But on the band's latest disc, In Sorte Diaboli, the symphonic parts are played on keyboards by Øyvind "Mustis" Mustaparta. "The Prague Orchestra [heard on DCA] wasn't expensive at all compared to what you'd think. So it wasn't for budget reasons," says guitarist and primary songwriter Sven "Silenoz" Kopperud. "We thought that we'd been able to recreate most of the orchestral feeling live with just keyboards. And in the studio, if you have the right technology, there's no problem to create symphonic feeling."
In Sorte Diaboli is a break with Dimmu's recent past in another way: It's a concept album. The disc tells the story of a priest whose faith is tested, after which he turns to the dark side and is burned at the stake. It's told in first person, starting with the introduction -- "My descent is the story of everyman/I am hatred, darkness, and despair" -- and continuing right to the closing: "My stigma is of damnation/I am from beyond your god."
"I wrote the lyrics more like diaries, exploring this character's personal struggle to spiritual victory, and finally his ultimate rejection of the concept of god, basically," says Kopperud. "That's the plot of the whole story." And as concept albums go, it's pretty straightforward, never bogging itself down in overly florid symbolism -- like, say, Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway -- or getting monotonously descriptive like one of Lou Reed's story-songs (famously characterized by the late Lester Bangs as the "I walked to the chair/Then I sat in it" school of songwriting).
Rather, this is a story comparable to the Residents' God in Three Persons, a confrontation with religious belief told in fairly comprehensible language and with -- and this is crucial -- more ass-kicking riffage than any of the examples cited above. What's more, vocalist Stian "Shagrath" Thoresen sounds like Popeye only on one or two songs -- something that's occasionally made earlier albums a little less badass than the band might have hoped.
Despite the fact that Kopperud (and not Thoresen, with whom he co-founded Dimmu) is the band's primary lyricist, the music is a collective effort. "The keyboard player does all the keyboard stuff, and me and Silenoz do all the guitar stuff -- most of it, at least. And Shagrath also has a riff here and there," explains second guitarist Thomas Rune "Galder" Andersen. "And then we sit down and work in Cubase [digital audio editing] a little bit, put riffs together, and jam it to see how it sounds."
Given the heavy dose of symphonic grandeur in their music, one might assume that at least one member of Dimmu has some classical background. Not so, says Kopperud. "Our keyboard player, I don't think he even has any proper classical training. He learned to play the piano when he was a little kid, but he never went to class to learn anything more than basic stuff -- I don't think. That goes for the whole band. I've never taken a guitar class in my whole life, and neither has Galder."
Of course, this can make it difficult to communicate with an actual orchestra, something the band learned when making Death Cult Armageddon. "We had a conductor helping us, mapping out the notes that we originally had on the keyboards, and he arranged several layers for the orchestra," recalls Kopperud. "That's basically what we did on this album, but we did it ourselves on the keyboards."
Despite their understandable pride in In Sorte Diaboli, Kopperud knows better than to try to present the whole thing live. It's not an opera, after all. And Dimmu, like many other metal bands, observed with some dismay as Iron Maiden hit the road in support of its latest disc, A Matter of Life and Death: The metal legends proceeded to play all 70-plus minutes of it, front to back, only throwing fans a few classics as encores. This move was not that well received by paying customers hoping to hear "Run to the Hills," "The Trooper," and the like.
"I don't think that will ever happen, because it would piss off a lot of people. And I don't think we're the right band to do that," admits Kopperud. "Maiden can pull that off, but we need to play other songs our fans are familiar with, you know? I think the first U.S. tour we're going to do this April and May -- the set is going to consist mostly of a 'best of' set, with a couple of new songs. We're not going to concentrate on the new album. It's going to be a surprising thing for the fans, I think."