Saturday, July 10, 2010

Emperor - Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk (1997)

Emperor' s second full-length (third, if you count Wrath of the Tyrant) was recorded in Grieghallen, as was its predecessor. It was produced by Pytten, along with the members of the band who, obviously, had a major hand in the sound. It was a drastic departure from In the Nightside Eclipse, in many ways. In late 1996, the Reverence E.P. was released in an effort to prepare listeners for this shift in sound, serving as a transition piece. However, lt is quite probable that many were still shocked, in the summer of 1997, when Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk saw the light of day.

By this point, the popularity of Black Metal had been rising, in the states. With this album, it seemed that Emperor cemented themselves as the reigning kings of Norwegian Black Metal, in the eyes of the American press and fans. The true Mayhem was gone. Varg Vikernes was in prison, rendering Burzum lifeless. Darkthrone had lost their creative fire, sinking into mediocrity. Even Immortal deteriorated, releasing their worst album a few months earlier. And, unfortunately, Gorgoroth seemed to be under the radar for most. So, in this dark age, bands like Emperor and Satyricon (among others) seemed to inherit the throne. Had Emperor released another In the Nightside Eclipse, this may have been warranted. But, in fact, they had chosen to go down a different path; one that would lead them farther and farther away from what Black Metal truly was. While Anthems... still possesses sufficient qualities of the sub-genre to be included, their efforts on this album were in no way adequate enough to justify the level of praise that was received and, try as they might, they certainly were not the heirs of Mayhem.

It was in the wake of the Reverence E.P. that I became fully aware of this band. Going back to late 1996, Black Metal was still defined (for me) by Venom, old Slayer, Hellhammer, Sodom, etc. I was still being introduced to the early material from bands like Mayhem and Darkthrone, both of which seemed incredibly dark and obscure at the time. In an age when the internet was still in its infancy (and still several years before I had regular access anyway), discovering such music was no easy task. However, it was already becoming clear that Emperor was one of the most popular of these Norwegian bands, and that rubbed me the wrong way. In most cases, whatever path the herd chooses, I usually go the other way. The more Emperor t-shirts I saw at school, the less I wanted to give them a chance. Finally, around the release of Anthems..., I heard "Thus Spake the Nightspirit" and something about it appealed to me. However, not long after getting this album, the decision was made to seek out their earlier material and, there, I found the true quality recordings by this band. In retrospect, I can't say that this was a worthless album, as it served the purpose of leading me to Wrath of the Tyrants and In the Nightside Eclipse.

Getting into the music, the negative aspects shall first be addressed. The production is horrendous. The band must have been quite proud of their new drummer, Trym, as his instrument is way too high in the mix. To make matters worse, his style is too... busy. Fast drumming is fine and it suits the pace of the music, yet he seems to be doing too much and it distracts from, what should be, the true focal point: the guitars. However, the drumming is not the only obstacle, as an even more diabolical culprit is standing between the riffs and the ears of the listener. The synth is overpowering, throughout this record. For a good deal of the time, it really feels as if the guitar riffs are in the role of some background effect, only there to take up space. It's the drums, synth and vocals that drive a large portion of this album.

The first problem with this is that synth should never be the focus of a Black Metal song, period. If it is used at all, it must be done tastefully, only being used to accentuate the atmosphere already being created by the conventional instruments. When a band relies on synth as the be-all, end-all of their aura, then there is a fundamental problem with their songwriting, at its core. The thing about Emperor is that they actually have a decent amount of riffs on this album. Of course, there are a lot of pointless riffs as well, quite possibly because the guitars are put in a subservient role to the rest of the instruments. The most confusing thing of all is that, at least 50% of the time, the synth actually works to undermine the atmosphere that (one would assume) that band is going for. More often than not, it serves only to lighten the mood or to create a general sense of confusion, as there is simply too much going on. The production makes this even worse, as it possesses a very claustrophobic quality. While being very clear (and overproduced), there isn't enough room to accommodate everything that is going on. Of course, this leads back to the songwriting, itself, as well as the choice to place the drumming and synth so high in the mix.

Vocally, Ihsahn attempts quite a bit of clean singing on here, and it's done well enough. Thankfully, it is buried in the mix, to an extent, creating a nice effect. One can tell that he's not entirely comfortable doing it, so it possesses just enough sincerity and effort to be appreciated. Later on, his growing confidence only increased the obnoxious nature of his clean vocals. Outside of this new element, the vocal performance is similar to that of In the Nightside Eclipse, while being a bit more controlled. It would be considered detrimental; however, the style of this album dictated that everything be more tight and precise, for better or for worse.

As for the songwriting, there are moments where the band really shines. The slow section of "Thus Spake the Nightspirit" is very well done and captures the right atmosphere. Similarly, there are brief glimpses of skill in "Ensorcelled by Khaos", before the 'happy' synth drowns everything out and ruins the feeling. "The Loss and Curse of Reverence" appears to have the most in common with the material of the previous album, containing some of the best riffs. Again, the synth kills much of its momentum and one gets the feeling that it would have benefited from the production of In the Nightside Eclipse. Eliminating the keyboards and the middle section of the song would have been a major improvement. "The Acclamation of Bonds" has a handful of strong riffs as well, though the most notable one has to be the part lifted from Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls". It wouldn't be a bad tribute, except for the fact that Ihsahn later claimed that they came up with the riff all on their own and pretended not to notice the incredible similarity with the original (even despite the decision to add in the sound of a funeral bell).

All in all, the songwriting is pretty weak. For every good riff to be found here, there are half a dozen useless riffs. And even during the brief moments of would-be brilliance, there are usually a number of factors that prevent the total enjoyment of those as well. Good riffs, often drowned out by bad synth, tied together by intrusive drumming and a multitude of background guitar that never asserts its dominance in the mix. And, perhaps the saddest thing about this album is that the very best riff of the entire thing was written by someone else and ripped off.

When I first got the album, my impression of this was a little better. Because of the handful of decent riffs, I managed to block out much of the rest. As well, 90% of the intro can be ignored as it goes from setting a proper mood to being nothing short of comical. But the one thing that really sticks out is the opening riff of "Ye Entrancemperium". It lasts all of 20 seconds, but Emperor does their best to use that momentum to carry them through the rest of this half-baked attempt of creating a Black Metal album. And who is responsible for that riff? Euronymous. I didn't notice his name in the credits until after several listens and, back then, I simply assumed that he had written it and given it to them for later use. In truth, it was stolen. They merely heard it on some old Mayhem rehearsal and used it for themselves. At least they gave credit where it was due. Sadly, this single riff (that never even made it onto a proper Mayhem release) is the most intense and pure half minute of Black Metal on the whole album. The members of Emperor are very capable musicians. They play with a high level of skill and, any time they record a cover song, it's done incredibly well; i.e. "A Fine Day to Die", "Funeral Fog", "Cromlech", etc. But the inclusion of this Euronymous riff is further evidence that they are much better at recording the material of others than writing their own.

In the end, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk is not the masterpiece that many hailed it as. On the contrary, it is a monumental failure. The highlight of the record is a stolen riff from a band whose rehearsal recordings are more enjoyable than this. The brilliance of In the Nightside Eclipse had faded, and only a few remnants were left to hearken back to those days. And even still, most of those were so enshrouded in synth nonsense as to leave them difficult to fully appreciate. As is often the case, the integrity of the band was traded for popularity and wider acceptance.