Monday, May 17, 2010

Emperor - IX Equilibrium

Emperor - IX Equilibrium
1999, Candlelight/Century Media

When I first started listening to this album I really didn't know what my direction or angle would be if I was ever to write a review of it - Emperor being one of those bands where an outsider's words often seem horribly superfluous, if not redundant, and ever since I started reading all the accolades and (let's face it) unmitigated sycophancy coming from the more 'mainstream' extreme metal press, I didn't think I would be able to craft an original review that accurately documented my own opinions or was obviously honest enough to escape the flood of derision that follows criticism concentrating on dissecting a band's work irregardless of their popularity, reputation, etc. But now, since some time has passed and I have listened to this album so many times, really quite out of proportion with my opinion of its importance, I am moved once again to comment on it, striving to summon my true feelings about this work, and forgetting all the other myriad opinions of Emperor that fly ceaselessly throughout the underground.

I think that Emperor are praised so often not because of their intrinsic merits or their skill at handling the functioning of their band, but because they constantly upstage or upset the critics' opinions - they surprise, in some sense, with each release. I am almost convinced that nobody at all, in whatever circle, expected the firestorm that was 'Anthems', their second full-length, and much less did anyone expect the form in which it was released: as a fall and turning-away (in some aspects) from their former avant-garde atmospheric metal exploration allied with a new appreciation of lethal aggressiveness. 'Anthems' is, of course, an incredible album, a masterpiece (one of my favorite parts, the break that occurs at exactly 4:16 in 'The Loss and Curse of Reverence', has to be one of the most powerful moments in metal history), but it was founded on Emperor's unmatched ability to retain a beautiful balance between their atmospheric and rhythmic sides - something this album fails at. Well before the appearance of 'Anthems', Emperor had a reputation as somewhat of an 'art metal' band, meaning that they appealed to a small, decidely snobby set of aesthetic purists (don't worry, I place myself in that group) - highbrows with set opinions on the direction black metal should take in the future. Emperor have always been about atmosphere, or to put it more precisely: the exploration of aesthetic convictions with all available methods. In that sense, their music was often much more interesting display of what could be, of form, instead of the arrangement of classic melodies. When you listen to the first two Emperor releases, the split LP and first album, what is more important to you: the individual songs, or the immense sound of all the works together? The content or the form? Emperor is about creating an effect, more than anything else, creating an atmosphere and musical world to draw in the listener, and in that interest all the motives of riff-parading or simple musical display are subjugated beneath the effort to create a multi-textured complex soundscape where the different instruments are seemingly going in individual directions while pressing for the realization of a single purpose. It is because of this concentration on composition, on the totality of effect united under a single purpose, that Emperor have gained such a unique reputation: they constantly use every means at their disposal to create individual and highly-stylized atmospheres, and every element of their sound is whipped into line to follow the development of the various themes they put forth. This is why I know that Ihsahn (if not Samoth) considers himself a 'composer' (I have many reservations about metal musicians and their obsessions with classical music), not a song-writer, above all else, and Emperor's music in the future will follow this pattern: more symphonic complexity, more obvious atmospheres, a wider range of sounds used, and a turn from their earlier of exploration of darkness and obscurity to the pomp and circumstance of neo-classicism. This album, 'IX Equilibrium', is the first step in that process. I am wondering now whether or not the latest material they have released - the songs on the 'Thorns vs. Emperor' album and their cover on the Darkthrone tribute - are going to be indicative in any way of the direction they will pursue in the future. Both are so over-produced and saccharine sweet (in seeking to effectively reproduce their clean weight of sonic power in the studio, they have removed almost all the traces of obscure melodicism or occult mysticism that I loved so much) that they indicate, more than anything else, a change in intent for the band.

There is a certain new gloss of pop melodicism on this album that I find at times to be highly annoying - stemming, as it seems, from Emperor's decision to allow death metal or heavy metal influences into the music. Why look back, Samoth? In a number of instances those death metal segments (mainly used to increase the rhythmic intensity of the music) are very catchy and driving, allowing the guitars new mobility and a rest from the weaving of atmosphere. But at their most blasé, these new elements become tired and wooden reminders of outmoded musical genres: what has come before, and what Emperor had supposedly forgotten.

I'm not saying that Emperor have paused in their singular evolution - quite the opposite actually. They were always one of the most progressive of black metal bands, in almost every sense of that musical term, and this album shows that they have put a lot of thought into the guitar techniques, becoming, for better or worse, a very technically-involved musical apparatus (Ihsahn and Samoth appeared as highlights in at least one guitar magazine that I know of after this album's release, I'm sure there are other notices of their playing ability), intent on expanding the sheer complexity of their material. And on record, their monster riff-mongering and the inescapable density of the guitar layering here is at times stunning. To be honest, however, I am not convinced that this is something that is going to be a part of their live set or their rehearsals or the arrangement of the songs that they play everyday. Because Emperor mainly approach the writing of their music now as an opportunity to create textured strata they focus on using the guitars on many different levels throughout the soundscape of the songs, and in the studio they have the ability to record and assemble things that no band would be able to reproduce live. This approach is becoming increasingly more prevalent among the circle of bands that Emperor finds itself among: the Norwegian 'elite' scene surrounding Satyr and Moonfog Records. That is fine (and expected, really), but listeners should learn from Emperor's concentration on the art of composition to expect effects in the music that are placed as identifiers of their conviction that this music should be 'art' above all else: in other words, this album is a work separate from the abilities of the band on a day-to-say has been assembled, cobbled together, shaped, sanded, polished, and left to stand on its own merits as if it was on display in a museum. In that sense it is dead, lifeless, and without energy: instead of being a documentation of a band's place in its own evolution it is a thing molded, manufactured and mass-produced. It wears the sheen of a work of art that has been so thought-out and pre-planned that it has lost all originality or spontaneity: a product, an object, an item of consumer culture. This is the drawback of the approach the Scandinavians usually take as to the quality of their releases (their are obvious exceptions) - the German efficiency of an album's ability to meet audience demand. Of course, paradox as it may be, part of Emperor's ability to meet it's audience's demand is that it exceeds their expectations. This is a dangerous situation for any band and holds both positive and negative consequences. But if Emperor are the Mercedes of black metal now, accelerating faster and faster with the maniacal vision of Ihsahn at the wheel, is there room enough in the vehicle for true originality, for anything outside of the tunnel-vision of that drive? Where does Emperor go from here?