Emperor are already a legend in Black Metal circles, and not just for their involvement in the chaos of 1992 and 1993. But as Gregory Whalen discovered when he met Samoth and Ihsahn in Norway, there is more to them than meets the eye, and their new album 'Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk' will almost certainly not just set new standards in the Black Metal scene, but in Metal as a whole.
Their Satanic Majesties Request...
"O' Nightspirit / I am at one with Thee / I am the eternal power / I am the Emperor"
A clap of thunder, a flash of lightning, a fanfare from the armies of the undead.
"Winds and storms, embrace us now / Lay waste the light of day / Open gates to darker lands / We spread our wings and fly away"
An almighty roar, and the cataclysm is born. 'Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk' has begun. Yes, Emperor are back. And here we are in Norway to meet them.
"Where the f*** are they?" remarks our photographer Nigel bitterly. We have been standing at the tiny railway station in Nordagatu for the best part of a quarter of an hour now and are becoming increasingly anxious. Is this the right place? Are they actually going to turn up? Are you as cold as I am? Then we hear the distant roar of an engine. As we strain our eyes against the glare of the sunlight, we can see a black shape drawing nearer - not to mention louder - and as it crests the hill we can see the car. With two people in it. Them.
The beat up Toyota screeches to a halt, and out climbs a gangly, good-looking youth wearing a bomber jacket, combat trousers and a Nevermore longsleeve. "Samoth," he says politely, making room for us on the back seat. The driver turns round and extends his left hand for me to shake. He looks like Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. "Ihsahn."
Nothing more is said until we reach the small rehearsal studio which Emperor have been using for the past couple of months in the run-up to various festival dates around Europe this summer and a full-scale tour in the autumn. A glance at the calendar reveals that rehearsals are held every second weekend, all weekend, which is as often as the other three members-bassist Alver, former Enslaved drummer Trym and session keyboard player Charmand Grimloch (from Tartarus)-can make it. It's heavy going, but then playing in Emperor demands nothing less than perfection as a minimum entry requirement.
We arrange ourselves around the tape recorder. The new recruits are apparently shaping up extremely well, and Samoth and Ihsahn respond in stereo with an enthusiastic "Ya!" when I ask them if they feel as if they have finally conquered the line-up troubles which have plagued them in the past. Having lost their original drummer Faust when he was imprisoned in 1993, the main difficulty has been locating a suitable replacement. Hellhammer was briefly drafted in but was forced out due to commitments elsewhere, in Mayhem and Arcturus. In Trym Emperor have found not only a technically outstanding musician, but also someone who is 100% dedicated to the band. Does this mean that they are now able to work together as a four-piece, or have all the problems merely brought Samoth and Ihsahn closer together as songwriters?
Samoth: "Basically it has been me and him who have done all the stuff musically. Of course, the others have contributed some ideas, but we are the creative core of the band. And it will always be like that."
"With time, our co-operation has grown stronger," Ihsahn adds. "We have been working together since we were quite young and have built up a very good communication of ideas. I've been working with other people as well in music, taking a passive role in bands, but that doesn't suit me because I have my own ideas about how things should sound. Between the two of us, we work together very nicely and we both know how Emperor should sound. It's a very good relationship."
When Emperor's debut album 'In The Nightside Eclipse' was released, it set new standards in the Black Metal scene. Not only that, but it generated ripples which have rapidly become tidal waves. Few records have been so influential in recent years, and even fewer have been ripped off so shamelessly and unsuccessfully. It's no secret: the amount of Emperor clones around at the moment is unreal. Yet no one has managed to outclass the originals, and that is because it is easy to make a carbon-copy of the 'Nightside' design brief, to try and recreate aspects of the imagery, the atmospheres or the music itself, but impossible to capture the vision in its entirety. There is more to it than simply applying someone else's successful formula to an established framework. And the sooner bands realise this the better.
Not that Ihsahn feels threatened by pretenders to the imperial throne. In fact, he finds it flattering that Emperor are credited as an influence so often. "It shows that our music is appreciated," he says simply. Meanwhile, Samoth quietly mocks the recent Ancient ad campaign ("Watch out Emperor..." etc), prompting scornful laughter from all sides. Both of them radiate confidence because they know that 'Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk' will prove an even greater challenge to the hordes of soundalikes and wannabes.
"I think the new album will pose even more problems for these bands," says Ihsahn, lighting another cigarette. "Not wanting to sound arrogant or anything, but we have been creating music for quite a few years now and we still have a lot to accomplish. A lot of these bands are quite young, and they will have problems if they try to copy us. Because you need all the background in order to get the totality of it. We had experience from more ordinary Heavy Metal bands when we were quite young, then Thrash Metal, then Death Metal and onto Black Metal. When we started playing Black Metal, we were inspired by things like Bathory and Celtic Frost. There are obviously some bands that will try to copy all the bigger bands, but I think that's a strange way to start a musical career, by copying something that has already been done."
What he means is this: the problem with most contemporary Black Metal is that it is too derivative. Too many people seem to think that in order to remain true to the genre they must only listen to, and be influenced by, existing Black Metal bands and albums. What they are forgetting is that these bands do not work that way themselves. The reason why they are original is that they are working from a fairly universal set of starting points (old Bathory, Celtic Frost, etc.) and building upon them rather than merely combining them. Immortal are not influenced by Darkthrone in the same way that Emperor are not influenced by Immortal. And ultimately, ghettoising yourself, closing off all channels of influence but one, can only bring about your own creative downfall.
Emperor have no such problems. On 'Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk' they display such a degree of maturity that it is easy to forget that this is only their second album. Not so much a departure from their style of old as an amplification of it, the record is a seething mass of razor-sharp riffs, vast keyboard soundscapes and thundering drum salvos. Symphonic, chaotic and very, very atmospheric, the new material washes over the listener like an infernal torrent, brutal, relentless and strangely beautiful. The music overflows with passion and emotion, which is perhaps symptomatic of the development Emperor have made as people since 'In The Nightside Eclipse' was recorded back in 1993. Lyrically, too, things have become more personal and perhaps a little less fantastical than before. I ask Ihsahn if this has also been a part of the progression.
"Not necessarily," he replies. "Of course, in a way, you mature, and lyric-wise it was natural for this album to go a bit deeper; not only expressing this concepts of power, but also looking at the other sides of it-the frustration of not always being able to reach those ideals, which are very strong in this kind of philosophy. And I suppose they are also more personal because we have had personal difficulties with the band. I guess since 'In The Nightside Eclipse' there has been a lot of frustration. Even though the lyrics on 'In The Nightside Eclipse' were good for their time, I feel that the new lyrics are not necessarily more honest, but fuller. They reflect a wider perspective of what lies within the symbolism, the atmosphere and the ideology of Emperor."
How do your personal beliefs relate to your music? Do you see yourself as a Satanist who happens to be a musician or a musician who happens to be a Satanist?
"Difficult. It's very much a personal thing. I don't express every aspect of my Satanism through music. My Satanism appeals to all the emotional parts of me, and what I express through Black Metal are the things I want to express and things which are suitable for that kind of expression. Some things cannot be expressed through Black Metal at all... I mean, I've been asked before why Black Metal bands don't sing about love. Well, Black Metal has many possibilities of expression, but it is also quite limited. I mean, it wouldn't be the most suitable style of music to express feelings of love because it's very extreme and aggressive. But just because you play in a Black Metal band, it doesn't mean that you are not able to express anything else. I think the outsider's view of what Black Metal people are all about is very narrow. They're not considering what the band members might be like outside the band situation at all."
I think you'll find that a lot of parents are concerned about their child listening to Black Metal because from their point of view it is an inherently negative form of music. But is it?
"In general, the Satanic imagery and the ideology and the moral systems of Black Metal are so much different from what you are taught when you were a kid, with the natural morals and whatever of society. So in the beginning the ideology might seem very destructive, because you have to break down all the old belief systems to replace them with the new ones. I must admit, I have been very self-destructive myself during the period where I went through all the changes, sifting out all the old values for the new ones and building up a whole new moral system. It just happens that you become very self-destructive in that period of time, but once you are over that, once you have broken it all down and built new foundations, I view it as a very constructive thing. And of course, all this has done very much for my artistic self as a musician and as an artist. It has been very inspiring for me."
"We look upon the band as something positive, something creative, something constructive," says Samoth, picking up the thread, "Not something that breaks us down and keeps us from living."
"Art is something constructive," Ihsahn continues. "Even though it may be reflecting on destructive forces, or at least forces that are viewed by the wide majority of people as being destructive, it is a constructive thing. We wouldn't be doing this otherwise."
A few hours later, we go scouting for a suitable location for the photo shoot. From where we are based at Ihsahn's house, a beautiful homestead just outside the small town of Notodden, we don't have to walk far. A brief jaunt through the woods brings us to a cliff-top overlooking a vast, and partially still frozen, lake. It is surrounded by high mountains and dense forests. Nigel and I are dumbstruck. Now I see what Norwegian bands mean when they say they are influenced by their surroundings more than anything else. Shit, I'm inspired, and I'm only a hack.
A few rolls are shot before we cautiously make our way down to the banks of the great lake. Half an hour of negotiating treacherously loose soil, low-hanging branches and cracks in the large boulders, and another three or four rolls of film later, and it is time for coffee and cigarettes back at the farm. Ihsahn was raised here, and Samoth, being a long-time friend and childhood companion of his, knows the place like the back of his hand. They both do mountain goat impressions, nimbly making their way back up the steep slope. For us Brits, though, the going is somewhat more difficult, and we fall behind, red-faced and wheezing. I disturb some loose rocks, causing a miniature avalanche which rapidly develops into quite a major avalanche. "Heids!" I yell over my shoulder. The rocks miss Nigel's head by a matter of inches. When we finally reach the top, Samoth and Ihsahn are still pissing themselves. "When you are with Black Metal people," the singer remarks dryly, "your life is in danger." No shit.
In a way, though, however sarcastic he was being, Ihsahn was right. At least from the point of view of the majority of the Norwegian population, Black Metal is something to be feared in the same way that horror stories about football hooligans in the British press make some of us think twice about going to certain matches. Walking through Oslo the night before, in search of the Elm Street Rock Café, it became apparent just how stigmatised Metal fans have become in Norway. I swear people actually hissed at me when they saw my Mayhem T-shirt, and walking into Elm Street was like entering a totally different world. Heavy boots, leather jackets and black Levis ranged as far as the eye could see, and there was not one "normal person" in sight.
I ask Ihsahn if I am wrong in thinking that Metal fans are seen as social outcasts here, more so than anywhere else in the world, because of what happened in 1992/93. Are people actually scared of you if you have long hair and wear black?
"Many of us just get labelled by ordinary people and the media. It doesn't concern us much, because..."
"Because we just sit at home anyway," Samoth laughs.
Ihsahn continues, "I have friends who are not necessarily into Black Metal, but they have long hair and stuff, and because they know me they are branded Satanists. And I have friends who have lost jobs just because they know me. But I don't think it's me that is the problem, it is the attitude of the majority. All they know about us is what they read in the newspapers, which is a very narrow point of view. It's not the same as it was in 1992 or 1993, but they still think of us as very extreme people."
Even within the Metal scene, our own little haven from the mundane narrow-mindedness of "normal" society, Black Metal has only reluctantly been accepted. It is the butt of endless jokes largely based on the fact that the mainstream press cannot accept that bands can be as serious as Emperor are. Here are people so dedicated to their art that they will risk their own lives and freedom making such a symbolic statement of defiance as burning down a church. All of that is now, of course, in the past, and Samoth and Ihsahn are clearly tired of the arson talk. However, Black Metal remains something that is almost too extreme ideologically for most of us to swallow. The fascism debate rears its ugly head once more, partly in an attempt to set the record straight once and for all.
Samoth: "Well that's something Vikernes started."
Ihsahn: "As I have said before, I feel Black Metal should have nothing to do with politics. It's not a political thing, it's something more spiritual. I realise that many people think that Fascism, Satanism and Black Metal are one and the same, probably because they are all extreme ideologies."
Plus it's not such a great leap from the strong over the weak philosophy, which is an integral part of Satanism, to fascism.
Samoth: "That's something I can identify with, but that doesn't mean I wear a swastika and worship Adolf Hitler or whatever."
Ihsahn: "If we look down on anything, then it is humanity as a whole. It's rather naïve to think that your intelligence is based on the colour of your skin. Of course, there are cultures which are hard to understand for people in different countries, but I think that's positive as well. Like in the States, everything gets mixed together. They have no old culture at all. I think it's important to keep different cultures as they are, because so many cultures have been lost because of the Christian religion. Like you have Christian missions going into the jungle and forcing their religion upon tribes that have been living on a very primitive basis for thousands of years. What do they need Christianity for?"
But is Christianity really worth fighting?
Ihsahn: "There are things for me that are much more important. I think it's natural for us to have a profane and anti-Christian attitude, because our ideologies are based on a dark fundament. Norway is a Christian country, but that doesn't stop us from doing what we want. I think it's more important to fight for our own individual or artistic freedom and concentrate on personal matters rather than wasting a lot of energy trying to push something else aside."
It's no great surprise that Black Metal has erupted in a conservative Christian state like Norway. Rebellion is the keyword here, and in many ways rebelling against the church is the same as rebelling against society-something we can all identify with.
"I think in general we are seeing small groups becoming more and more extreme," says Ihsahn. The world is getting much smaller, and everything is becoming very Americanised, mixed together, and I think young people in their maturing process tend to go to more and more extremes to keep their individuality. It's not only because of Christianity, it's because the whole of society is becoming more and more equalised. It's harder to find your own space."
And there we have it: Emperor's agenda is not all that far removed from a band like Sepultura's after all. There is crossover potential.
"It's just differences in expression," Ihsahn agrees. "I suppose both Sepultura and Emperor are Metal bands, even though the atmospheres and the message are totally different. Some people aren't too into our lyrics, but they enjoy the extremity of our music. So they can listen to both Machine Head and Emperor, because it is the aggression that appeals to them. There was a point in time where it was felt that certain people didn't deserve to listen to Black Metal or whatever, but the fact is that the people who really understand the music will get the albums anyway. There's a difference between prostituting yourself musically and reaching a greater audience. As long as we just create music the same way as we always have, I see nothing wrong in selling a lot of records and being able to make a living out of what you truly believe in."