It’s hard to imagine a conversation about black metal where Emperor is not mentioned at least once. Widely revered as arguably the most quintessential band to ever come out in the annals of the metal sub-genre, Ihsahn, Samoth, and his cohorts engraved their names in the history of extreme music with Anthems to the Welkins at Dusk. Released in the summer of 1997, just three years after the band’s breathtaking and groundbreaking debut In the Nightside Eclipse, the album has spent more than two and a half decades as one of the most venerated albums in black metal’s entirety.
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Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk undoubtedly proved that breakneck blast-beats, tremolo-picked chords, and hoarse vocals belonged to the same space as symphonic splendor, ethereal keyboards, and elegiac lyrics centered on nature, ancient Scandinavian paganism, and Lord Belial. Emperor quickly became the epitomizing symbol of an entire musical variant as the up-and-coming act mastered the art of producing punishing music that was both meaningful and uncompromising. The first two albums from these burgeoning talents conjure esoteric folk tales painted over the desolation of their unyielding homeland, peppered with the bite of darkness and death. This would have been a feat all its own, particularly for the time, but Emperor managed to do so while distancing themselves from the well-publicized turmoil that made the world learn about Norwegian black metal in the first place.
It had been more than fifteen years since Emperor last set foot on American soil. The band has been relatively active in the time being, often spotted on the European festival circuit or in the warm reception of South American festivals. As of June 23rd, 2023, the long wait was finally over. Emperor returned to North America for a celebration of the seminal album “Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk,” honoring the album’s ever-present success and longevity. The tour lineup consisted of the band’s two essential founding members, Ihsahn (vocals and guitar) and Samoth (guitar), and featured longtime member Trym Torson on drums and Jørgen Munkeby (Shining, Ihsahn) on keys and backing vocals.
The Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk 2023 North American Tour was announced almost six months before it kicked off at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, Illinois. It is the first of five dates that span from New York to California across two weeks. And although some fans were eager for a play-through of Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk in full, Emperor has arranged a set-list that features six tracks from the titular album, and seven from across the rest of the discography. This includes the fiery, unforgettable, and undying hymn “I Am the Black Wizards.”
Perhaps the most striking thing about Emperor’s grand return to the states is the apparent timelessness of the music. Both Ihsahn and Samoth were quite young as artists embarked on the creative endeavor that would become Emperor, but as the music rattled through the very bones of the Aragon Ballroom, it was evident that the band’s early work is just as relevant as ever. Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk was penned with a rare maturity, particularly in the context of the Norwegian black metal scene, and that has let Emperor continue its long-tenured success into the 2020s. Other black metal bands of the same era are most recognized for their spot in “Lords of Chaos” media, not for their music. Emperor? Emperor created albums that are honestly worth listening to, and not just worth listening to, but worth listening on repeat for more than a generation of new music.
The time since the album’s initial release has granted these seasoned performers nothing but grace. Samoth wielded his guitar with expert precision, his focus honed in on his instrument, not a single note out of place. Ihsahn screamed like an unholy beast while stationed behind the microphone, riffs tearing free from his fingers without ever looking down. From behind the fortress of keys, the theatrical Munkeby thrashed like a demon, contained only by his instruments. No matter how fierce the percussion, or how electrifying the riff, countless eyes were glued upon the stage as these musicians demonstrated pure mastery of their craft. The experience brought to the stage was apparent as it elevated the immortal notes of “Ye Entrancemperium” and “Inno a Satana” to the skies.
There was also no shortage of audience participation. While Ihsahn called for the audience to raise their voices during “Inno a Satana,” there were hundreds of voices raised in unison throughout “Thus Spake the Nightspirit” and “The Loss and Curse of Reverence.” It was apparent that this material, although older than some of the audience members, had lived up to the stories of its lasting cultural impact. This is perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Emperor’s legacy: not only are they legendary in their own right, but their discography remains interesting and engaging to listen to. While other bands from the same era are mostly remembered for their antics (and are notorious rather than famous), Emperor stands apart. They have survived through sheer musical skill and prescience. And their late Friday night show brought forth proof of this talent in spades.
Although Ihsahn and Samoth parted ways from Emperor in 2001, Ihsahn for his solo career and Samoth for other bands, they work alongside each other on stage as a seamless unit. Ihsahn prowled the stage in the rare moments he wasn’t singing, while Samoth took up his post behind a fan with somber eyes and laser focus. This was a stoic group – forgive the occasional tongue-flicks from Munkeby on stage right – who brought this anthemic music to life for the masses to enjoy. Whether they were stationary, or whether they were relentlessly mobile, Emperor breathed pure passion into the air. It was as though Chicago were brought to life for the first time, asked to celebrate this unholy mass in community with one another.
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The sound was absolutely record-quality. Volume balanced the intricacies of the keys and demands of percussion, while vocal contributions came through clearly. Ihsahn’s growls and maniacal laughs were broadcast crisply to an eager crowd, and backing vocal contributions were seamlessly integrated therein. Torson was buried behind a veritable castle of drums and cymbals, but he performed with practiced vigor and endurance to a sound system that captured every beat. Screams echoed off the star-painted ceiling when “I Am the Black Wizards” came cascading down. From an almost uncontrolled mosh pit to a number of crowd-surfers, this all-time hit was appreciated for every second of its live rendition.
Although the band itself may have aged, and although the present black metal culture may be starkly different than that of the 90s in Norway, Emperor has endured. Not only have they endured, but have left a legacy that draws fans from across the country to their tour debut. Chatter among fans revealed audience members not just from the Midwest, but from across the country, all eager to see black metal royalty perform in the flesh. And one thing is for certain – Emperor surpassed any and all expectations. It was jarring to hear Ihsahn thank the crowd, ever so softly, for attending. Was this not the very same man who had threatened to tear down the heavens with his screams just moments prior? If anything, it proved that Ihsahn has been, and continues to be, defined by poise and professionalism.
All in attendance at the Aragon Ballroom were treated to a religious experience as Emperor worked their blackened magic. Enthralling in its sheer breadth and magnificence, yet unwaveringly ferocious in its very essence, their live spectacle remains as strikingly daring as it is authentically raw: this is the ultimate form of poetic, metallic mayhem.
Special thanks to Samantha Buckman for her writing contributions to this article.
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