Emperor and the Nature of Evil

Before playing the band's 1997 classic 'Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk' at Norway's Tons of Rock Festival, Ihsahn sat down to discuss luck, Bulgakov, and Iron Maiden.

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30 June 2017, 8:09am

I'm wholly convinced that heavy metal festivals – specifically European ones – are the most joyful places in the world. This past weekend, I traveled to Halden, Norway – a small industrial town on the Swedish-Norwegian border – to check out this year's edition of Tons of Rock, an upstart heavy music festival that's rapidly becoming Norway's answer to Hellfest. There, in the imposing shadow of the medieval fortress that served as the festival site, I was struck by how stoked everyone I encountered was, from the tiny children boogying atop their parents' shoulders to the nerdy teens screaming along to Sabaton to the ginger-bearded Viking who hopped up on a damp picnic table bench and joyfully twerked his way through Slayer's set.

Seas of heshers showed up in black T-shirts and jeans, but there were many others proudly sporting outlandish costumes, silly hats, facepaint, raver bondage pants, and Utilikilts without an ounce of irony; everyone I passed by, even the ones who had drunk themselves into oblivion and were being hoisted up by pals, seemed to be having a fucking ball, and how could you blame them? The sun was shining, beer was flowing, and metal was blasting. In a world fraught with peril and horror, sometimes, that's enough.

I was just as pumped as everyone else, because I was going to get to see one of my favourite bands for the first time since 2005. In true European summer fest tradition, the festival lineup was all over the place, pairing underground stars Black Magic, Deathhammer, and Bolzer with more mainstream crowd-pleasers like TNT, Turbonegro, and Airbourne, as well as a few hard-to-translate Norwegian favourites like Valentourettes and Vazelina Bilopphøggersa. There were astonishingly huge, energetic crowds for American nu-knuckledraggers Five Finger Death Punch, Swedish cheese warriors Sabaton, horror daddy supreme Rob Zombie, and, of course, Slayer. The main draw for me, though (besides the lure of a new festival and a general love for fjords) was Emperor, who were slated to play their landmark 1997 album, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk in its entirety.

The black metal icons rarely play live since the two remaining original members, Ihsahn and Samoth, are quite busy with their respective families and careers, so it was a big enough deal that they'd be playing at all. That they'd be running through one of the most important albums in black metal history on its 20th anniversary was a massive bonus, and according to a number of the attendees I spoke with, played a big role in their decision to attend.

It was a huge factor in mine, too. Emperor is the first proper black metal band that I really fell in love with, thanks to a burned copy of their 2000 live album, Emperial Live Ceremony. The only other metal kid in my high school, Chris, gave it to me after finding out I was into stuff like Venom and Cannibal Corpse, and I was hooked from the first manic seconds of "Curse You All Men!" After that, I immediately shunned my death metal and grindcore CDs in favor of delving deeper into this alien new genre – black fucking metal.

A year later, in 2005, Emperor announced their first run of reunion shows, and I sprang into action. I scrimped and saved up my earnings as a dishwasher at a shitty restaurant near my grandma's house to buy a ticket and train fare to their gig at B.B. King's Blues Club in New York City – then a three-hour journey from my parents' house in rural New Jersey – concocted a lie to tell my parents about where I was going, and hauled ass up there to bask in what I was certain would be a truly magical performance.

Was it worth it? Obviously. A lot of things about my life have changed over the ensuing 12 years, but my love for Emperor isn't one of them. I haven't seen them play since that fateful night, so the anticipation for their Tons of Rock set was killing me. Friday evening felt like it would never come.

Photo by Peter Beste

Finally, after the dust from Thursday's show had cleared and as the sun blazed above us, the first thrilling moments of intro track "Alsvartr (The Oath)" rang out across the festival grounds, and a slow stampede of bodies headed towards the main stage. Despite my customary old-lady-standing-in-the-back-with-a-drink festival stance, I elbowed my way up to the very front to stand shoulder to shoulder with the diehards crowding up against the barricade, necks craned, fists raised to the sky. As the anticipation rose, strings swelled, and horns sounded a klaxon call to arms, the tension became unbearable – until, finally, they dropped into the feral howl of "Ye Entrancemperium," and time stopped. If there is a more satisfying intro-to-opening track transition within the metal pantheon, I haven't goddamn heard it, and following its grandiose surge with the imperial grandeur and chaotic savagery of "Thus Spake the Nightspirit" remains a stroke of genius. "Ensorcelled by Khaos," one of the album's fiercest tracks, boomed across the festival grounds with frenzied grace, and each song that followed kept us spellbound.

The entire performance was note-perfect, often eerily so; the only shreds of humanity the black metal gods allowed to slip out were the short bursts of between-song stage banter (delivered in Norwegian, naturally; it sounded like they were having a nice time) and the grins spread across Ihsahn and Samoth's lined faces. Otherwise, their Tons of Rock gig was a heady reminder of the heights to which black metal soared in its infancy. The album's original power lay in its intricacy and musical curiosity, its ability to apply neoclassical structures to the harshest Satanic impulses, wherein no note was left unexplored, and no riff allowed to languish without being tugged into a new direction. Every blast of audio shrapnel was balanced by crystalline melody or burst of symphonic bombast. Presented in full as a living document by a defunct band, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk was as much of a history lesson as it was victory lap – and a gift to fans.

Samoth, Ihsahn, Trym. Photo by Peter Beste

In addition to the performance, I'd also managed to arrange an in-person interview with Ihsahn before the gig; I was only given 15 minutes to speak with him, but we covered some interesting ground (and I was way less nervous than when I first interviewed him as a teenager many years ago). After staking out a nook backstage and shooing away one of his tiny blonde daughters (who was clad in an oversized Samael shirt and big black boots), we got down to it. We ended up talking quite a lot about the learning curve that defined Anthems for him; its predecessor was a hodgepodge of older and new material, while this album stands as the first Emperor album to have been composed all in one go. During that period, Ihsahn bought his first computer, and learned to use its sequencer on the fly, conjuring the album's now-iconic orchestral string sections as he went along.

"I learned to think of myself more in control of the process, y'know? Had a bit more experience and kind of had a much clearer vision of where we wanted to go," he told me. "I remember when I was arranging stuff for Anthems, we had to finish 'The Loss and Curse of Revenance' first because we wanted to do that as a single; I had seven layers of different orchestral things happening, and we mixed it, and it disappeared in this chaos of sound! That was a very valuable lesson: that you have to kind of pick what you want to get in there, you can't get everything at the same time. We're just gonna call it a rookie mistake!"

It's impossible to argue with the results. After Anthems was released in 1997, Emperor went on to put out a litany of EPs, splits, compilations, and live recordings, but only managed two more full-length studio albums (1999's IX Equilibrium and 2001's Prometheus - The Discipline of Fire & Demise) before the band's demise. Ihsahn has sworn that Emperor will never record new music– from his perspective, since his post-Emperor musical projects have veered in such a different direction from Samoth's (who handled the other half of the songwriting duties), bringing the twain back together just wouldn't work. So, instead, the band has resurfaced only for special occasions. They first reunited back in 2005 to play a handful of European and North American dates, a spate of activity that lasted until 2007; things went dark until 2014, when the band did a round of anniversary dates for their debut, In the Nightside Eclipse. Now, three years later, it only makes sense that they'd give Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk the same treatment.

"We say yes to very, very limited things. I think last round, we did seven shows, and we turned down like a hundred really great offers that most bands would be really excited about," he says with a chuckle. "But basically, we try to keep it a level where we're comfortable, we're going to enjoy ourselves, and kind of just celebrate the opportunity of being able to do this. Playing headlining, big shows with some of our favourite bands from the past – in 2014, we played In the Nightside Eclipse, and we shared a backstage with Black Sabbath! You don't get to do that all the time. and for anybody who grew up liking metal in Norway and playing in a band, that's kind of as cool as it gets."

Photo by Peter Beste

One of the things that initially drew me to Emperor's music was how, despite (or perhaps because of) its experimental wizardry and high drama, it still radiated evil. All of those early Norwegian black metal records embraced various interpretations of darkness, but in contrast with most of their peers, Emperor's approach felt refined – more black velvet than blood red, Satanic majesty versus blasphemous hatred. The classical influences surely had an impact there, as did Ihsahn's own interests. When I told him their sound had always made me think of the sensuous, debonair Devil in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, he nodded in agreement and mentioned his love of The Omen and Hannibal, as well (that kind of art is "elegant, and just intelligent in a way," he explained).

I asked him about the nature of evil, too, and how his perceptions have changed as he's aged; I was particularly interested in his answer to this question, given Emperor's bloody past. Like those of many of their peers in the 90s Norwegian black metal scene, the band's legacy is tainted by bigotry and violence. While Ihsahn himself steered clear of the church burnings and murder that tainted the scene's early days, as anyone familiar with the band's history knows, in 1992, the band's original drummer, Bård "Faust" Eithun, stabbed a gay man named Magne Andreassen to death in the woods outside Lillehammer. He was convicted and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for the murder as well as for his involvement in a church burning; he was released in 2003 after serving nine years and four months.

As of now, Faust is no longer part of Emperor. The last proper album he played on was 1994's In the Nightside Eclipse; his most recent and final recording with the band, a four-way split with Dimmu Borgir, Arcturus, and Ancient, was released in 2000. He did not have any involvement with Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, and did not appear with the band at Tons of Rock (Trym Torson, who did play on the album, handled drum duties). Eithun's tenure in Emperor was ultimately short-lived, but he is still intrinsically linked to the band. His former bandmates Ihsahn and Samoth (who was himself convicted of arson in 1994 and served 16 months in prison) are still aware of his past actions, as they were when he was invited to perform with them at past reunion shows in 2014. As a mutual friend told me when I asked them about it, "I love him, we're friends, but there's always this dark veil – I'll always know what he did."

Photo by Peter Beste

So, when I asked Ihsahn how he felt about the idea of evil, it was with the knowledge that he'd had more experience with it than most people.

"It was just this atmosphere. We were very much into it at the time, [but] if I'm being perfectly honest, there is a lot of stuff I don't remember; we never did drugs or anything but there are memory lapses. I think at the heart of it is the deep desire to distance yourself from everything else that you see that feels very hypocritical. If you kind of dissect things, obviously there are so many things that we accept in as society that is fundamentally wrong. We're kind of used to it, y'know? We take it for granted," he explained.

"And so I think, as a teenager drawn to this type of music, that's where you're at – you just want to distance yourself in order to not become that. I mean, the stuff I was wearing at the time, I think it was as much to convince myself as everybody else. In my experience of being that young, when you take such a strong [stance], and really put it out there, then you're confronted; people don't care if you're a teenager, they really attack you hard, and then you learn very much from that process and from that side of society when you place yourself totally on the outside. And also having to defend all these extreme views, you can build on that as a person."

Photo by Peter Beste

The thought of the black metal's cutthroat early days serving as a catalyst for personal growth is alien, to say the least, but the way Ihsahn sees it, spending so much time immersed in such a noxious environment and then distancing himself from it made him evolve into a stronger, more level-headed adult. Norway's liberal social welfare programs helped, too.

"I won't say that the black metal scene was very healthy for many people, but some of it, I think for me personally, was great. And of course it was easy for us to be outsiders in a way. I think it's very easy to say, yeah! I'm going to do whatever the hell I want, wear whatever the hell I want, and when you're in Norway, it's not really that scary. Of course, at times, there was a lot of provocation, but I mean, it takes more guts to wear an Emperor T-shirt in Iraq, you know?" he says with a laugh. "So that's another thing I've been more conscious about getting older – having the privilege of growing up in a country where there is a safety net so big that you could really go full on, just do music, and if you fuck up, you don't screw up your entire life."

"I mean, I started playing piano when I was like six, seven, and ten I picked up electric guitar, was really passionate, did demos and all of that, but when I saw Iron Maiden on the Seventh Son tour, and when the pyro went off during "Moonchild," I cannot recall a moment since then that I've considered doing anything else. I have to stick to it because this is the only thing I know. The clue is to never have a plan B," he says with a wicked grin.

It's a risky way to lead one's life, but clearly, for Ihsahn – and for anyone else who's ever found solace or inspiration in Emperor's music – the gamble paid off.

Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; she's on Twitter.
All photos by Peter Beste