As I was making notes for this review, I caught myself using phrases like “modern” or “mainstream” black metal. These descriptors were appropriate at the time Dimmu Borgir dropped the much-maligned Abrahadabra way back in 2010, but following nearly a decade’s dearth of new material, I’m not certain they still apply. DB’s labelmates Cradle of Filth and a handful of lesser known acts like Carach Angren have remained active with a similarly overblown blend of blackened cheese, but by and large the style has lost prevalence since their last outing, giving way for more subdued and atmospheric acts to occupy the limelight. In a way, then, Eonian’s ignoring of eight years of black metal evolution makes it kind of adorable. It’s only just ambitious enough that fans might forgive the band for their dry spell, and as a continuation of DB’s modern formula, it’s pretty damn solid.
Of all the things that Eonian could have reminded me of, the first comparison point that sprang to mind on initial exposure was the choir-laden approach that Devin Townsend Project took to recording Epicloud. Though not necessarily similar in tone, both implementations frequently recall the reverent tone of a traditional gospel choir in their major-scale qualities (see: the chorus of “The Unveiling”). This is a particularly unique aesthetic for Dimmu Borgir’s typically anti-Christian overtones to coexist with, yet the choirs and the expected symphonic elements are not so overbearing as to distract from what is otherwise a damn good collection of blackened riffs. Much of Eonian’s stringwork operates similarly to the band’s past few records with broad, dissonant chords dueling with chunky chugs, but tracks like “Ætheric” and “Lightbringer” offer a head-bobbing dosage of black ‘n’ roll, while outliers like “The Empyrean Phoenix” provide the most infectiously straightforward runs of traditional black metal DB has recorded in ages. Call Eonian overblown or derivative if you will, but its diversity makes it capably entertaining, front to back.
The implementation of multiple riffing styles is commendable, yet the commitment can be a bit flaky in the context of individual tracks. The aforementioned “The Empyrean Phoenix,” for instance, opens strongly with a quick, infectious rhythmic drive, yet periodically dips into more plodding territory in service of dramatic choirs and orchestrations. The symphonic arrangements can certainly bolster the proceedings – “Alpha Aeon Omega” features a fantastically bombastic opening that’s more than a match for similar arrangements featured on 2003’s Death Cult Armageddon – but even here the momentum does not sustain itself, with the instrumentations occasionally paring back to facilitate Shagrath’s lyrical emphasis or relatively lackadaisical lead guitar work. These diversions aren’t offensively bad by any means, but it does mean that, aside from the persistently moody “Council of Wolves and Snakes,” there are no real highlights.
Of course, there are no real duds, either (aside from the generically symphonic “Interdimensional Summit,” which inexplicably serves as Eonian’s lead single), due at least in part to instrumental decisions that add previously unexplored layers to Dimmu Borgir‘s modern sound. Lead guitar work is unexpectedly melodic in spots so as to occasionally resemble the melancholic hooks of Dark Tranquillity, while the echoing, mystical synth effect utilized paints the backdrops with a sort of subterranean glow, lending the compositions a sense of atmosphere left untouched by the band since the days of Enthrone Darkness Triumphant. If only the production could be as pleasingly throwback; the tones are decent yet overly polished as expected, but the mix is sloppy, with the guitars, symphonics, and Shagrath’s vox being heightened so as to bury any drum impact and entirely obscure the bass. At least Shagrath’s signature snarl hasn’t lost any of its bite.
For all of its charms, Eonian ultimately sounds like another Dimmu Borgir album – albeit a quite good one – that’s not going to win over any of the band’s detractors. Even so, it’s bound to please long-time devotees, yet it’s consistently entertaining enough to be a prime jump-off point for anyone wanting to dig into the band’s modern material. Eonian is my favorite DB record since Death Cult Armageddon, and though I’d absolutely give the edge to the latter album, I can easily see the band once again aspire to that record’s level of glorious excess if they can grant a more condensed writing process to Eonian’s follow-up. And it had better be condensed, because as much as I enjoy Eonian, it doesn’t exactly justify an eight-year wait.