Emperor: The Band that Shaped the Course of Black Metal

Black metal as a genre has been significantly shaped by the musical ingenuity of Emperor. This piece delves into the band’s origins, their groundbreaking albums, and their profound influence on the black metal scene.


The Genesis of Emperor: Breaking the Ice

When talking about the black metal music scene, one band’s name consistently resonates like a sonorous guitar riff – Emperor. Hailing from Norway, a country known for its rich history in black metal, Emperor has carved out a distinct place for itself in the annals of this musical genre.

Emperor was formed in 1991 in Notodden, Norway, by two passionate teenagers named Tomas Haugen and Vegard Sverre Tveitan, better known by their stage names, Samoth and Ihsahn, respectively. While their initial interest was in death metal, the pair soon found themselves drawn to the darker, more atmospheric sounds of black metal. They embarked on a musical journey that would help shape the genre’s evolution and leave a lasting mark on its landscape.

Their early days were characterized by a drive to innovate and push boundaries. The band started out under the name Thou Shalt Suffer. At this stage, they were heavily influenced by bands like Bathory and Celtic Frost, pioneers of the first wave of black metal. Their sound was characterized by raw production, high-pitched shrieking vocals, and fast, tremolo-picked guitar lines, typical of the early black metal sound.

In 1992, a significant shift occurred. Samoth decided to put Thou Shalt Suffer on hold to start a new band, Emperor, and Ihsahn followed suit. It was a decision that would lead to the creation of one of the most influential black metal bands of all time.

The new band marked a turning point in their musical journey. Their creative evolution became apparent with the release of their first EP, “Emperor” in 1993. The EP was an immediate success, quickly gaining recognition within the underground black metal scene. Emperor’s sound was both a continuation of and a departure from their earlier influences. The raw energy and aggression were still there, but they added a new level of complexity and sophistication, incorporating symphonic elements and progressive structures. Their music became an embodiment of the icy, desolate landscapes of their Norwegian homeland.

The Emergence and Controversy: Storming the Scene

Following the success of their eponymous EP in 1993, Emperor started gaining momentum. The band’s lineup was solidified with the addition of drummer Bård Eithun, known as Faust, and bassist Terje Vik Schei, also known as Tchort. This completed the quartet that would go on to craft some of the most defining records in the realm of black metal.

1994 marked a significant year for the band. They released their debut album, “In the Nightside Eclipse”, which was hailed as an epoch-defining record within the black metal community. The album’s unique blend of furious black metal with atmospheric, symphonic elements redefined the genre’s parameters and pushed its creative boundaries. Notably, the album contained Emperor’s iconic song, “I Am the Black Wizards”, a masterpiece of brutal yet melodic black metal.

Unfortunately, 1994 wasn’t only about music for Emperor. This period is notorious in the history of black metal due to the church burnings, crimes, and controversies associated with some bands, including Emperor. Faust was convicted for murder, and Samoth was found guilty of church arson. This led to a hiatus for the band, with both members serving prison sentences.

These events brought the band and the entire black metal scene into the media spotlight, further intensifying the genre’s mystique and infamy. However, the band members have repeatedly emphasized that these actions were the results of personal choices, not a collective band decision, nor an attempt to gain publicity.

The controversies surrounding Emperor, as distressing as they were, did not halt their journey, but instead became a dark chapter in the band’s saga. In the face of adversity, Ihsahn held the band together and continued writing and composing.

The Revival and Innovation: Ascending to New Heights

Emerging from a period of controversy and chaos, Emperor was far from defeated. In fact, they returned to the scene stronger and more creatively adventurous than ever.

1997 marked a pivotal year for the band. Ihsahn, the sole active member during their hiatus, had continued to explore and develop their sound. The result was Emperor’s second full-length album, “Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk”. It was during this period that Trym Torson joined as the band’s new drummer, contributing his unique style to the band’s evolving sound.

“Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk” was met with high praise, even receiving the prestigious Spellemannprisen, the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy. Emperor had not only survived their turmoil but thrived, pushing their music to new levels of complexity and depth.

Their unique blend of raw black metal fury, melodic sensibilities, and symphonic elements had evolved. There was now a greater emphasis on keyboards and orchestration, and Ihsahn’s vocals had developed a more dynamic range, further broadening their musical palette. This gave birth to songs like “Ye Entrancemperium” and “With Strength I Burn”, which showcased their musical evolution.

Emperor’s commitment to innovation extended to their live performances. The band sought to recreate their densely layered studio recordings on stage, no easy task given the complexity of their music. Yet they succeeded, becoming known for their intense and atmospheric live shows that brought the band even closer to their audience.

The Finale and Legacy: Setting the Stage Ablaze

As the dawn of the new millennium approached, Emperor continued to evolve and refine their sound. They were far from being complacent, always pushing the envelope of what was considered “traditional” black metal. This journey would eventually culminate in two more pivotal albums: “IX Equilibrium” (1999) and “Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise” (2001).

“IX Equilibrium” marked a shift towards a more balanced sound, blending black metal elements with their ever-present symphonic and progressive influences. The album showcased Emperor’s ability to balance aggression with melody, complexity with accessibility. Tracks like “An Elegy of Icaros” and “Curse You All Men!” exhibited this intricate balancing act.

However, it was “Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise” that marked the zenith of Emperor’s artistic journey. This album, entirely composed by Ihsahn, was a concept piece that deviated significantly from the black metal blueprint. The album’s orchestral arrangements, complex song structures, and philosophical lyrics reflected a new level of maturity and artistic ambition, resulting in a powerful and distinct closing statement for the band.

In 2001, shortly after the release of “Prometheus,” Emperor announced their disbandment. Yet, their musical journey didn’t end. The members pursued various musical projects, the most notable being Ihsahn’s successful solo career. Known for his dynamic vocal range and compositional skills, Ihsahn continued to experiment with various musical styles, including progressive metal, jazz fusion, and even electronic music, earning him critical acclaim and a dedicated fan base.

The legacy of Emperor is undeniably profound. They expanded the possibilities of black metal, infusing it with a level of sophistication and ambition previously unseen in the genre. Today, their influence can be heard in countless bands across the globe.