Truth is stranger than fiction when it comes to the entire Norwegian Black Metal scene, its founding epoch, and its legacy. A lot of text has been written about how terrible certain characters in the scene were. Every band at the time seemed to revel in being befouled by the stain of their actions. Emperor is no different and was a vital part of that scene. Having made amends to whatever level they can mea culpa their mistakes as kids, their names no less ruined than their peers. Musically, however, they have few equals in terms of what they put down. Their full-length debut album In The Nightside Eclipse (Candlelight Records) is still one of the gold-standard Black Metal albums ever made, and worthy of deep analysis on the silver- anniversary of its release.
Oddly enough for a genre that takes its lumps dividing its own stans on sound quality and production values, Emperor might have been the first band in first wave black metal history that cared about its sound, to any extent. Their early EPs were definitely as muddy as their peers, but they desired a mix between miserable sounds of the scene and some aesthetics of listenability. That early work laid the groundwork they laid and set the stage for In The Nightside Eclipse. The production by Pytten (aka Eirik Hundvin, who produced the most important early genre works by Mayhem, Immortal, Enslaved, Aeternus, Borknagar, Gorgoroth, Taake, Old Funeral, Einherjer and more) was clearer than its peers, allowing keyboards and the occasional bass guitar to bleed through. The synths were especially crucial to the sound of the album expands on the bleak sonic coldness and allowing for a more symphonic feel that paved the way for so much in the genre. The vocals were a little crisp, but that kept the flavor raw and bloody. Primarily written by Ihsahn and Samoth, the album’s music would help redefine the late first wave of the genre.
The frightening soundscape of ‘Into The Infinity of Thoughts’ was harrowing and definitely let you know this was not your older brother’s kvlt band. ‘The Burning Shadows of Silence’ is so menacing an opening song, so gripping that it changed the genre thereafter. In a little over five minutes, the band transformed into the sound they were associated with. ‘Cosmic Keys To My Creations & Times’, complete with lyrics by legend Mortiis, is arguably the heaviest, most complex track. The middle section with a galloping synth sounds syncopated over the grimmest of blastbeats is a true earpeeler.
Like most of these tracks, the opening screams of ‘Beyond The Great Vast Forrest’ is just so dark. Another track with many tempo and riff changes, augmented by some otherworldly sounds. Emperor was really the Cannibal Corpse of the black metal scene, technically proficient in a sub0genre that wasn’t supposed to honor traditional talents like musicianship. The groove section on this track was so righteous, it could double as a track by mid-era Death or Obituary if you swapped guitar tone and production values. Perish the thought, Emperor manages to keep it true the entire time.
Surely to blame for the litany of RPG game soundtracks like The Elder Scrolls, Lords of the Realm, Diablo or Anno 1409 ad infintum, ‘Towards The Pantheon’ begins with a madrigal-esque section before blasting away at your soul. ‘The Majesty of The Night Sky’ might be the rawest track here. Despite the super catchy earworm guitar licks, the track is fairly straight ahead and a nod to what came before it in the scene.
Not lacking a flair for the dramatic, the band saved their absolute best two tracks on this album and arguably in their career for the end of the album. ‘I Am The Black Wizards’, with another genius lyrical backstop by Mortiis, is just brutal as fuck and brilliant. Its maelstrom of riffs and beats juxtaposed with the intense middle symphonic section. The song was already a timeless piece when the final coda kicks in, a grimness matched by its beautiful guitar work.
‘Inno A Satanna’ throws it back to 1990 with another strong- direct approach, noir classic. Muscular, chopping riffs and swirling vocals intersect with the pure blasphemy of the words. Another genre highlight.
Emperor would soldier on for another seven years before breaking up, releasing a string of other high-quality albums that redefined the scene. They have reunited over the years and have been playing exclusive, sold-out headline shows and festival appearances throughout the world of late. Their draw, such as their legacy, is still considerable. Here’s hoping 2019 sees the band trots out another full-album performance of this masterpiece.
From the never ending mountains black to the bottomless lakes.
I am the ruler and has been for eternities long.
My wizards are many, but their essence is mine.
Forever they are in the hills in their stone homes of grief.
Because I am the spirit of their existence.
I am them.
I am them.
I am them.