Dimmu Borgir, with Nevermore, Children of Bodom and Hypocrisy

That recent run on inverted silver crosses at the local head shop is no fluke.

Faced with the discomfort caused by the festering boil on its butt-cheek that is nü-metal, genuine heavy metal has squeezed out that pus-filled irritant by returning to its darkest roots. Black- and death-metal bands are again skirting the mainstream in the way that Slayer and Anthrax did ten years ago, and this weekend Houston is the epicenter of that renaissance with a pair of gigs at the Engine Room featuring old-school demon worshipers King Diamond (November 20) and those feisty Norwegian lads who go by the name Dimmu Borgir (November 21).

For sheer viciousness, King Diamond gets serious props, but in terms of metal music being considered a true art form, the Scandinavian boys, sporting their Matrix-meets-Renaissance Fest attire, grim Lord of the Rings stage names and corpse makeup, get the nod. On its 1994 debut album, For All Tid, Dimmu Borgir (named after the lava field caves of Iceland) offered up a sweeping, slightly cheesy sound with keyboards and guitar harmonies that in the final analysis were not so different than what the Queensrÿches of the world did in the 1980s.

That debut led black-metal geeks -- many of whom are Scandinavian -- to opine that Dimmu Borgir did not possess the overall credibility of truly nihilistic black-metal acts, like, say, Burzum, a band that was still recording in Norwegian after DB switched to English, or as technically pure as old-schoolers Immortal. Many of them are still of that view. Still, English lyrics and sonic experimentation notwithstanding, the band's 2001 release, Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia -- perhaps the finest album title of all time -- was named best metal record in their fjord-dotted old country.

Death Cult Armageddon, DB's new album, will still do nothing to satisfy black metal's purists. However, the album is undeniably authoritative in its delivery. It's basically the same ten-year-old sound, but with a huge recording budget to back it up, and that cash influx exposes the fact that Dimmu Borgir has forged a diamond-hard alloy of black, death and thrash metal. The band even teams up with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra to create several soundscapes that are so far over the top that they approach rock opera -- or Warcraft video game soundtracks, depending on your perspective -- resplendent with the blood-spewing screams of vocalist Shagrath and the sweeping guitar riffs of Erkekjetter Silenoz, the only other original member still in the lineup.

True, black-metal bands may have a narrow focus when it comes to subject matter -- "the end of the world," "man vs. machine," "nasty medieval diseases" and "slamming Jägermeister shots with Lucifer" remain staples. And the music must combine shredding, repetitive guitar riffs and a pneumatic-drill bass-drum assault into a very melodic mix.

But to its credit, Dimmu Borgir has stuck with a basic business plan, which is to be just as progressive as it is aggressive. And those purists can just take a little three-day weekend into the raging hellfires of cataclysmic purgatory if they can't take a fucking joke.

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr