Prometheus Unbound
CoC interviews Ihsahn of Emperor
by: Adrian Bromley / Chris Flaaten / Pedro Azevedo
Prologue: THE DEMISE OF LEGENDS

by: Pedro Azevedo

One of the greatest bands in the history of extreme metal is laying their more than decade-long career to rest. Some may argue whether Emperor really are -- sorry, -were-; I must get used to speaking of Emperor like a deceased entity. Anyway, I was saying that perhaps not everyone will agree with my opening sentence regarding Emperor's excellence. However, I doubt anyone with a broad view of the extreme metal realm will deny this band's massive importance within it. This prologue is not meant to serve as a band biography; I shall not go into much detail about each of their releases or historical issues, but rather try to provide an overview of what I feel made this band so remarkable throughout most of its existence.

Even if you disregard their demos, Emperor's full-length debut _In the Nightside Eclipse_ made it clear that they were not a band in need of a crutch. The press publicity surrounding Norway's early black metal scene was certainly not the deciding factor in their success. Sure, they were part of that publicity to some extent, and there may certainly be a criminal record or two in the band (most notably, but not exclusively, former drummer Bard Faust). However, with _In the Nightside Eclipse_ it became clear that the influence of all that sideshow was insignificant compared to the musical prowess the band was developing.

_In the Nightside Eclipse_ (1994) is, to this date, arguably one of the most intensely atmospheric black metal albums ever made: the keyboard symphonies mixed with the harsh guitars and piercing screams to create a chilling wall of sound. With this album Emperor made a strong statement that they would clear a path of their own, adding a thick layer of keyboards to the icy guitar foundations and experimenting with classical influences to develop their own style of black metal.

Although the influence of _In the Nightside Eclipse_ in today's densely populated symphonic black metal scene appears undeniable, Emperor's classically influenced avant garde approach to the black metal foundations was not to reach its peak until the band's next album, _Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk_ (1997). Complex, multi-layered, venomous and grandiose, _Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk_ is still today a record of highly unusual magnitude and, much like its predecessor, a genre milestone. Propelled by Trym's highly talented drum barrage, Ihsahn's classically influenced orchestrations and Samoth's more death metal influenced guitar approach combined to once again prove that contrast is not necessarily an obstacle to consistent results. A few passages in that album remain some of my absolute favourites in extreme metal.

Great records usually cause great expectations to be built up, and potentially great disappointments to follow. For many that was the case when Emperor released _IX Equilibrium_ (1999), which repeated the _Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk_ formula with a greater emphasis on death metal and even heavy metal to some extent. The result, despite its technical merits, was certainly not to everyone's liking; I personally found only a couple of tracks to be truly worthy of the band's legacy. Nevertheless, others believed the album reaffirmed Emperor's excellence and progression within the extreme metal realm, spanning other genres besides black metal, and possibly again leading the way for others to follow in their wake. Followers of the "true" black metal scene who held the band's pre-_In the Nightside Eclipse_ releases as their favourites felt mostly alienated by now, but the band continued to achieve widespread notoriety in the metal scene.

Anno 2001, the Emperor lays down to die after one final battle. _Prometheus - The Discipline of Fire and Demise_ is the band's swansong album; you can find a review in this issue, and also greater insight into the album and the reasons behind the band's demise in the article that follows.

Two CoCers were scheduled to interview Ihsahn -- Emperor's vocalist, keyboardist, guitarist and songwriter. To avoid redundancy, each of the interviewers planned his part of the questionnaire from a different angle: Adrian would cover their career and Ihsahn's thoughts on it, while Chris would delve into their new album and its creation. Ihsahn speaks; the fire still burns inside him.

Part 1: THE FIRE STILL BURNS

by: Adrian Bromley

Emperor's singer/guitarist/founder Ihsahn says he feels "liberated" now that his band of the last twelve years has finally come to an end. Strong words from a musician who has helped shape the black metal sound throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium.

He also says he is pleased with the success the band has seen over the past ten years and the four full-length albums they have released, including the forthcoming album titled _Prometheus - The Discipline of Fire and Demise_ on Candlelight [reviewed in this issue].

But it is time to move on, he suggests. Time to explore music and be creative all over again under a new vision of ideas. The fire still burns within Ihsahn.

"This is very liberating, being finished with Emperor. I guess now I have this kind of childish excitement knowing that I will be involved with Peccatum [with his wife Ihriel -- Adrian] and my own solo stuff in the future", starts the talkative Norwegian. "It feels good to bring one chapter of my life to a close and be able to go onto another one."

While many fans are unsure why a band like Emperor would fold after four full-length albums -- _In the Nightside Eclipse_ [1994, CoC #1], _Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk_ [1997, CoC #22], _IX Equilibrium_ [1999, CoC #39] and the latest one --, Ihsahn points out that if there was any time to end the band, then this was the perfect time.

"I think this album is a good way to end it all. I feel that on a more personal level with one another in the band [guitarist Samoth and drummer Trym], it was the right time to bring it to a close and in a good way. We have always had our differences musically over the years and the way we worked, but I think we have all drifted in many different directions and it was the right decision to end it while we can still work in a constructive manner, rather than fighting to put out releases."

"We just wanted to keep Emperor the way it should be and keep our friendship with one another", he reveals. "It is very healthy for us to bring this to a close and try new things. We are better off from it for sure."

Knowing that this was going to be the last Emperor album, did Ihsahn have any set goals with the new album _Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire and Demise_?

"I think we always had that goal to take our music a step further with each record", he states. "We have always had the same foundation, but we always made an effort to do something different with each disc. We wanted to add new dimensions and to better ourselves. I think the biggest step we ever took as a band was with _IX Equilibrium_, especially when you look at it from a production point of view."

He continues: "With this album, I think we have pretty much kept the same philosophy when it came to creating music and made an effort to take it a step forward. But we also made an effort to bring in various other ideas, like the epic sounds, atmospheric ideas and a bunch of other ideas that have been part of older Emperor works. We wanted this record to be well-rounded."

Seeing that Ihsahn had written and assembled the whole album on his own (while Samoth and Trym were busy with Zyklon), was it a really draining experience for the front man?

"This was a very challenging record for me", he says, pointing out that he had done a lot of the record in his own studio. "It wasn't intentional that I wrote all the material, it just turned out that way. Samoth and Trym were busy with Zyklon and I was just so concentrated on getting an album underway."

You know, a lot of people out there will probably assume that this was all your doing and that this is Ihsahn's final record, when it really is a final Emperor record. Am I right?

"For sure. If this had been my solo record it would sound a lot more different than what you have here with _Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire and Demise_. This is an Emperor album. You can just hear the way we all work together to comprise this sound. Plus, there is so much power and expression with Trym's drum work on this record. How could anyone assume it was anything but an Emperor record? It was a very interesting work experience to assemble this record, with Samoth and Trym getting CDs of the material and working on their parts and me assembling them later on and mixing the album at Akkerhaugen Studios. It was chaos, but it worked out fine in the end. It was great to be doing a lot of the work at my own studio, because I had my own pace to work on the record and move arrangements around and try new things. There was no pressure to get in and out."

Is Ihsahn happy with the new album?

"Yes I am, but there are always things that you wish you could have done but had to compromise because of studio time or whatever else is the case. In comparison to the other albums that we have done, where we were rehearsing the music and doing preparations before the studio, this record just came together much differently, as I had pointed out, and it was an experience. There are some things I would change if I could, but not as many changes as I would have liked to do with previous Emperor albums. I am happy with this record. I am happy with the way it finished off the career of this band, as it doesn't leave me wanting to work on any more material to finish the legacy of Emperor. This is the final album and I can live with the final results."

And the past albums of the band? How does he feel about the career of the band musically?

"I think all of our records are great representations of different eras of the band", Ihsahn points out. "I was sixteen when we started the band. Each period was different for us when we went into a record. It all changed as the years went on with me growing up, our musical styles changing and just the way we thought things should be. I'm not embarrassed about anything we have ever done. I have always said that each album that we ever did was the best that we could do at that point in our career. I am very proud of what we did with the band. I think there are a lot of people who are proud."

Seeing all of the problems that Emperor faced early on and throughout their career, how does Ihsahn feel about all that has transpired?

"I think what people need to understand about all of the events that happened during the early '90s was stuff that happened outside of the music. The music genre got a lot of attention from what was going on. When you play this kind of extreme music you don't sell half a million records because of a certain event. People are no doubt inspired and into the music and they buy the records. Those events happened, but I think the reason black metal has been so popular, and why we have continued to be a part of it all, is because we are good musicians and create great music for people to enjoy."

Do you try to just forget what happened?

"On the band level, we had to deal with some problems with our line-up, but we always tried to look past all of that and work hard on our next recordings. For us personally, as we were a part of all of this as teenagers, it did have an impact on us, but on the other hand as a band, it never really affected us musically."

Can Ihsahn believe what he has been a part of with Emperor?

"In a way, but for us it is on a very different level", he responds. "We never really toured much and a lot of our work was put towards making albums. We are very privileged that we have been able to do this, not only as an extreme metal band, but also as a Norwegian artist. We have been lucky. We are humble to the fact that we have been able to make records and a living from doing this for ten years."

Now that Emperor is over, what work lies ahead of Ihsahn?

"The first priority for me right now is the new Peccatum album. I am very excited about it all. It is great that Ihriel is so involved with the music and ideas within Peccatum and that I can add my own ideas, as well as follow her direction on how things should go. I just love working together with her. It is a very mutual and creative environment. It is great to work on guitar parts with her and decide how they should be and breaking things down. That is something completely new to me, because Emperor worked on ideas much differently. With Peccatum we don't really know where we are going musically or lyrically, but that is what I enjoy about it. I know Ihriel has some ideas of where she wants to go, but I have a feeling that it may go even further musically. It is all very exciting."

What about solo work? When can we expect that?

"Oh, I don't even know what is going on with that", he replies with a chuckle. "I am very pleased to not have any idea about that right now. That is very exciting for me too, just not knowing where it will go for me. With the end of Emperor making me feel so liberated, things are starting to feel all new to me again and I enjoy that feeling. I am having these urges to try and just build stuff. I don't know when this will happen, seeing that I am working on Peccatum, but it will happen some time. I just don't want to jump into the solo thing too quickly. I want to take the time to form ideas and get things going."

As the interview closes down, I ask Ihsahn what has been the highlight of his ten year career with Emperor.

"It is really hard to say. Putting out each album was a big deal for me, especially this final one. I see the ten years of Emperor as a whole, even though it has been in fragments with a lot of things happening in between. To me there has been a lot of progression with this band, but also a lot of disappointment. When Emperor started to grow commercially as a band there were a lot of things that we had to deal with, on a much grander scale, and that was always something we weren't happy with. It has been great to know we have been able to make a living from this. I am grateful that we have been able to be so creative and so inspired by what Emperor is all about."

Final question: in ten years from now, will there be an Emperor reunion tour or album?

"No. This is definitely it for us", he blurts out. "Emperor has come to a close. It is time for all of us in the band to search out new ideas and grow as musicians. I'm looking forward to the music I will be creating in the years to come, and I think Samoth and Trym feel the same way about what they plan to do musically."

Part 2: THE MUSICAL DISCIPLINE

by: Chris Flaaten

I am called the exact minute I am supposed to be, and we get right to the point. I ask Ihsahn if he has an adequate opening statement regarding the new record.

"Well, production-wise we did things very differently this time around, since this was from the start a studio-only album. Musically, I felt that was a big advantage -- doing the entire pre-production and most of the actual production in my own studio. This time the songs were not created during rehearsals; the entire songwriting process was done in my studio, which also was new for Emperor."

On this album, Ihsahn flirts more with some classical passages, almost baroque-sounding at times. Is this something he has read/worked alot on?

"I did some on the Thou Shalt Suffer album, but I feel that classical elements in some form always have been a part of Emperor. At the same time, inspiration from classical music has grown stronger and stronger and it is very cool to work on with sequencers. It comes naturally, sort of. In the beginning, I planned to have more electronic elements on the album, but it really didn't blend that nicely with the rest of the music from an arrangements point of view. The classical elements, however, fit very well with the pompous feel of the genre."

I point out that classical music would also be written in the same way Ihsahn did for this album -- you do not jam in the studio and come up with a full symphony. Had Ihsahn perhaps studied any theory regarding this method of composing?

"Well, some, but not a lot, really. However, I have always been very interested in arranging music. From this perspective, it was very relieving to write the music in the studio and not writing band music, drums and guitar and then adding synths, vocals etc. later as filling. I could record a riff when I came up with it, or I could write a riff to accompany a new synth passage, or vice versa. The arrangements became more complete because of this; I had much more freedom. I could delve into various elements for a mid-section of a song, and then not have to worry about the beginning or ending of the songs until later on. I think this way of working is much more interesting and rewarding. It gives me greater control over the various musical aspects."

_Prometheus - The Discipline of Fire and Demise_ is a very complex album, and somewhat fragmented in its expression. Ihsahn explains that the writing process shares these traits...

"The writing process is also very fragmented; I always work that way. Sometimes it is just a full chaos. This is why it feels so comfortable to have a studio at home. I can document my ideas as I get them, record riffs immediately after they are developed. Later on, I can pick out elements and work more on them or change them afterwards."

Is this true for all of the songs on the new album, or are there exceptions? Like my favorite track, "In the Worldless Chamber", perhaps?

"Yes, that song is different. In my opinion, that is the least ambitious song on the album, it is more back to basics. The fun thing about that song is the contrast between the music and the lyrics. The music is very grand and bombastic with warhorns and whatnot, while the lyrics are very claustrophobic. I have actually received a lot of positive feedback on that song. People seem to pick it out as one of the better ones on the album. Sure, it is a decent song, but in my mind the least special one. People say the album is hard to get into, but I have difficulty relating to that. A matter of taste, I guess."

I explain that I feel technical metal and jazz are usually easier to get into than _Prometheus_. Ihsahn is quite puzzled by this, it seems...

Ihsahn mentioned pompousness earlier, but this album has less of these elements than earlier albums. There are no massive synths leading the show here. Like _IX Equillibrium_, it is more guitar-oriented.

"Yes, this again is a result of the writing process. Being able to distribute tracks from the start, rather than writing the basic song first at a rehearsal and then just adding/filling synths, etc. This time I was able to write everything from the beginning at the same time. Letting the guitar lead, the melodies came naturally. Also, this is the first time we worked with seven-string guitars. With the massive platform they provide, there was no need to add that much synth tracks. The guitars filled a larger portion of the spectrum now."

A paradox, at least to the interviewer, is that sound-wise there are fewer tracks on this album than on earlier ones. On _Prometheus_ there are usually two guitars, bass, drums, vocals and the occasional synth, while on _Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk_ there could be layer upon layer of synth. Was it not tempting to go all out with the synths, now that they knew they were never going to play the material live?

"That is mostly due to experience, I think. As I learned and grew as a musician and songwriter, I got a less-is-more attitude. On _Anthems..._ we had the basic songs first, then I sequenced all the synths at home before playing them live in the studio afterwards. When doing this, however, you don't get the true feeling of the music that actually is there. It drowns in all the fillings. It is no problem filling out with synths and arranging and arranging forever, until you have a complete wall of sound, but how relevant is it to do this? With such a massive fundament as we already have, and the tempo and everything, we have focused more and more on staying true to the essence of the music. Instead of adding layers, we tried to vary the different themes when they reappeared and so on."

The album is very fast at times, and the guitars have a deeper sound than before, probably due to the seventh string. As with _IX Equilibrium_, there are many death metal elements on the album. Samoth was said to be the mind behind those elements on _IX Equilibirum_, but this time Ihsahn wrote everything himself and they're still there. Was this done on purpose?

Ihsahn explains: "If I had done a solo album, things would of course have been radically different. This album was written from the fundament of what is the Emperor sound and this was something I always had in mind while composing it. Writing riffs as I have done here actually comes naturally for me. I also have to mention that the death metal elements on _IX_ were not solely Samoth's work. Since we knew this was going to be the last Emperor album, we drew inspiration from what we have done on past records. On each album we have tried to evolve and incorporate new elements, and I feel we have done this again on _Prometheus_. I also enjoyed bringing back some of the atmosphere and moods of earlier records on some of the new songs, achieving a mixture of past and present. So bringing back some of the groovy, death metal feel from _IX_ was really quite natural, instead of just doing very fast and smooth-going music. I don't feel _Prometheus_ is as death metal oriented as _IX_, it's more a common denominator of our musical past, and at the same time it has new elements."

When having to stay true, so to speak, to the Emperor sound, did Ihsahn feel confined at all? Was it hard writing the "correct" music and not drifting off into other non-Emperor areas?

"No, not at all! Of course, one has boundaries to work within, but Emperor has always been a compromise between the members' various musical standpoints. Nothing was new there. Our musical standpoints have drifted farther and farther away over the years, but I still found it interesting to build upon our musical past and add new elements. I really feel there are -many- new things on this album. These are things we have never touched before, but they are presented in a way so that it still feels very Emperor. I tried to do as much as possible within the boundaries present, and perhaps also push these slightly. I didn't feel them confining or restraining. Also, being simultaneously songwriter, producer and technician was a great learning experience."

Well then, was he happy with how the production turned out?

"I am very happy with it, but of course that is also thanks to Torbjorn at Akkerhaugen Studios. I liked the way we did the pre-production in my studio, then recorded the drums at Akkerhaugen, then added guitars and more at my place again and then finally returned to Akkerhaugen for mixing. Torbjorn is a technician with great experience and we have known him for a long time. Still, he hadn't heard the album, so he had a completely fresh view of things when we did the mixing. This way, he could stay very objective and it was great to get his input at the end of the recording process."

Ihsahn is then asked to introduce each song with a few words.

"Lyric-wise, things are quite different on this album, as the lyrics are more chronological. On the first three tracks, there's almost a complete storyline and the music follows this in a way. Things then take a turn and break from the chronological concept and finally get back on track on the last couple of songs. The third person narrative is also used much more often on this album than on any previous ones. "The Eruption" has, appropriately enough, an opening track feel with a classical intro that hints about the various elements to come later in the song. There are wide contrasts between the soft parts with clean vocals and the very raw black metal, and I really wanted to present the contrasts to come throughout the album clearly in the very first track. "Depraved" is different, with its almost dissonant opening, and it brings everything down. "Empty" is more basic in its expression, with no clean vocals and a very hard feel from start to finish. "The Prophet" is almost like a ballad, except for the fast, intense mid-section. "The Tongue of Fire" is one of my favorites, with a nice flow in spite of many sharp contrasts. This is a goal for me, writing sharp contrasts without having the transitions being too sudden. In "In the Worldless Chamber" the contrasts are, as we already have discussed, between the lyrics and the music. "Grey" and "He Who Sought the Fire" are more of an average musically, and then you get a brutal and epic conclusion with "Thorns on My Grave". I feel there's a clearer red line musically on this album than on _IX_."

My last question about the album concerns the riffing, since it stands out from older Emperor albums. They're more metal now, more groovy and distinct rather than fast, monotonous black metal riffs...

"I think the riffs are a result of me focusing much more on smaller details and nuances. Over the years I have tried to become more experimental with my guitar playing, since very direct, forward playing gets so boring after a while. I made an effort to think new and to be more bombastic or... violent in my expression. I am not a very technical guitarist who plays superfast solos, so I opted for the closer and more elaborate approach. I also thought it was cool to play some more groovy and playful stuff which appeals to more... nails and headbanging and those sorts of things." Ihsahn laughs. "You know, lipstick and stuff..."

Finally, I ask about Ihsahn's inspiration for the album.

"As far as inspiration goes, I listen to everything -but- metal almost." Like what? "It could be anything from old classical music to electronica and even pop. Even if I don't like the music per se, there can always be musical elements within it that are of interest from my point of view. Also production-wise there are things to learn from these genres. I also pay attention to technical issues, instrumentation and syncopes, etc. Finding new ways to use these elements, or new contexts for them, is very interesting. A genre is really more defined by the instrumentation and arranging rather than the actual music. I actually think some elements on _Prometheus_ could have been good pop choruses with different instrumentation. I hope to work more with these contexts and ways of arranging music in the time ahead. Without a ten-year musical fundament upon which to build, I stand free to write whatever I feel like. The new Peccatum album is the first item on the agenda, but after that there are no plans. Maybe I'll play together with musicians with an entirely different background, more solo work perhaps... only time will tell. I feel I have regained the childish curiosity about music."

(article submitted 19/10/2001)


CHATS
10/16/1997 S Hoeltzel Emperor: Thus Spake the Nightspirit
ALBUMS
10/19/2001 C Flaaten 7 Emperor - Prometheus - The Discipline of Fire and Demise
5/19/1999 D Rocher 7 Emperor - IX Equilibrium
7/14/1997 S Hoeltzel 8.5 Emperor - Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk
5/13/1997 S Hoeltzel 7 Emperor - Reverence
8/12/1995 B Meloon 6 Emperor - In the Nightside Eclipse
GIGS
8/12/1999 A Wasylyk Emperor / Witchery / Borknagar / Peccatum / Divine Empire Canada: No Church-Burners Allowed
8/12/1999 J Weathers Emperor / Witchery / Borknagar / Peccatum / Divine Empire U.S. of A.: Church-Burners Are People Too
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