doing something that’s honest, then nothing is better than that.”
However, even before the pandemic, it wasn’t clear what the band was up to. So after I saw news of an upcoming album from Silenoz’s death metal side project Insidious Disease, I wanted to reach out and see how the shutdown has affected both of his bands, and also himself on a personal level. Luckily for him, he’s been able to spend most of the downtime with his son.
“He's been homeschooling, and so I’ve been trying to pretend I’m a teacher, which kind of reminds me how much I disliked school,” he says with a laugh, speaking from his home in the Norwegian countryside.
“But it’s good because you get to be closer, and he’s gonna turn 8 this year. He’s at a very specific age in his life where he’s getting formed and molded pretty easily. They say from 5-8 or around that time (children) grow into what they’re gonna be later in life. He reminds me a lot of myself at that age. He’s taking (the shutdown) pretty well I think. I’m sure he misses hanging out and playing a little bit, but he’s also very independent for being that young. He occupies himself and entertains himself. I’m really proud of him cause he seems to be a smart kid, smarter than I was at his age at least (laughs).”
Their property is an old farm that’s no longer in operation, and the house itself is quite special, as it’s in fact Silenoz’s childhood home. So he gets to raise his son in the same house he grew up in.
“This place (has been around) since before the Black Death” he says with a note of pride.
“So the farm I’m living on is actually from before 1350. It’s quite a special place I would say, I feel really at home here. The farmhouses are still there, there’s a lot of shit that’s tucked away. We could probably do 2 episodes of Hoarders (laughs). I work on music pretty much every day, or I write stuff. Trying to stay creative, focused, and healthy. I could never live in the city, I’ve never lived in the city. That’s not for me, I need some peace and quiet. The bad thing about coming home from a tour and living the countryside where everything’s quiet is, shit, your ears are ringing like motherfuckers!”
But even before concerts and album releases ground to a halt, it did feel as though the band was conspicuously absent from touring and press. Their most recent album, 2018’s Eonian, was their first in 8 years, and it arrived with much fanfare. But now 2 years after its release, there didn’t seem to be much noise from the Dimmu camp.
“Since the album came out up until April of this year we’ve done close to 70 shows, which is not really a lot when you consider the stretch (of time),” he says.
“From the outside it looks like we haven’t done that much, and I guess we haven’t. We’re a touring band, but we’ve never been a heavily-touring band, at least not in the last decade. We’re trying not to play just to play. We wanna obviously take it to the next level, and you gotta try and be smart about it. There’s so (many) expenses in what we do, just to put on one show.”
I admitted surprise that a band who is usually a guaranteed draw would have this kind of difficulty doing what they’d done so many times before. I wanted to know if perhaps the long wait between albums was a part of the problem.
“Over the years, since we haven’t played as much as other bands on the same level, we have made ourselves kind of exclusive in that sense,” he says.
“Once we do put on a tour, it (has) really good attendance. That’s the upside of it. But let’s say if we were going to put on a run in the U.S, the thing with how it’s become so strict with visas, you don’t really even know if you’re going to get it on time. To have so much at stake, there’s so much money involved. There’s still a chance to take because how the climate has evolved over the last few years, even the last 2-3 years before we released the latest album, so many changes.”
Silenoz (second from right) with Dimmu Borgir - Photo by Per Heimly
So to me that then begs the question of whether it’s manageable to keep a band on Dimmu’s level profitable, as their status as a legacy act with high production values has seemingly made it far more difficult for them to tour in the West. One thing I’ve noticed about Silenoz is that he often greets difficultly with a perhaps, casual optimism. It’s not a happy-no-matter-what kind of thing, more of a shrug of the shoulder “well, at least” kind of thing. As a Canadian I relate to this.
“I think it’s still manageable for sure!” he says enthusiastically.
“It’s just trying to find the right timing, and we had 2 or 3 tours lined up for North America, but routing and availability and all these factors (came up) that people don’t take into consideration. So that was put on hold, and of course with everything now it’s going to be more challenging later on. The main income (for bands) is to play live, doesn’t matter what level you’re at. That means a lot of competition (for) routing for North America. I hope we can manage to do a proper North American tour, at least for this album, once things are a bit more quiet. I think once things are a little back to normal, people are going to wanna go to shows again. There’s gonna be a positive outcome of the situation. I think not this year, but next year, there’s gonna be a boom in that area. It’s a delicate situation for anyone that is an artist. Whether it’s a musician, or actor, or painter, or journalist. The positive thing that I see, I feel that the album is pretty fresh from my perspective.”
Eonian continues the band’s modern emphasis on symphonic elements, but has many nods to their early releases in terms of vocals and riffs. The album also features the same keyboards that were used on their landmark 90s releases. However I doubt that these elements will do anything to convert anyone who only enjoys those older tunes. It’s one of the 2 time periods in Dimmu’s existence that have been highly romanticized by fans. But unlike certain other black metal bands who continue to bank on edgelord activities from their teen years, Dimmu keeps evolving in the right direction.
“Teens have this default rebellion, you can compare (the 90s Norwegian black metal scene) to how the punk scene was in the 70s” says Silenoz.
“It would be kind of weird if we wouldn’t move on mentally, spiritually, musically, and artistically. The early days of the band, the early albums has its charm I would say. There’s nothing that I personally regret about any of those albums because those were a stepping stone to now. I’m really proud of the fact that we have evolved in the right direction, at least from where we stand. We’ve never been a band that focuses on the depressive parts of the black metal thing anyway. I feel that as time has passed by, we have become more of an empowering type of unit.”
The other period that is often held up as essential by fans is the lineup that existed roughly from 2001-2009. Band founders Silenoz and vocalist Shagrath, were joined by guitarist Galder (Old Man’s Child), bassist ICS Vortex (Borknagar, Arcturus), keyboardist Mustis (Susperia), and drummers Nicholas Barker (Cradle of Filth, Lock Up, was fired from Dimmu in early 2004) and Hellhammer (Mayhem). It was basically an extreme metal supergroup. 2003’s Death Cult Armageddon landed the band on the U.S. Ozzfest tour, and had two songs featured in the trailer for the original Hellboy movie. Then 2007’s In Sorte Diaboli became the first black metal album to chart Number 1 in Norway. The end of this lineup was punctuated by the very public departure of Mustis and Vortex, but it remains perhaps the most noted time in the band’s existence.
“I think Death Cult has sold, I’m not gonna say a specific number, but I think around 150,000 copies in North America, and doing Ozzfest in 2004 was really helpful with getting the band on the map outside this so-called underground scene” says Silenoz
“That’s the album that has the proper stronghold there by a longshot. That was maybe one of the peaks for the band as well, especially when it came to personalities in the band. That was obviously, the cause of a few clashes (laughs), as everybody knows now! It is how it is, to be in a band, to be in a group. You get to know each other over a longer period of time, and you get to really know each other once you’ve been touring for a long time too. It's one thing to see each other as rehearsal, make songs together, and you go back to your home. But on tour there’s nowhere to go. If you’re on tour 2 months straight, then you have a week (at a time) at home, that’s what’s gonna make or break a lot of people. That doesn’t mean people are bad or anything, it just means that you’re bound to butt heads sooner or later.”
A song from this period that I’ve often wondered about is the ultra-symphonic “Progenies of the Great Apocalypse” from Death Cult Armageddon, which is still perhaps their most popular track. The music is credited as written entirely by Mustis in the liner notes. The rest of the album seems quite collaborative, so I wanted to know a bit more about how this black metal classic came together.
“It's a proper Dimmu song,” says Silenoz.
“Mustis obviously had a lot to do with it musically. For us, Mustis has never been a songwriter, but has always been good at coming up with musical pieces, ideas, and themes that the rest of us put together in a song. It would be fair to say that he came up with most of the musical ideas for that song, but he’s not the type of musician that is able to put things together in that sense. Everything this band has done over the years has been a group effort. I’m not gonna take anything away from the older members, all of them have put their touch to how we sounded at the time. In some places, some get more credit than others, and then it’s turned around on a different song, on a different album. Every band has their own way of spreading publishing and royalties. It's hard to go into specifics, because the way we do our publishing is obviously our way of doing things (and is) not in the public eye.”
Silenoz’s next project is the second album from his death metal supergroup side outfit Insidious Disease, most notably featuring Napalm Death bassist Shane Embury, called After Death. To me it seems incredibly difficult to have to begin to promote a new album during an industry shutdown, but it turns out that the release date has already been pushed back.
Silenoz (left) with Insidious Disease vocalist Marc Grewe - Photo Courtesy of Nuclear Blast
“This is the second album now, 10 years since the debut, so we had to wait until the pandemic hit to take advantage of it!” says Silenoz laughing.
“It’s gonna be out later this year. We actually had a release date for it but since everything that’s happened, everything has been put on hold from the label’s side, all their releases actually. It feels really good to get this thing off our chest. It’s been sitting on the shelf for a couple years actually. Some of the songs on this album are from 2011-2013.”
I was lucky enough to see Insidious Disease perform at Wacken 2009, and it seemed obvious to me from that night that Silenoz enjoys playing classic-style death metal in a way that he can’t with Dimmu’s bombastic black metal. Dimmu is theatrical, while Insidious is relaxed and groovy.
“It’s a total different approach than with Dimmu, because especially over the last 2 decades (Dimmu) has got a lot more analytical, and there’s this certain way of approaching songwriting “ he says happily.
“Insidious, it’s very much spontaneous. We like to finish songs quicker. We like to let the groove show the way and we try not to think too technical. Insidious is supposed to be something, you know, not reinventing the wheel. It’s pretty much an homage to the old bands. It’s our take on it with a modern twist.”
The difference artistically between Dimmu Borgir and Insidious Disease paints a perfect portrait of who I think Silenoz is as a person. He can wax on about esoteric and metaphysical concepts, but he stays grounded with a dry, friendly sense of humour. He loves isolation but he is certainly not an elitist, and is very easy to speak to. So before I left him for the evening I wanted to know if he had any thoughts on the strange times that we find ourselves in. His answer made me wonder if he likes his new role as a teacher more than he realizes.
“I think it’s important to trust your gut feeling” he says.
“That’s what I’ve learned the hard way, (that) I should always trust my gut feeling, my intuition. There’s obviously ways of developing that as well. If you have a good feeling about (something), then look into (it). It’s important to keep an open mind about everything, and that’s how you acquire knowledge over a period of time. That’s something that you can use to your benefit, and the benefit of the people around you.”
You can stream Dimmu Borgir's Eonian in full, as well as the first single from Insidious Disease's After Death, "Enforcers of the Plague," below.