Emperor: Symphony of Destruction
Originally published in Guitar World, October 2007
Never mind the church burnings. Throughout the Nineties, Emperor forged the sound that defines symphonic black metal. Guitarists Ihsahn and Samoth reveal the inner workings of Norway’s infamous iconoclasts.
In 1992, the world was watching Norway as the nation prepared for the prestigious honor of hosting the 1994 Olympic games in Lillehammer. Inside the country, however, a rash of church burnings and murders were terrifying the populace and threatening to overshadow Norway’s reputation as one of the most peaceful and politically progressive countries in the world. The instigators, as the police soon discovered, belonged to an inner circle of extreme black metallers. Among them were several members of Emperor, at the time a relatively new entry among Oslo’s burgeoning extreme music scene.
“We were all very psyched about the whole thing,” Emperor’s guitarist/vocalist Ihsahn says of that early period in the band’s history. “I had long black nails and wore makeup and inverted crosses to keep people away. I realized when people hate you for being extreme, you might as well drive the point home.”
Today, Emperor are renowned less for their violent past than for helping to spawn the subgenre of symphonic black metal now practiced by bands like Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth. They’ve earned the respect of musicians and fans alike through four influential studio albums on which Emperor combined seething and malevolent vocals, progressive orchestral arrangements and haunting keyboards with thrash and death metal hallmarks like double kick drums and heavily distorted guitars. “Emperor’s sound has always been a balance between Ihsahn’s progressive melodic stuff and my in-your-face extreme death metal,” says guitarist Samoth.
The partnership was not without its artistic differences, however, and after releasing 2001’s Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise, Emperor broke up, citing a divergence in creative directions. They did so without a farewell tour, a move that disappointed their fan base. In 2005, however, after fielding many requests for a reunion, Emperor “decided to go out and do those final shows that we didn’t get to do when the band split up,” says Samoth. After sorting out the visa issues that prevented Samoth from playing last year’s U.S. shows, Emperor—rounded out by drummer Trym and touring keyboardist Einar Solberg and bassist Secthdamon—have returned to the States, performing with the passion, determination and brutal guitar assault that propelled the band during its heyday.
To understand Emperor and the sound they created, you have to go back to the Eighties and to three bands whose records set the stage for the extreme sound and attitude that would resurface a decade later in Norway’s black metal scene.
With 1982’s Black Metal, England’s Venom not only effectively named the genre but also established a few of its key tenets: diabolic themes, unvarnished production and violent, theatrical imagery. Two years later, a pair of European acts—Switzerland’s Celtic Frost and Sweden’s Bathory—pushed the emerging genre even further. Bathory’s self-titled debut featured explicit satanic lyrics, low-fi production, eerie ambience and vitriolic vocals, while Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales fused brutal thrash with progressive sound experiments. When the second wave of black metal hit the Nordic shores in the late Eighties/early Nineties, Emperor, along with bands like Mayhem, Immortal and Darkthrone, took black metal’s extreme sound, morbid visual aesthetic and anti-Christian, antisocial ideology to new levels.
But it wasn’t just the music that changed. The church burnings and murders of 1992 signaled that the violent themes of the genre’s music were being embraced as reality by younger musicians influenced by black metal’s first wave. The repercussions of their actions catapulted the Norwegian underground black metal scene into the international spotlight and solidified its mythic reputation.
The episodes began in 1991 with the suicide of Mayhem vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin, more commonly known as Dead. The singer killed himself with a shotgun blast that blew off half his head. Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, Dead’s roommate, discovered the body, but before phoning the police, he went out to buy a camera so he could document the suicide. Returning to the scene, Euronymous snapped off a few pictures—one of which appeared as the cover of Mayhem’s Dawn of the Black Hearts bootleg—and collected a few bits of Dead’s skull, which the guitarist made into necklaces.
Shortly after Dead’s suicide, Euronymous opened an underground metal record shop in Oslo called Helvete (Norwegian for “hell”). The shop quickly became a focal point for the Norwegian black metal scene, and the young crowd that congregated there—the so-called “Black Circle”—was a veritable who’s who of the black metal elite, including members of Emperor, Burzum, Immortal, Enslaved and Darkthrone. With Helvete as a base of sorts for the scene, many musical ideas were shared among the crew. “Euronymous’ shop was a gathering point for everyone. I actually wrote the main verse of ‘Inno a Satana’ in the basement,” says Ihsahn, of the song that appears on Emperor’s 1994 debut, In the Nightside Eclipse.