Emperor: Symphony of Destruction
Helvete would also serve as a breeding ground for criminal activities. Though Norwegian black metal was fertile, destruction and violence were rampant throughout the scene. From 1991 to ’93, church burnings and murders became Norwegian black metal’s calling card. By the end of that period, Emperor drummer Bård “Faust” Eithun was in prison for killing a stranger in Lillehammer, Samoth was convicted of burning churches, and Burzum’s Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes had stabbed to death his onetime friend Euronymous.
For many bands in the scene, balance between artistic expression and extremist outbursts proved difficult to achieve. Even today, the violence and imagery of the Norwegian scene has often obscured the merits of its musicians. It’s a situation Ihsahn ardently wants to remedy. “For so long, the quality of this music has been overshadowed by the reputation of some of its members,” he says. “I get frustrated when people just see me as a character and not a serious musician. Back in Norway, there were times when kids used to hitchhike from all over—Italy, wherever. They would show up at our houses uninvited and be really upset that we lived in regular houses and didn’t sleep in coffins.” Hoping to bring legitimacy to the music, Ihsahn, who’s also a seasoned guitar teacher, recently released Scattered Ashes: A Decade of Emperial Wrath, a tablature book that contains his transcriptions of 13 classic Emperor tracks.
Guitar World caught up with Emperor’s guitarists when they came to New York to play one of only three U.S. shows. In the surprisingly civil and articulate conversation that followed, Ihsahn and Samoth set the record straight on the myths, facts and musicianship of the black metal legends Emperor.
GUITAR WORLD What inspired each of you to play guitar?
IHSAHN I took piano lessons when I was seven. I got my first guitar when I was 10 or 11. That just pushed piano playing right out the window. [laughs]
SAMOTH I started as a bass player. My dad is a blues bass player, and he inspired me to pick up the bass. I ended up in a bunch of metal cover bands playing all the classic tunes of bands like AC/DC, Deep Purple and Sabbath. Then I started getting into extreme types of music, like the thrash metal of Metallica, Testament and Exodus. At some point, I really wanted to start a death metal band, but no one could play death metal guitar in my small town. That’s when I picked up a guitar and said, “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”
GW Did you take lessons when you switched to guitar?
SAMOTH I had no formal training. And actually, I didn’t even work on technique very much, either. [laughs] Thinking back, I wish I’d done more of that stuff. At the time I was more into the feel of music, like Sepultura’s groove on Schizophrenia or Bathory’s aggressiveness. I practiced a lot of palm muting and chugging. I wanted to be more extreme than your average thrash metal band, so I just tried to make my riffs as fast and brutal as possible.
IHSAHN I’m more or less self-taught. There was this blues guitarist who gave me, like, five lessons of blues riffs, but it wasn’t too helpful. [laughs] I would play this Fender Strat copy my father bought me by running it through the electric organ we had at home. Eventually I got a 30-watt Peavey. I also had a Fostex fourtrack recorder. I discovered that if I turned the tempo way up on the organ’s “disco drum” setting, it became almost like a Slayer beat. [laughs] I would record demos using that. At the time, of course, there was no internet and it was much harder to find tablature, so I had to figure things out on my own. But picking out riffs from albums and learning them was really good ear training. I eventually got the tab book for Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. I would play that album for hours every day after school.
GW How did you two first meet?
IHSAHN The town I’m from, Nottetdon, is about 20 minutes away from Akkerhaugen, the small community where Samoth comes from. Nottetdon has Northern Europe’s biggest blues festival and they had youth seminars where young people would come together and learn to play in groups. Samoth was older than me and he was already in a band. I was only 13 at the time, but I had this jacket with all these Iron Maiden patches on it. I guess his band said, Okay, this guy’s into the same things as we are. Let’s invite him to play.
SAMOTH So we started playing together in different constellations, the most well known being the technical death metal band Thou Shalt Suffer. This was around 1990.
GW That’s right around when you formed Emperor.
SAMOTH Yeah, we actually started Emperor as a side project from Thou Shalt Suffer, because we were getting very much into black metal at the time—stuff like old Bathory and Celtic Frost. I was also getting to know the guys from Mayhem. Something was happening in the Norwegian scene at that time; more and more people were getting into the extreme underground. That was the very beginning of the Norwegian black metal scene.
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