Emperor: The Birth of Black Metal Icons

From their first raw rehearsals to their debut gig, their journey was not just about music — it was the birth of a legacy.

An old photograph showing three individuals after the band Embryonic's show in 1991. From left to right: Tomas Haugen (Samoth), with long straight hair and a patterned sweater; Jarle Haugen, a Norwegian music critic with crossed arms and a black jacket; and Vegard Tveitan (Ihsahn), with curly hair and a denim vest adorned with patches. The setting appears to be an outdoor area, indicating a casual post-concert atmosphere.
Tomas Haugen (Samoth), Jarle Haugen (Norwegian music critic) and Vegard Tveitan (Ihsahn), after the Embryonic show in 1991
Key Takeaways
  • Emperor formed following a 1989 meeting between Ihsahn and Samoth, evolving from earlier bands like Xerasia and Thou Shalt Suffer.
  • Their early style, featuring raw production and shrieking vocals, was influenced by black metal pioneers like Bathory and Celtic Frost.
  • Emperor’s debut gig in 1992 and subsequent demo “Wrath of the Tyrant” led to a record deal, solidifying their impact on the black metal genre.

The Seminal Meeting

Amidst the vibrant atmosphere of the 1989 Blues Seminar in Notodden, an encounter transpired that would irrevocably alter the trajectory of black metal music. This was where Ihsahn, then a young boy of 13 named Vegard Sverre Tveitan, met Tomas Haugen, known as Samoth, a fellow enthusiast a year his senior. It was an unlikely meeting of minds that would eventually lead to the creation of the legendary band, Emperor.

In 1989, at the Blues Seminar in Notodden, the paths of Ihsahn and Samoth crossed, marking the beginning of a partnership that would shape black metal history.

The Blues Seminar, a haven for budding musicians, offered a unique opportunity for kids from the surrounding areas to immerse themselves in music. They received guidance from experienced blues musicians and formed impromptu bands, experimenting with sounds and styles. It was in this creative melting pot that Ihsahn and Samoth’s paths crossed.

Ihsahn, with his long blond hair, stood out in the crowd. But what truly caught Samoth’s eye was the denim jacket Ihsahn wore, emblazoned with Iron Maiden patches. This was not just a fashion statement; it was a symbol of shared passion, a silent nod to a mutual love for metal. Samoth, already steeped in music and having recorded demos, recognized a kindred spirit in Ihsahn.

Their initial interactions were tentative, exploratory. Samoth was intrigued by the young Ihsahn, whose appearance and choice of attire spoke volumes about his musical tastes. For young musicians like them, such symbols were more than mere decorations; they were part of an unspoken language, communicating shared allegiances and aspirations.

The duo soon began playing together, their sessions marked by a burgeoning synergy. Their musical journey saw them transition through various band names, each a step towards defining their unique sound and identity. It was a time of discovery and experimentation, of finding their footing in a world rich with possibilities.

The formation of Emperor was not immediate. It was the culmination of shared experiences, of countless hours spent honing their craft and understanding each other’s musical language. But it all traced back to that seminal moment at the Blues Seminar, where a jacket adorned with Iron Maiden patches did more than just make a fashion statement – it ignited a partnership that would go on to redefine a genre.

Thus began the saga of Ihsahn and Samoth, a journey that started with a simple meeting between two young music enthusiasts and evolved into the creation of one of the most influential bands in black metal history.

The Early Musical Forays

Before the inception of Emperor, the musical journey of Ihsahn and Samoth was marked by exploration and evolution through various bands.

From Xerasia to Thou Shalt Suffer, the early stages of Ihsahn and Samoth’s collaboration were marked by constant evolution, laying the foundation for the eventual formation of Emperor.

In 1990, an important shift occurred when Ihsahn joined Samoth’s band, Xerasia. Originally named Dark Device, Xerasia was a death metal ensemble that resonated with themes of death and apocalypse. Ihsahn, showcasing his versatility, contributed his skills on both the guitar and keyboards.

Xerasia, despite its impactful music, remained unsigned and fiercely independent. During this time, the band was active in the grassroots tape trading community. They released a live rehearsal tape in 1990, distributing it in a typical DIY fashion of the era: fans sent in blank cassettes, which the band then filled with their music and sent back.

However, Xerasia’s lifespan was short. Later in 1990, the band underwent another transformation, changing its name to Embryonic. This change marked a continuation of their musical journey, a journey that was constantly evolving and searching for its true identity. In November of that year, Embryonic released a self-financed four-track demo titled “The Land of the Lost Souls.”

The following year, 1991, brought another important change. The band transformed once again, this time emerging as Thou Shalt Suffer. This project, now under a new banner, received an unexpected boost: a government grant. In Norway, the government actively supports cultural and artistic projects, offering financial assistance to artists and musicians. This funding was an important aid for Thou Shalt Suffer, likely helping to cover costs associated with music production and other band-related expenses.

Under the name Thou Shalt Suffer, the band released several recordings in 1990 and 1991. These releases were crucial in laying the groundwork for what would eventually become Emperor. However, this phase of collaboration was not to last forever. Samoth eventually left the band to pursue other projects, marking the end of this particular collaboration.

Ihsahn, undeterred, continued to evolve musically. He later repurposed the Thou Shalt Suffer name for a personal project, releasing an album of electronic music titled “Somnium.” This period of Ihsahn and Samoth’s early career was characterized by a series of changes in band names and musical explorations.

The Emergence of Emperor

The formation of Emperor marked an important milestone in the evolution of black metal. The band came into being when Samoth began to experiment with music outside of Thou Shalt Suffer. Collaborating with Ihsahn and a new bass player, Mortiis, they embarked on a journey that would see them rise to prominence in the black metal scene.

Emperor, with its distinctive blend of raw production, shrieking vocals, and fast guitar lines, quickly became a leading figure in the black metal genre, influencing countless artists.

In this new lineup, Samoth transitioned to rhythm guitar while Ihsahn took on vocal duties and lead guitars. The addition of Faust as a drummer completed the group, giving it a powerful and distinctive sound. Emperor’s early music was characterized by its raw production, high-pitched shrieking vocals, and fast, tremolo-picked guitar lines – hallmarks of early black metal.

Drawing inspiration from pioneers like Bathory and Celtic Frost, Emperor’s style was both a homage to and an evolution of the first wave of black metal. Their influence is unmistakable in the band’s sound and thematic content, setting the stage for a new chapter in the genre’s development.

Emperor played their first gig on April 13th, 1992, sharing the stage with bands like Enslaved, Algol, and Infinite Decay. The band wasted no time in capitalizing on their growing reputation, quickly releasing a demo titled “Wrath of the Tyrant.” This demo, with its raw and uncompromising sound, quickly gained traction in the underground scene and caught the attention of Candlelight Records, leading to a record contract.

Under Candlelight Records, Emperor released their debut EP, aptly titled “Emperor.” This release further cemented their place in the black metal scene. Though they were briefly signed to Deathlike Silence Productions, the first black metal label, they did not release any material during this period.

It was with the release of their debut album “In The Nightside Eclipse,” and subsequent albums, that Emperor truly established themselves as a leading figure in the black metal genre. Their sound, evolving yet always true to its roots, played a important role in shaping the direction of black metal. Emperor’s influence extended far beyond their music; they became an emblem of the genre’s creative potential and its capacity for relentless innovation.