Black metal probably never intended to be art. In its thrashy early stages as imagined by bands like Bathory, Venom, and Hellhammer, the goal of black metal was to be as primitive and earnestly evil as possible. Later, among bands like Celtic Frost, Mayhem, and Darkthrone, the genre achieved a new sense of scope, yet it remained focused on the two-faced battle axe of arch-Satanism and barbarian warfare. But somewhere along the way, the lofty side of black metal rose to meet its savagery, and very quickly the artists within the scene had to prove that the underground could offer nuance and beauty as well as pure sonic terror.
No band met that standard like Emperor. Visionary yet grounded, symphonic yet raw, the Norwegian trio showed the world just how epic black metal could be. And over the course of four thrilling studio albums, they transformed their musical niche from an inky cesspool to one of metal’s most vital and interesting spawning grounds.
It’s important to remember that though the members of Emperor made music that was perhaps more forward-thinking than that of their peers, they were part of the movement to which black metal owes everything. Ihsahn and Samoth might be smarter than the average bears now, but they hung with Euronymous and Varg at the former’s infamous Helvete record store. And though they may not have been satanic terrorists themselves — “Burning churches isn’t the way to get Christianity out of Norway,” remarked Ihsahn in the infamous tell-all book Lords of Chaos — their proximity to black metal’s scandalous explosion meant they certainly warmed their hands on the embers of churches. As such, Emperor will forever be a black metal band in its truest sense, perhaps more interesting than that genre label implies but always ready to wear the corpsepaint and gauntlets.
Perhaps most vital to Emperor’s legacy were the classical structures in which their songs were written. Metal fans like to hail baroque classical music as one of its most important ancestors — the others being Delta blues and late-’60s hard rock — but rarely is that influence so apparent as it is on In The Nightside Eclipse and Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. Emperor were undoubtedly writing metal songs, but these opuses surged forward with a sweep of their cloaks and a haughty roll of their eyes. A track like “Thus Spake The Nightspirit” is in many ways a condensed version of a classical epic like Wagner’s Ring Cycle, complete with its accented guitar filigrees and moaned chorus at the end. This was a band who believed in what they did, and would forsake the boorish traditions of metal for something they considered more timeless.
Perhaps what Emperor did best was the death of ego. In heavy metal, nothing is more outright pathetic than someone trying to look cool. Even the gods of hair metal knew this; their perpetual quest to get laid always couched in a somewhat disgusting form of honesty. Even among black metal’s ranks, it’s obvious some bands worried about their public appearance, even if they wanted to appear distasteful to the mainstream. But Emperor rejected even those petty endeavors, and in doing so achieved metal’s ultimate goal: to be fucking rad despite not being cool. Like black metal progenitors Mercyful Fate, they realized that the way to live with themselves was to take things down a path that only they could see. So they said ‘Fuck you’ to everyone and made music like Beethoven’s ghost leading a waltz in Hell.
And the world loved them for it. The first EPs vaulted Emperor into the spotlight, followed soon after by the chaotic, orcish masterpiece of 1994’s In The Nightside Eclipse. 1997’s sophomore full-length Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk amplified things tenfold, adding an expansive scope that helped the band build a sonic underworld all their own. 1999’s IX: Equilibrium saw black metal’s most experimental band experimenting further, shaking up their pitch-black atmosphere and incorporating more traditional metal into their sound. Swansong Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise was a polished-yet-baroque piece of metallic opera that acted as a monumental tombstone for the band, the kind of grand declaration that left fans only wanting more. All of these albums stretched the boundaries of what metal could be, and as such cemented Emperor as artists whose creations were wholly unrivaled.
It’s sad that the phrase symphonic black metal has come to embody ruffly neckerchiefs and flowery Crowleyisms. Today, the subgenre exists seemingly to separate synth-heavy gothic metal from its torch-hoisting brethren. But Emperor ruled over both of those kingdoms, and proved that with total dedication and boundless imagination, extreme music could stand in the marble halls of its classical ancestors. As the genre and its fans inevitably evolve, one truth will always remain constant — there will never be another be another band like this.
Words by Chris Krovatin