BraveWords 25 Flashback – EMPEROR Takes Their Throne
July 8, 2019, a year ago
In celebration of our 25th anniversary, we are digging deep into the BraveWords archives and blowing the dust off some classic features that ran in Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles magazine!
This time we look back at the Emperor’s throne – the Norwegian black titan was aligning the dark arts in their favor with IX Equilibrium; their third album of lust black metal. Step into the pages of May 1999 and bend the knee for the almighty Emperor.
Who could have ever imagined? It doesn't seem that long ago when Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk seared its way amongst a ravaging sea, crashing like a wave upon many shores as the false lowered their heads in shame and were simply dismissed with ease. And now all of a sudden Emperor's new album IX Equilibrium; an album that encompasses a ravenous marriage of soaring aggression and controlled mayhem with a vicious layer of grace and rapture, all combined in a glorious package that amalgamates the finest qualities of black, death, classical and most importantly traditional heavy metal.
Well the two creators that herald this elusive entity, Ihsahn and his counterpart Samoth know that they have created the best and most professional Emperor album to date, and arguably the most professionally crafted piece of work within the genre. It was fortunate that Ihsahn and Samoth were kind enough to let BW&BK unlock the mystique behind this creation.
IHSAHN - Infinite Dreams
Ihsahn is a humble and kind gentleman, no matter how much you would want to believe that he is still the notorious black metaller he was in those unforgotten times. The man is very down to earth, and even though he sounds intimidating when he speaks, Ihsahn travels far astray from the realms of egotism, finding his peace by formulating works of musical art. But he is ever confident about Emperor's natural progression.
"Well I suppose we feel that we've taken a step further musically, lyrically, and as a band also," begins Ihsahn. "And I think the new album is much more mature. Production-wise, we managed to achieve the sound we wanted, a sound that we couldn't achieve on prior records. I think it came quite naturally and I think we wanted to bring more metal influences. In general, as for this symphonic style of black metal, if we were to go on with that, I don't think it would have been such a big step. I think we pushed that to the limits, at least on some points with Anthems, so now we wanted to do something new. I suppose since we've been touring more with Anthems, maybe that had an indirect influence on the band. The new album is more catchy and probably the songs are more...what can I say...the songs have more live appeal."
It is also natural that IX Equilibrium strays toward a different path than Anthems as a whole, and even though Ihsahn didn't feel any pressure to consciously make a different album than Anthems, one can easily see the inspired progression.
"Well I think even on Anthems we wanted to have a cleaner sound, a tight sound, but with this album, all the pre-work we have done, we concentrated much more on technical things to make it work. I was writing click tracks for the songs which Trym (Emperor's drummer) rehearsed before we went into the studio. We had a much tighter plan in the studio on how to do things. We booked it for three months and it was a local studio so we could come home in the evening. We didn't have to work fifteen, sixteen hours a day, we had more time to experiment and to get the sound we wanted because the sound engineer is excellent and he really put forth what we wished."
The album, recorded at Thorbjorn Akkerhaugen Sound Studio in the band's hometown of Notodden, possesses a flawless sound, a sound which most death metal bands can only dream of. The perfection of the guitars resonating amongst the pummel of the drums which are so well mixed, give the band a more metal feel than their previous albums which were recorded at the legendary Greighallen Studios.
"If Anthems sounded like this, I think people would view it as more of a major step than people saw it. I think on Anthems, the guitar parts lacked because of the sound. I think Anthems would have been much harder if we had a more in-your-face guitar sound."
When listening to IX Equilibrium, one can't help but notice how this album just breathes that true and rampant metal spirit.
"I'm glad you say that because we feel that our new album is beyond the pre-conceptions of black metal. I think we at least try to bring in some influences from all types of metal as we are not ashamed to say that we are metal fans and we have been metal fans for quite a while. It was a natural step for Emperor to play more metal and not limiting ourselves to the terms of black metal.
"The new album is much more direct," Ihsahn continues. "Also lyrically it's very different. There's different types of music that can easily express different scenes, from very extreme death metal which is much more aggressive through the black metal parts. Because black metal is more atmospheric, at least with the kind of symphonic style. And then you have more thrash and strict heavy metal which has that more nostalgic feeling that goes very deep. But that nostalgic metal feeling combined with the high-pitched screams gives it a strange, foreign feel."
So how important is experimenting to Emperor?
"I think Emperor can experiment to a certain extent," ponders Ihsahn. "We all think differently and have diverse influences. But for each new Emperor album you will still hear that it is an Emperor album and I think that is a result of the compromises that we make within the band. And I think it's unavoidable for future recordings that this compromise will colour the music."
So when is experimentation taken too far?
"I think that being experimental for the sake of being experimental is when it's taken too far," Ihsahn replies. "You cannot forget the music in it. I don't think it's too hard to make something very strange and something very different but that doesn't always mean that it's good music. So I think it's important to experiment and let the music and the atmosphere come first. I mean the old composers, they had strict limits on how to build their pieces. There were strict rules but they tried to exploit the material they had available to the extreme, as far as they could and what they were allowed to do. It became very good music. I think Emperor will always use keyboards, guitars, bass, drums, and different vocal styles and we will still use the same instrumentation but we will bring in some new influences and still keep it as Emperor. If we wanted to do something else, then we would start another band (laughs)."
Did you find it easier to record your vocal tracks this time, since you have been taking classical vocal training?
"Yes!" enthuses Ihsahn. "I've had a lot of experience when recording the Peccatum album because in that production it was all three of us as vocalists and we were able to kind of explore the limitations and potentiality of our voices and we were much more experimental with that and I think that has influenced me as a vocalist. I was able to try out what I could do with my voice and I suppose I'm quite new to some of the different vocal styles that are brought from the Peccatum album to the new Emperor album. So not all the vocals on the new album I'm happy with."
On the track 'The Source Of Icon E' Ihsahn's falsetto voice strikingly resembles that of King Diamond himself, which is quite overwhelming.
"Everyone thinks that it's Mercyful Fate that influenced that part," says Ihsahn. "But with that vocal part, I wanted to have that Rob Halford feeling to it but unfortunately, or fortunately... I mean I enjoy both King Diamond and Rob Halford as vocalists, and of course not comparing myself to any of them, I suppose it's just coincidence that my falsetto voice has more of a similar tone to King Diamond than Rob Halford. Rob Halford is one of my favourite metal vocalists, and that's the thing that I think the black metal scene is lacking; individual vocalists. Because if you listen to the old heavy metal bands like WASP, Kiss, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest, they all sound very different and the different vocalists have very unique voices. I don't think there are many individual persons in this scene. I mean everyone knows the voice of Rob Halford and no one can copy him."
It is Ihsahn's voice that also compliments his lyrics which have clearly matured over time but still maintain that rebellious and critical nature. While in the past his lyrics were on the fanatical side, they have become more personal and more self-reflective. So what is the meaning behind the unusual title of IX Equilibrium?
"An album title should reflect the contents of the whole album and the title has higher and lesser values. It's got obvious reasons; the album is released in 1999. Also coincidentally when we mastered the album, it was the 9th of January and it took us nine hours (laughs). But, nine, being the highest number in our number system, is a symbol of eternity. It's very much about reaching the highest bounds of things and I think it reflects a lot on the lyrical side of the album which is not as critical and rebellious towards the outside world. It's more of an overview. Some of the lyrics are critical but they might as well be interpreted as being self-critical. So in many ways I think this album is much more balanced in its contents and not so black and white."
Is it fair to say that Emperor is about atmosphere?
"Well I think that all kinds of music and art in general is about atmosphere," Ihsahn comments. "It's about feeling and personality and I can't begin to channel all of the atmospheres that I wish to express through music."
It was that atmosphere that would make its impact when Emperor released In The Nightside Eclipse. An atmosphere that dwelled within that dark stratosphere of Norway during the explosion of black metal which reflected the clandestine actions within the obscure image that Emperor portrayed, all combined with the alluring sounds of malevolent blackness, full of mystique that would paralyze the listener, cloaked in trepidation and curiosity.
"I suppose the mystique and the atmosphere that our music contains has this greatness in its expression and I think people enjoy experiencing something that is not so much down to earth. We were very much concerned with the image and the extremity of things during that time and I mean I think by nature, whether you play black metal or not, you are extreme and rebellious at a young age. I could go on forever about this subject, but on the other hand it's quite personal to me (laughs).
"But I think we have changed very much and it's very good (laughs). I mean it would be very embarrassing if we had the same views as when we were sixteen. That's something we have to live with and just try to explain and get people to see that we have changed. I mean I don't see any reason why we shouldn't be polite people."
So Emperor accept fans who are totally into their music, but not necessarily into their message?
"Yes definitely," says Ihsahn confidently. "Everyone is free to make up their own minds. We cannot make music for specific types of people."
And Emperor wouldn't have a problem sitting with the elite of metal, the likes of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Slayer and King Diamond?
"Not at all," laughs Ihsahn. "I think we would never compare ourselves to those bands anyway."
SAMOTH - Through Strength And Strife
It has been quite the journey for Samoth since getting into the scene. And to maintain his integrity, proving that nothing was hindered, musically or creatively during his incarceration period is a feat unmeasured. The past is history, but according to Samoth not forgotten with a future looking mighty bright, full of opportunities. He now has a family to look after (he has a little daughter) and he is presently running his label, Nocturnal Art Productions. Here Samoth tells BW&BK his view of what makes the creative machine called Emperor running.
You must be totally satisfied more than ever with the result of IX Equilibrium?
"Yeah obviously, but it's usually like that anyway. The newest album is always the most attractive album for you. But I think we did a pretty good job on this one and I mean with the production and everything, it is much more professionally done. I think that there's much more aggression in the album due to the heavier, in-your-face guitar sound."
Did you, in particular, feel any pressure to do something different and rise above the caliber of Anthems?
"No not really. I mean we always have that goal to make a better album but we didn't have this attitude that we had to do something totally different than Anthems. But I think it's a natural evolution in the band and fortunately for us, we have been blessed with the creativity to progress each time we work on new material. The new material does have new elements in which you can hear, but you can definitely hear that it's totally Emperor."
How much have you progressed as a guitar player?
"I'd say quite a bit. But Ihsahn is the guitarist of the band and sometimes I have to catch up with his new riffs because they are often very complex. So it has a lot to do with Ihsahn's work that makes me progress as a guitar player."
You have gained experience by playing with Arcturus, Burzum and Satyricon. Have any of those experiences helped you in any way develop as a musician?
"Hmmmm... no not really but I mean there were experiences like playing live with Gorgoroth and I played with Satyricon for one and a half years. I mean there's always an experience working with different people and playing other people's songs. I mean I never wrote any material for any of those bands so that's also a challenge in a way but it did not effect Emperor's sound in any way."
Tell us about some of the new influences that creeped into the new album...
"It has a more catchy death metal feel to it with three or four of the songs. I don't have any direct influences; it's difficult to say. I mean sometimes you don't even know what influences you. It's easy to become subconsciously influenced by things you hear and see in everyday life but for me, my musical tastes is that I'm into a lot of electronic stuff and I really enjoy Strapping Young Lad which is totally extreme and has that electronic, industrial feel to it."
With IX Equilibrium, Emperor seems to have totally encompassed a true metal attitude, something that wouldn't have been accepted in '92/93.
"In '92/93, things were a bit more extreme. It was like black and white; it had to be like this or like that and there was a set standard on how things should be if you play black metal. Today people are concerned with being individuals and really don't care about set standards, setting standard of their own rather than following others. It was the set attitude by Euronymous. Like black metal people do not have fun and if you go to a concert it has to be a really dark event. But I think it doesn't fit with the heavy metal concept thing and it doesn't make any sense. When we play live we want to give 100 percent on stage and we want the audience to get caught up in the music and get that aggressive rush and have the metal run throughout them. I mean, we've been into metal for many, many years and metal has become the main thing in my life. It's my job, it's my hobby, it's my joy and it's what I do."
How has your relationship with Ihsahn developed through the years?
"Me and Ihsahn are quite different individuals and we have quite different views on life and also in music. But I think that's what makes Emperor sound like we do. I mean it's a combination of his symphonic more complex riffs and my more basic, more direct style of riffing. Like on the new album, the death metal riffs are my style and Ihsahn has the more classically trained stuff. I think it's just a combination, the balance between the two of us that make up our sound."
What are your musical tastes these days? You have mentioned Devin Townsend and SYL.
"I also like Ocean Machine. I really have great respect for that guy. I think he's a really good musician. I was supposed to see him at Dynamo but unfortunately I was somewhere else. The new Nevermore is pretty good and I think some power metal bands are good. Like Blind Guardian and Gamma Ray have some good stuff, but it's not my everyday music and it's good only once in a while. I was really into WASP when I was twelve. Blackie Lawless was an inspiration. It's really funny actually. They have this necro image and they are doing the same thing today and they are like fifty with their fat asses and beer belies hanging out. Then there was the basic metal stuff like Priest, Maiden, and Kiss of course. That was the background, but today I am more open-minded to music like a lot of electronic stuff like Prodigy and recently I got into Massive Attack which have a really good album. Portishead is also good. I'm always looking for different atmospheres in music."
Do you ever reminisce about the past?
"Well I don't forget my past and I still think that those were important years. I look at them as good years, even though a lot of crazy stuff happened and a few of us ended up going to prison. Still those were great times that I will always remember. But at the same time I look to the future and having seen how we built up a strong musical entity, I look to how I can challenge myself in the future."
Actions from the past have caused that stereotype about Emperor being intimidating people. But really, how are Emperor as people?
"It's really how people want to understand things. Of course that was our image in '92, but what can I say? To live a life of complete rejection is not the life I want to live. We are polite people and I think that this attitude like if you are a Satanist, not that I label myself as a Satanist, but some people have this attitude that if you are on the darker side you have to be a bad person and I don't think that's it. I think a true Satanist should be a noble person, a person who should be a role model rather than some lunatic."
If the actions from '92/93 wouldn't have happened, where would Emperor's status be today?
"Hmmmm... well I don't think it had much of an impact because we already made a lot of the music before a lot of the actions happened. I think with the Norwegian black metal thing there was the actions and the music which was always there. But of course the whole thing that happened... it's really difficult to say really how things would have been if all these things wouldn't have happened. I still think we would still be up here, selling records and being a recognized band but maybe we would have a different status."
So Emperor have no problems in reaching a wider audience?
"Exactly! I mean we have a better opportunity to reach a wider audience than... let’s say Darkthrone because they are the essence of pure unholy black metal and they have a different expression. There are people who say that we sell out and I expect it more from the new album because we have better production and there will be fans that will say, 'Oh no! Emperor is like Dimmu Borgir and Cradle Of Filth and they are going for the money and blah, blah, blah...' Well I don't really care what these people think."
And I'm sure these people expect Emperor to talk shit about Dimmu Borgir and Cradle Of Filth...
"And the point is that we never have spoken shit about these bands because I do not see Dimmu Borgir and Cradle Of Filth as sell-out bands. I know they work hard at what they do and they have a different expression and are more commercially-oriented than we are but they don't do it for the fucking money. If they were doing it for the money then I don't think black metal would be the first thing that they would get into."
(Emperor live photo by Håkon Grav)