To explain what this album is, I feel I should first point out what it is not. It is not Dimmu Borgir, with obvious, superficial slabs of faux-classical orchestration and a clear aim to be the darkest thing on Total Request Live. Nor is it Emperor, with cold Norwegian hostility interspersed with atmospheric keyboards. No, this is something totally different.
Rather than pulling the symphonic side of their music from the vein of classical or romantic symphonies, this instead plays more like a ballet. That delicate, narrative sensibility never really leaves the music, even in the parts where black metal takes center stage. This is a concept album, going through a series of killings and hauntings, and the masterful composition pulls the whole thing together like the purely auditory equivalent of watching a sinister stage production.
The black metal aspects of this record, unsurprisingly, are not the purist's ideal. They are a part of the whole, intense and effective, but always augmented by swirling organs, violins, or some other aspect of the larger compositional framework. The vocal work is surprisingly articulate in its harsh forms, and clean vocals crop up periodically as well, allowing the listener to follow the lyrical themes of the record quite easily.
As far as those lyrics go, there is a bit of a tendency toward melodrama. The excessively dreary, suicide/murder/haunting/misery emphasis of the whole affair is admittedly a bit too goth for my taste. The music is so well constructed, though, that I can't help admiring the skill that went into composing these tracks.
Unique, well written, and well executed symphonic black metal that is maybe just a tad too melodramatic.