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Road Reports

Who: Dimmu Borgir
Openers: Enslaved, Dawn of Ashes, Blood Red Throne
Where: Chicago, IL, House of Blues
When: 11.14.10
Writer: Etiam

In recent years, the House of Blues chain has been criticized for banning certain artists from performing at its venues, even after tour arrangements had been made. The criteria often are obscure and their decisions contradictory (The Faceless are too extreme, but Mayhem are not?). The issue may never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction, but on one Sunday afternoon in November, Chicago's House of Blues truly did live up to its image as a house for all comers. In the morning, the venue hosted its Gospel Brunch, a family-friendly blend of American-style buffet and soulful entertainment. In the evening, it welcomed Dimmu Borgir, the Norwegian purveyors of symphonic black metal whose paeans to Satan, etc., have sold more copies in the USA than any Norwegian artist since A-ha ("Take on Me"). In support were countrymen Enslaved—who last played the House of Blues with Opeth—and Blood Red Throne. Scheduled to open was a band called Dawn of Ashes.

In a blow against equal opportunity, the Gospel Brunch threw the rest of the night into some disarray by pushing back load-ins, minimizing sound checks, and generally leaving the backstage in a hectic state. However, all the bands handled the stress well and showed no signs of agitation on stage. In the resulting schedule shuffle, Blood Red Throne actually opened the show, causing me to miss most of their set while in interview. Some fans I spoke with later reported disappointment at the swap, with a few saying that they had come for Blood Red Throne alone. From the portion of their set that I did manage to catch, I can see why. Live and on record, they hit that same primal note as does Suffocation, where gaudy technique is put aside in favor of thick riffing and no-nonsense brutality. They are a little more adventurous than Suffocation, though, and are not complete strangers to melody, which kept the heavy parts (i.e. all the rest of the set) from getting monotonous.

After they finished, many in the audience had just assumed Enslaved were up next, based on the venue's initially announced running order. But when the curtains opened, we were surprised to behold not to Enslaved's familiar visages, but a veritable house of horrors. Of the five figures on stage, some wore fake horns, others masks, another what appeared to be a muscle/monster suit, and all were spattered in enough gore to walk off the stage and straight onto a Rob Zombie film set. Indeed, their costumes were even more thorough than Dimmu's, which is no small achievement. This was Dawn of Ashes.

Musically, they have migrated from origins in the industrial and EBM scene into what they claim to be 'melodic black metal'. In reality, however, they are pioneers of an entirely new subgenre: Gwarcore. Behind the masks, awkward between-song rasps that "we're all sick fucks," and occasional use of minor tremolo patterns, Dawn of Ashes falls closest to the camp of American metal/death/what-have-you-core. The costumes, while admittedly very richly realized, couldn't obscure this fact, and although Dawn of Ashes were well received by a significant portion of the audience (this is, after all, a Dimmu show), many others were nonplussed.

Fortunately, the show got back on track very quickly after that, with a band that gets better every time I see them: Enslaved. This is in part due to the material that comprises their sets, which trends ever more towards post-'Below the Lights'. To be sure, earlier manifestations of the band are exemplary, and it is a pleasure to hear newer renditions of old tracks like 'Jotunblod' from time to time, but newer material is simply more matched to the band's enveloping live experience. Relative lyrical peers like Amon Amarth can churn crowdsurfing waves into a hot-blooded tsunami, and musically progressive brethren such as Opeth can seduce a crowd like snake-charmers, but Enslaved's ability to energize and hypnotize at the same time is entirely unique.

They are also arguably the most complete band I have seen on stage, with every member contributing vitally to the band's sound. The group has achieved a kind of symbiosis that is seamlessly intertwined, and any member's absence would now be a serious creative blow. I can only imagine that this is precisely what the band intended, for during my first interview with Ivar in 2007, he was unrestrained in his enthusiasm, saying, "I hope this lineup is going to last forever." I concur.

Aside from Grutle's solid centering energy, the most important link in Enslaved's live performance chain is Ice Dale. Since he joined the band, his creative voice has been waxing on record, just as his status has been rising on stage. Now, he is fully developed as a rock star lead player, both in looks and performance. His presence—invariably bare-chested, with a Les Paul often propped up on one knee like an offering he extends over the crowd—is Enslaved's most eye-catching, and he sells it well. During his solos, such as 'Fusion of Sense and Earth', which is becoming an iconic live staple, the other members will often resolve into a trancelike, collective groove while Ice Dale conducts at the fore.

It is an organic production, with the torch of leadership being passed from one member to the next without ostentatious ceremony. Still, though, their stage setup keeps Herbrand set back from the audience, even as he assumes more and more vocal duties. After hearing the new record and the complexity of the vocal arrangements, especially over such clashing choruses as on the title track, I wasn't sure that they would translate well to the live show. But Herbrand once again proved his worth, delivering an excellent performance that peaked at the refrain of 'Raidho'.

The setlist entire ran: 'Ethica Odini', 'Raidho', 'Fusion of Sense and Earth', 'Ground', 'The Beacon', and 'Isa'. No surprises, and narrower a selection than I would have liked, but these were all strong choices and filled 40 minutes easily. Many in the front rows were headbanging aggressively, and a few tracks started something of a moshpit, but most fans seemed content to watch the show and groove along to Cato's steady pace. If all goes well, Enslaved will return within the year, with plenty of stage time to satisfy old school fans as well as new.

Last time around with Opeth, Enslaved had technically been direct support, but the bands and audiences both seemed to agree that it was a combined effort—'co-headlining', in a sense. But tonight there was no debate—Dimmu Borgir were in the house, and their fans would accept no alternative. And who can blame them? Almost 20 years into their career, and with nearly as many ex-members in their wake, Dimmu continues to churn out albums every couple of years and is one of metal's most successful representatives in the mainstream. They till similar fields as Cradle of Filth, but have always maintained more legitimacy, in part due to the strength of their back catalogue, and in part due to their member associations (a nearly exhaustive list of Norwegian luminaries). In the end, though, Dimmu endures because of its personalities: Shagrath, Silenoz, and Galder. Each man has earned fame (or notoriety) enough to stand recognizably as a single name in a world suffused with similar monikers. Behind the kit—ostensibly, as his face was covered—was Daray, most known for assuming Doc's throne in Vader after the latter's untimely death in '05. Now with Dimmu, Daray is making a career of living up to legends, having taken over for the likes of Tony Laureano, Nick Barker, and, of course, Hellhammer, all of whom have manned Dimmu's kit in recent years. Filling out the lineup (again, reportedly), was Cyrus on bass (guitarist of Susperia) and the emaciated, wavering keyboardist Geir Bratland (Kovenent), who looked like nothing so much as his counterpart from Rammstein in full Gimp gear.

The defining moment in the set came early on, while I still was taking photos in the pit before the first row. I was standing right up against the stage not three feet from Galder, sizing up a profile shot of the band, when I heard something strange. I looked up at Galder, whose face was contorted in that famous rictus, transfixing the crowd with a sidelong gaze, and I realized that he was hissing. Somehow, the sibilance cut through the noise, though I was sure the audience, a full two paces back, couldn't hear him. The scene should have been absurd, even risible, but I found myself a bit taken aback. It was so unexpected, yet somehow still so appropriate. I am sure that I will never again see a photo of Galder's jack-o-lantern smile without hearing that hiss.

Once done with photos, I retreated back into the audience and observed the other defining element of Dimmu's set: the lights. Other bands have been using super-bright stage lights in the past few years—Emperor and Hypocrisy come to mind—but this was the first show I attended where those lights were faced out at the audience instead of up at the ceiling. The decision was a poor one, not least because it played havoc with my camera. Audience members were squinting all night long, some shading their eyes, and a handful even retreating to a back hallway to watch the set from television screens. The band lacks nothing in stage presence and have plenty of other lights at their disposal—these blinding flashes contributed nothing to the set, and ought to be retired.

This technical issue aside, Dimmu were in complete command of the audience from beginning to end. Each member played a particular role in the dynamic, but all of them seemed ethereal, clad in those dusty white leathers and furs, and moved with a slow fluidity that seemed almost like a music video post-production effect. This was my first experience with the band live, so I consulted with an acquaintance who has seen them at least five times. Following a couple lukewarm performances—coinciding with Vortex's final years—she vowed that Dimmu had returned to top shape with this set. In Vortex's absence, the band has completely eliminated all clean vocal passages, but hit hard enough with the rest of the arrangements to mostly make up the difference. This includes Shagrath's own performance, which sounds much stronger and less processed live than on record.

'The Serpentine Offering' was my favorite cut of the set, coming as the first number in an extensive encore. While some Dimmu material falls short of serious eeriness, this track blended macabre keyboard grandeur with hefty riffing and a sinisterly catchy refrain. In total, their setlist for this tour runs: 'Xiber', 'Spellbound (By The Devil)', 'The Chosen Legacy', 'Indoctrination', 'Dimmu Borgir', 'Gateways', 'Chess With the Abyss', 'Born Treacherous', 'A Jewel Traced Through Coal', 'The Blazing Monoliths of Defiance', 'Vredesbyrd', and an encore of, 'The Serpentine Offering', 'Puritania', 'Progenies of the Great Apocalypse', 'Mourning Palace', and 'Perfection or Vanity'.

Here, at the end, I must own to having been skeptical; I count myself as more of an Enslaved fan than a Dimmu devotee, and always will. However, Dimmu's set was undeniably tight, far heavier than I had anticipated, and, after the excess of Dawn of Ashes, Dimmu's garish outfits seemed almost prudent in comparison. Altogether, they left no one in doubt of their status as an international headlining act, and made a very strong argument for subsequent installments of Norway Night. Hell, if the scheduling issues were sorted out, they could even take it on the road as the nightcap complement to the Gospel Brunch.

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