U.S. of A.: Church-Burners Are People Too
Emperor, Witchery, Borknagar, Peccatum and Divine Empire
at Ground Zero in Spartanburg, South Carolina on July 20th, 1999

by: John Weathers
Last Tuesday, I drove two and half hours to see a band whose music I have admired since I first heard them back in 1996. And the mighty Emperor did not disappoint me live! But I jump ahead of myself...

Emperor and Borknagar are currently on a small "Kings of Terror" tour through some parts of North America. They inexplicably passed over my city of Atlanta, GA and instead descended upon the smaller town of Spartanburg, SC. On the day of the concert, I took a half-day at work and drove to Greenville, South Carolina, where I met up with a friend of mine before proceeding to Ground Zero, which is seemingly located in the middle of nowhere in Spartanburg. Ground Zero isn't exactly a nice joint, but it is fairly roomy on the inside and is about the size of an average full-fledged dance club. There is a long bar on the ground level and a second bar below in a lower lounge level where couches, pool tables and a TV reside.

When my friend and I arrived, a small crowd of thirty or so people stood outside the entrance. My friend, being dressed in business casual attire, felt distinctly out of place among the other concert goers who were decked out in various metal t-shirts, leather and consistently black articles of clothing. I, at least, was somewhat dressed for the occasion in my all black slacks and t-shirt. I was glad that I didn't wear my "Cruelty and the Beast" t-shirt, as there were far too many Cradle of Filth t-shirts in the crowd. The average age seemed somewhere around 19 to 20, though some folks my age (22) and older were present and more arrived later.

We arrived at 7:20pm and the show was scheduled to begin at around 8pm. Unfortunately, this estimate was far from accurate. They didn't even open the door until around 8:45. In the mean time, we could hear Ihriel and Lord PZ from Peccatum practising their vocals to Ihsahn's guitar work. It was then that it actually sunk in that I was finally going to see one of my favourite bands playing live. Now don't get me wrong -- I love Peccatum --, but it was kind of strange to be standing outside and waiting to get inside a metal concert and to hear Ihriel's opera style vocals as though we had gathered for a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House. After waiting in the accursed humidity for over an hour, the club finally opened its doors and the group of 100 or so metal fans entered Ground Zero.

At around 9pm, Divine Empire took the stage and the until then rather spread out crowd closed in more tightly around the stage, but at this point the crowd still wasn't very thick. Apparently, this Florida based death metal group consists of ex-Malevolent Creation members. As my tastes lean more towards Swedish death metal than towards old school death metal, I cannot say that I am familiar with either band. They struck me as decent if not outstanding examples of the genre. I did note that I rather enjoyed their usage of two vocalists in alternation and sometimes in unison -- one with a really deep guttural death vocal and another with a slightly higher and more hiss-like vocal. The contrast worked nicely and reminded me somewhat of the pair of death vocal styles on Orphanage's track "At the Mountains of Madness" from their sophomore album _By Time Alone_. The band managed to stir up a small mosh pit, but for the most part the crowd did not get too worked up for this band. Then again, when the vocalist barked at the crowd to make some noise, he was kind of intimidating because even his natural voice sounds ridiculously low and guttural, leading one to feel almost obligated to salute the band in kind, which for some people, such as myself, is simply not possible.

Peccatum were next, and I was excited to see this family group in a live performance, as I greatly enjoyed their debut CD _Strangling From Within_. While I pushed towards the front of the stage, I noted that the crowd, having dispersed between sets, had returned in greater numbers for this Norwegian trio. The fact that Ihsahn is the main composer in the group certainly helps stir interest, I am sure. As the first notes of the harpsichord stirred along side the spoken introduction of "Where Do I Then Belong", Ihriel, Lord PZ, Ihsahn and a session guitarist entered the stage to much vocal delight from the crowd. Ihsahn was dressed in an "Icon E" Emperor t-shirt and is still bald as an eagle. After the initial sighting of Ihsahn, my attention then focused on the beautiful Ihriel and her brother Lord PZ. Ihriel was dressed dramatically in a witch-like robe and cape. Lord PZ entered the stage bare-chested and sporting corpse-paint. The siblings entered the stage carrying matching candles, which they set upon either side of the stage in antique-looking candleholders. Throughout the performance, brother and sister made grand gestures and put on what can only be described as a very dramatic show. All instrumentation other than the guitars came from recordings, but I suppose it would be rather hard to reproduce the more orchestral sounds of Peccatum in a live setting. Lord PZ and Ihriel were imminently serious during the entire show, but they did on a few occasions rally the crowd behind the "horns" salute. The sound was not the best that I have heard, and on a few occasions the speakers seemed to peak when Ihriel's voice resounded with particular volume, resulting in an unfortunate marring of her spectacular vocal delivery. Otherwise, the performance was rather good, and the crowd seemed rather caught up in Peccatum's particular brand of witchery -- with the exception of one idiot who exclaimed: "Have your bitch take her top off!". I felt like strangling this moron. This act is an excellent band from whom I expect great things in the future.

The Swedish band Witchery played next. Having never before

heard the band, I didn't know what to expect, but seeing as the show had been good so far, I didn't dread hearing this band perform. Being a Slayer and thrash fan, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Witchery perform an energetic form of thrash metal with Swedish death metal style vocals. The crowd also reacted positively, and an energetic mosh pit ensued with my friend and I as willing participants for a good portion of Witchery's show. They were a decent thrash band with a lot of energy. The pseudo-Satanism of their lyrics and act came off very cheesy, though, especially when the vocalist asked if there were any priests in the room before he introduced a song whose title escapes my memory's grasp. All in all a nice little show, but not impressive enough to send me out to the store any time soon.

At this point, I went downstairs to get a drink and, to my surprise, I discovered Ihsahn hanging at the bar with a few fans around him in small chat. Later, I saw Samoth and Trym hanging by a pool table. Ihsahn seemed friendly enough and more approachable than I had imagined, but I didn't really know what I wanted to say to the man and decided against stating the obvious -- that I was an Emperor fan, etc.. In my hesitation, I lost my opportunity, for Ihsahn soon rejoined Samoth and Trym near a pool table, and then Borknagar took the stage upstairs.

Before this concert, I knew little of Borknagar other than that they were a Norwegian black metal "super group" not unlike Arcturus and that Ulver's Garm had once been their vocalist. Since Arcturus and Ulver are two of my favourite bands, I was definitely interested in hearing a related band. They entered the stage to an acoustic introduction and then ripped into epic black metal that was beautiful and soaring. The vocalist employed both grim vocals and powerful clean vocals of a deeply masculine but beautiful nature. The entire performance oozed class and a sense of the grand. Musically, the band reminds me of a cross between Ulver's more acoustic side with a band like Enslaved. I was definitely impressed. So much so that I bought their album _The Olden Domain_ a few days later. The crowd response was very good, but the energy was a different kind than for the previous band, which is perfectly natural as this kind of music is on a different plane from Witchery's thrash, which is at most fun and aggressive. I noticed that Karl Sanders (one of the guitarists for Greenville's death metal band Nile) was one of the spectators and I heard him comment that this was the best band of the night so far. I couldn't agree more readily.

After Borknagar, there was a short break as everyone geared up for the main act of the night. I made sure to be right next to the stage. At approximately 1am, the crowd gave enthusiastic shouts and hails as Ihsahn, Samoth, Trym, Charmand Grimloch and Tyr took the stage. They were all dressed pretty normally, with Samoth wearing camouflaged trousers. Ihsahn was still in an "Icon E" t-shirt. They don't need any corpse-paint or leather attire to command attention. The emperors are a no-nonsense band with little crowd interaction, and that is perfectly fine because in return they delivered a solid and totally shattering performance. Also, their occasional nods and salutes to the crowd seemed genuine instead of mere showmanship. It was a delight to witness Samoth and Ihsahn attack the guitars with such speed and mastery. I found myself watching their fingers glide deftly across the strings and frets, which is something I never do at a concert. Trym executed his lightning drumming with the precision that I love on both his Enslaved and Emperor albums. The session bassist Tyr was the one band member who would work the stage from various angles, moving from one side of the stage to the other. The keyboards were wonderful as is the case on the albums, but their sound didn't seem nearly prominent enough at the beginning of the show. The rest of the band's sound was so solid that I didn't really notice this until they finally kicked in with full force on "The Majesty of the Night Sky". The only other sound problem that I noticed was on one occasion when the band was performing "With Strength I Burn". During the quiet interlude where Ihsahn speaks over some epic horn sounds, the recording failed, at which point Ihsahn shrugged and exclaimed "Fuck it!"; the band then continued in a professional manner without missing a beat. Overall, this was a stunning show with Emperor reigning supreme over any other band that I have seen live. If Emperor comes anywhere near your town, do yourself a favour and make haste to an excellent concert! Emperor's set list was (almost, if not entirely, in order): "Curse You All Men!", "Decrystallizing Reason", "Thus Spake the Nightspirit", "I am the Black Wizards", "With Strength I Burn", "Sworn", "Night of the Graveless Souls", "Ye Entrancemperium", "The Source of Icon E" and "Inno a Satana", plus "The Majesty of the Nightsky" and "The Loss and Curse of Reverence" as an encore.

(article submitted 12/8/1999)


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