emperor hysteria

EMPEROR // 30 Years of Eclipse

Recorded when founding member Vegard Sverre “Ihsahn” Tveitan was just 17, Emperor’s first full length release In the Nightside Eclipse is now almost universally revered as a masterpiece that, along with its follow up Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, stands as one the cornerstones of symphonic black metal.

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As he tells it, Nightside … wasn’t quite as esteemed when it originally appeared in February 1994.

you me at six hysteria

“It was ridiculed in the more mainstream metal press,” he soberly observes, “and now I’ve seen the same magazines put In the Nightside Eclipse next to the first Black Sabbath album as the most influential. What can I say? You never have control over these things. It always goes up and down. The only thing as an artist you can relate to is your own ambitions and goals artistically, and then you do your best, and what happens after that is not up to you.”

In Emperor’s case, those ambitions and goals have led to them being prestigiously regarded as one of the most influential – some have even said the best – black metal bands of all. Each of their albums are highly praised for their complexity and technical execution, and while they haven’t recorded any new material since first disbanding in 2001, Emperor has remained a highly acclaimed and popular live act during their sporadic reunion tours. In 2016, their longest-serving line-up, Ihsahn, guitarist Tomas Thormodsæter “Samoth” Haugen and drummer Tyrm Torson, reunited to perform Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk for its twentieth anniversary, a tour that eventually came to Australia in 2019. Their return here in May will see them featuring Nightside… heavily.

It’s amazing to see,” Ihsahn says, “when we go out, some of these songs are over 30 years old … we are all metal fans and we have classic songs and albums that we relate to and it’s just amazing to see that other people have a similar relationship to albums that we were part of making. Those two albums in particular, even young people who weren’t even born then pick up on them.”

What we lacked in experience we made up for in youthful ambition and drive, and youthful energy.
[ Ihsahn ]

Ihsahn believes that some of that lasting appeal stems from the youthful energy of Emperor at the time those albums were made.

“I like to think that it [was] because we were so young,” he says. “I was 16 when we wrote In the Nightside Eclipse, and 17 by the time we recorded it. But [we had] no experience, just a lot of ideas and hubris! What we lacked in experience we made up for in youthful ambition and drive, and youthful energy. So, I guess that rebellious nature still resonates with the younger generation today, being in a similar place in their life.”

Emperor was spawned in the turbulence of Norwegian black metal’s dark and violent early 90s, when young men like Ihsahn and Samoth gathered at the Oslo record store Helvete, owned by the so-called Black Circle’s charismatic leader, Mayhem guitarist Euronymous. There it was, Ihsahn recalls, where they began to develop the aesthetics and mystique of their vision of the scene and its music. 

“Ideas and aesthetics were distilled at those meetings, approaching the aesthetics of early Bathory and Celtic Frost and those kinds of things. It was an underground scene that was connected to everything, there was all these fanzines, flyers and tape-trading and we used them to reach the very, very few people all around the world. It was nothing at a commercial level.”

Against the very Bathory-esque backdrop of blood, fire and death – murders, church burnings and suicide – the Norwegian black metal scene captivated the extreme underground and the tumult of releases that came from it made it seem like something had exploded all at once. Ihsahn remembers it somewhat differently.

Emperor Hysteria

“It is a strange … not a misconception, but given how everything panned out with those early records from the Norwegian bands but also a lot of the other extreme bands at that time, it appears that this is something that happened suddenly, and we had a lot of attention. For us, and for everyone who played in those bands, it was this slow, slow struggle.”

He goes on to suggest that it wasn’t until Emperor’s third album XI Equilibrium sold over 50,000 in its first three weeks did he truly realise that the band had really established something.

“That was when I thought,” he says, “‘Wow, this is like a professional band!’”

For all his genius and notoriety, Ihsahn is remarkably humble when discussing his own thoughts on Emperor’s mighty legacy. He talks, for example, about being blown away when the band goes into new territories like South America and watching huge crowds sing and chant back to them: “To have 4000 people singing along to every word,” he says, “humming along to I am The Black Wizards … that’s crazy!”

“I guess I just try to look at it through the lens of being a music fan and being deeply attached to not only the work I’ve produced,” he continues, “but other people’s music. So I step outside myself and think, ‘What an amazing thing, that I was making music that had the same effect and made people feel the same way and have a similar relationship to the music I was making, that I had to some of my heroes.’ When you’re young, the music you listen to is the soundtrack to your life, and when I hear this Iron Maiden song or this Judas Priest song, it wakes up all those memories and it’s integrated into my life and person. And if some music that I’m a part of has a similar value to someone else, that’s an amazing thing.”

Music, he says, is “all I know”. He began playing at 6 and was recording demos by the time he was 10 and considers it both a blessing and a privilege that he can devote his life to his greatest passion. He also credits pure luck at being at the right place, at the right time in being able to create work that many continue to see as important and influential. Getting together with Emperor to play before an audience allows he and his bandmates to acknowledge how much their music means to others.

“What we did with Emperor was unique in itself and it was such a big part of our lives that we can still come together and gather around these old songs and see and appreciate what we were part of.”

Catch Emperor at the following dates:

WEDNESDAY MAY 17//The Forum, Melbourne
THURSDAY MAY 18//Metro Theatre, Sydney
SATURDAY MAY 20//Eatons Hill, Brisbane

Tickets available here.

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