This feature originally appeared late last year, as the cover story to Burning Ambulance #7, which is still for sale as a print magazine, an ebook, or a Kindle edition. We’re publishing it here because Ihsahn discusses the Emperor reunion currently underway.
Metal is one of the most nostalgia-besotted styles of music there is. Even jazz fans exhibit a greater interest in the future of their genre than metalheads. Bands like Judas Priest, Anthrax, Megadeth and more tour specifically so they can perform 20-, 25-, or 30-year-old albums in their entirety, like human jukeboxes. In many cases, they then release live albums from these tours, so fans can hear the songs they love, in the order they expect to hear them, performed as closely as possible to the original studio versions (subtracting for the loss of vocal power or instrumental dexterity due to age, of course), with the only new element being the crowd noise in between. In recent years, Iron Maiden has done several explicitly nostalgic tours, including one where they only performed songs from their first four albums, one where they only played material from albums five through eight, and most recently a revamp of their 1988 tour, where they played almost the exact same set they’d played 25 years earlier. And at the most recent incarnation of their Orion Music & More festival, Metallica, one of the biggest metal bands in the world, showed up unannounced on one of the side stages—to play their 1983 debut album, Kill ’Em All, in its entirety. This was hailed by the music press, and on Twitter, as a thrilling gift to the band’s fans, and not regarded as the tragic act of self-abnegation it seemed like to me.
In the metal underground, it’s just as bad: the diehard fan can be counted on to say “the first album was the best” or “that song was ten times better on the demo” or “You should have seen ’em in ’86, man.” Revered multi-day festivals like Roadburn, in Holland, and the Baltimore-based Maryland Deathfest book long creatively dormant acts like Repulsion, Nocturnus, Bolt Thrower, Coroner and many more, and fans flock to see them perform their old material like living jukeboxes, or those doo-wop groups that have one original member, if any at all.
Ihsahn (born Vegard Sverre Tveitan) is a modern metal artist for whom nostalgia is a burden with which he struggles every time he releases an album. A genial, sharp Norwegian who’s quick to laugh (even at himself), he knows that his solo career, even five albums in, is still viewed by some as an annoying obstacle standing in the way of a full reunion of Emperor, the band he led for a decade beginning in 1991.
Emperor is considered one of the most important acts in the black metal genre. Their four studio albums—1994’s In the Nightside Eclipse, 1997’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, 1999’s IX Equilibrium, and 2001’s Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise—are commonly cited as crucial landmarks in the evolution of black metal from a noisy, subterranean racket to a progressive, even symphonic sound with global, if not mainstream, appeal. From the beginning, Emperor avoided the grinding, post-thrash attack of bands like Darkthrone or Mayhem, incorporating keyboards and choral voices while retaining the jackhammer energy, blasting drums, and screeching, hoarse lead vocals that were the trademarks of the genre.
In the Nightside Eclipse begins with a loop of chanting, militaristic drums and Gothic keyboards that sounds influenced by, if not simply sampled from, Laibach. There’s a crash of thunder, and then the buzzing guitars and relentless, machine-gun drumming come in. Ihsahn’s voice, like an insect screaming, launches over riffs that slowly twist and shift—and keyboards that simulate an all-female choir—over the course of the nearly nine-minute “Into the Infinity of Thoughts.” This blend of the atmospheric and the assaultive, which would come to define much of black metal from the 1990s to today, continues throughout the entire album. Tracks like “I am the Black Wizards,” “Inno a Satana,” and “Cosmic Keys to My Creations and Times” are still among the best-known and most beloved Emperor songs.
The band wasn’t really in a position to capitalize on their (very underground) fame, though. The Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s was damaged from within by religiously fueled acts of terror and violence, as well as common criminality. Much of the rhetoric—both lyrically and in interviews—centered around reclaiming Norway’s pre-Christian legacy of paganism, and this manifested itself in a series of burnings of ancient wooden churches. Ultimately, three of the four members of Emperor, as heard on In the Nightside Eclipse, served time in prison. Guitarist Tomas “Samoth” Haugen was convicted of arson for burning a church (along with Varg Vikernes, who makes music as Burzum), while Bård “Faust” Eithun was convicted of murdering Magne Andreassen, stabbing and kicking him to death in a forest after—he claims—the man made sexual advances toward him, and bassist Terje “Tchort” Schei served time for assault.
It wasn’t until 1997 that Emperor was able to make a second album. In the intervening years, black metal had achieved dominance in the metal underground. Scandinavian acts like Dimmu Borgir and Immortal were taking the music in more grandiose/symphonic and more grinding, death metal-friendly directions, respectively, while more and more bands across the globe were adopting elements of the genre and making it their own. Emperor, for their part, mostly stuck to their previous path on Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. The lineup had shifted quite a bit—Tchort and Faust were gone (the latter still in prison), replaced by bassist Jonas Alver and drummer Trym Torson. Torson in particular was a welcome addition to the band, adding an airier, at times almost jazzy rhythmic feel to songs like “Ensorcelled by Khaos” and “With Strength I Burn.” The songs were more progressive and epic in structure than those on Nightside, with more clean vocals and more prominent keyboards. There was even an instrumental! But they hadn’t made the kind of radical shift that, say, progressive death metal bands like Death or Morbid Angel made from record to record.
That didn’t come until their next album, 1999’s IX Equilibrium. Stripped down to the trio of Ihsahn, Samoth, and Torson, the music was more powerful than ever. The opening track, “Curse You All Men,” sets the stage—a wall of death metal-dense riffing, supported by unceasing double bass drumming and avalanche-like fills, is ornamented by horror-movie keyboards and squealing guitar arpeggios buried in the mix. As the song goes on, choral vocals appear, adding drama. This unrelenting feel persists throughout the album. The guitars have the precision of thrash, the keyboards add additional melody lines rather than the atmospheric effects heard on previous albums, and the drums never slow down. The effect is like riding a speeding train through a snowstorm. Only on the final track, “Of Blindness and Subsequent Seers,” do we get a (brief) rest, as the song launches with melancholy, clean guitars and a slow tempo before crashing into high gear again at about the two-minute mark. Ihsahn’s voice is extremely impressive throughout the album; he alternates between guttural, hoarse shrieks and high-pitched, almost operatic vocals reminiscent of Mercyful Fate frontman (and solo performer) King Diamond. IX Equilibrium is an impressive album, but it’s also difficult to listen to from beginning to end, because of its sheer density. It overpowers the listener, making individual songs hard to pick out of the overall roar and leaving you shaking your head when it’s over, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
Emperor’s final statement was 2001’s Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise, and it was a weird one indeed. While Ihsahn (who had long since become the band’s dominant creative voice) continued down the path of relentless, thrashy riffing, there were more and more grandiose and symphonic elements present. On the song “In the Wordless Chamber,” for example, a two-note blast from what sounds like a hunting horn (though it’s obviously a keyboard) repeats over and over behind the verses, and at the two-minute mark the song shifts from the usual blast beats to a march tempo, which at three minutes dissolves into an entirely ambient synth passage (plus strings and harp!) suitable for soundtracking a figure skating routine. But less than a minute later, the massive drums are back, as are the hunting horns, and the band is at full roar. It’s like if circa-1988 Laibach had turned their hand to black metal. It’s certainly possible to trace connections backward from Prometheus to In the Nightside Eclipse, but the growth exhibited from Emperor’s first album to its last is impressive.
Following Emperor’s dissolution, which was mutually decided upon by all three members, Ihsahn focused on Peccatum, an atmospheric Goth-metal project led by his wife Heidi Solberg Tveitan, aka Ihriel. They made three full-length CDs—1999’s Strangling From Within, 2001’s Amor Fati and 2004’s Lost in Reverie—and two EPs between 1999 and 2005, blending black metal, Goth, industrial, and progressive rock with some of the symphonic and avant-garde touches present in latter-day Emperor. Following the release of the three-track EP The Moribund People, Peccatum dissolved, and Ihsahn prepared for the release of his debut album as a solo artist, 2006’s The Adversary.
First, though, the past had to be acknowledged. Emperor reunited in 2005, first for a tiny club gig and then for a series of festival shows in Europe and club dates in the United States, all of which sold out and were greeted with general rapture. Still, by 2007, the members had gone their separate ways again.
Ihsahn’s solo debut, The Adversary, was in many ways even more of a nostalgic gesture than any Emperor reunion. But instead of wallowing in his own creative past, the album found him gluing together bits of metal history from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s into a complex, at times heavily orchestrated, blend of styles that nevertheless achieved an essential cohesion. It also felt like something of an artistic manifesto, an attempt to say “I’m still here, and I’m still a creative person whether I use the Emperor name or not.” The first time I spoke to him, in 2010, he explained the album’s synthesis of styles, saying, “I grew up with metal, I started out with Twisted Sister and basically learned to play guitar from Iron Maiden, so there were a lot of things in there I wanted to try out. So the first album is kind of musically all over the place within metal, there’s even some early ’70s Judas Priest-inspired stuff, there’s some more progressive elements, there’s some death metal or black metal and there’s some more straightforward heavy metal. But by doing that, I think I kind of tried to build a new musical foundation for myself.”
Although it wasn’t a deliberate creative strategy, the songs on The Adversary were written in sequence. The album’s opener, “Invocation,” was the first song completed, and its 10-minute final track, “The Pain is Still Mine,” which begins with melancholy piano and strings before the guitars crash in at the 90-second mark, was the last. Ihsahn describes “The Pain is Still Mine” as being in the tradition of Iron Maiden’s epics, but in fact it frequently has the feel of ’70s progressive rock, with its classical affectations, operatic vocals (reminiscent of Van der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill at times) and repeated melodic and rhythmic shifts. Its ambition is a little giddy, and a little goofy, but impressive as hell nonetheless. Other than the drums, which were played by Asgeir Mickelson of Borknagar and Spiral Architect, and a single vocal appearance by Kristoffer “Garm” Rigg of Ulver, Ihsahn played and sang every note on The Adversary, and he would continue to be almost a one-man show on the albums that followed.
“I knew he could do the more progressive parts because of his work with Spiral Architect, and I knew he could do the more extreme metal parts due to his work in Borknagar,” Ihsahn said of Mickelson in 2010, during an interview about his then-new album After. “And also the practical point is that he has a studio of his own and we run the same type of software, so we were very compatible and it was very easy to work together over the Internet. He’s a super-talented musician and can record his drums, send me demo takes and we can discuss back and forth. I was very specific for the first album, programming every drum hit and I wanted him to follow that very specifically. But over the range of these three albums I’ve kind of given him more and more space.”
angL, released in 2008, featured Mickelson on drums again and Lars Norberg, also of Spiral Architect, on fretless bass. On the song “Unhealer,” vocals are handled by Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth, with Ihsahn only singing a few backups and duet sections.
“I’d been doing the bass parts for the last two Emperor albums and getting used to doing the bass lines as an add-on to doing the guitar parts,” Ihsahn said about the addition of Norberg. “But [Mickelson] suggested Lars, because they both play in Spiral Architect and Lars is just an immense bass player. I didn’t really know how that would fit in with my more traditional metal style to start with, but for angL I just tried him out, sent him a couple of tracks so I could see how he interpreted it. I sent him the score for all the guitar parts and saw what he came up with. And it didn’t take very long to implement him for the full album. But it’s a very practical thing over the Internet. At this point I’ve met Lars only once, and that’s when he came to see me play with my live band.”
Musically, angL was less self-consciously eclectic than its predecessor. While Ihsahn continued to shift back and forth between clean and harsh vocals, and throw in keyboard-driven interludes, the songs were more or less all in one style: symphonic, progressive metal, with big headbanging riffs, the occasional screaming guitar solo (the ones on “Scarab,” “Unhealer” and “Malediction” leap out with particular prominence) and pounding drums. The use of fretless bass, and the way Mickelson’s drums are mixed, gave the music a jazz-fusion feel at times, but the savage guitar work always made it clear that this was metal, not some John McLaughlin wank session. And on “Malediction,” which came at the exact midpoint of the album, he delved back into black metal in a way he hadn’t done since the late 1990s, as if reminding listeners who he was and what he was capable of. In 2010, he told me that the second album was a very deliberate attempt to build on the achievements of the first.
“It’s more focused in that sense, and building on the experiences and form that I kind of came to by doing the first album,” he said. “It was [also] during the writing of the first album that I thought I wanted to think of this project in a bit of a wider sense, and that’s why I came up with the idea of making it a trilogy, so I didn’t have to do it all at once. So both of those albums are dealing with what for me have been very traditional concepts in a way. I’ve always come back to figures as symbols like Prometheus or Icarus, all these different types of Lucifer figures. Metal and black metal [are] always about trying to make the individual fit into the collective or vice versa.” The struggle to create and maintain an individual identity, not only within society but outside of one’s former group, is crucial to these records. It can be heard on The Adversary, when Ihsahn sings, “I’m still called by the fire,” asserting his metal bona fides in the song of the same name, and on “Monolith,” from angL, he sings, “Whether your approach/Is that of praise or blasphemy/The construction of my being/Will remain the same,” and concludes the song with the question, “Is it such a crime to go apart and be alone?”
On 2010’s After, Norberg and Mickelson returned, and were joined by perhaps the most surprising guest of all—saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby, leader of the Norwegian industrial-jazz-metal band Shining and occasional collaborator with Jaga Jazzist and Enslaved. His horn is practically a co-lead voice on the album, particularly on “Undercurrent” and “On the Shores,” each of which is more than 10 minutes long.
Given his pre-existing ties to the Norwegian metal scene, it should have been easy for Munkeby and Ihsahn to come together, but it actually happened in an extremely roundabout way. “When doing promotion for my first solo album,” Ihsahn recalled, “I met Bugge Wesseltoft, the Norwegian jazz keyboard player. He was playing in Paris the same weekend I was doing press in Paris for my first solo album, and I met him coincidentally at the baggage claim at Charles de Gaulle Airport. And we ended up talking, and since then I’ve had his cell phone number and met him on a few occasions after that. And I’ve had this idea of using saxophone in my music for many years, and it kind of fit the atmosphere and the whole idea I had for this album perfectly. Also, on my previous two albums I had guest vocalists, and on this album I didn’t want a voice with words, given the whole concept. So I decided it was time for the saxophone idea; in my mind, it would add to that kind of solitary, epic feel that I was going for. And I called Bugge Wesseltoft because I figured he’s in jazz music, he probably knows lots of saxophone players. He mentioned three names to me, but picked out this guy Jørgen Munkeby who would probably be the one who could most easily relate to my kind of music. And then I talked to Jørgen and asked him if he wanted to do it, and he was familiar with all my music from before, and then I realized he’d played in Jaga Jazzist and that he’d done some projects with all my friends from Enslaved. So I kind of went the long way around. It’s kind of a strange coincidence, because most people who see his name will probably say, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, he played with Enslaved, he’s totally in the metal scene already.’ But due to my being totally unfamiliar with who he was, it was just a very lucky strike that I ended up using him.”
The music on After is closer to prog rock, and even jazz fusion, than any previous Ihsahn album. Although aggression remains the dominant mode, there are many expansive and even atmospheric passages—the bursts of organ on “Austere,” for example, recall early ’70s art-rock, and the chugging, percussive riffs propelling “Heaven’s Black Sea” sound more like a Danny Elfman movie score than a black metal song. (Until the screaming guitar solo comes in, anyway.) And lyrically, the album’s perspective is much broader and more distanced than either of the first two records. If there was a battle for Ihsahn’s spirit going on, it’s over, and After—as its title suggests—is the soundtrack to smoke drifting across the field.
He acknowledged as much in 2010, saying that The Adversary and angL “were very confrontational, very direct and in particular Nietzsche-inspired. And with kind of ending that, it felt natural to do an album that was more after the conflict, more contemplative and standing back a bit. That’s why I called it After, because the whole conflict of this album is, it’s almost post-apocalyptic. There’s no sign of life in the lyrics, it’s more symbolic observations. There are references to the sea and kind of bleak little soundscapes, so both musically and lyrically it’s quite different. But I still feel that it’s a natural successor to the last two albums, connecting them together, but not necessarily the most logical step from the previous two albums. And that’s not what I wanted, either. I wanted to end in a way so that I feel more liberated and open-minded for my future work within this solo project. That makes it all the more exciting to me. I don’t want to bind myself too much to one certain form or one certain formula. That was never why I started to play music in the first place. It’s the excitement of discovering something new.”
Given the break with his past that After represented—right down to its cover art, a blurry photo of a cross-shaped gravestone on a white background that could have been a release on the jazz/avant-rock label Rune Grammofon—Ihsahn could have gone in almost any direction. What he chose to do, though, was continue more or less down the path he’d been following, farther and farther from black metal and toward progressive metal, just with new people assisting. Of the musicians heard on After, only Munkeby returned for 2012’s Eremita. Mickelson was replaced by Tobias Ørnes Andersen of the prog-metal band Leprous, who’d been backing Ihsahn on live gigs. (Leprous vocalist Einar Solberg, who’s also Ihsahn’s brother-in-law, sings on one track on Eremita, too.) Devin Townsend, a Canadian guitarist, singer and producer best known for his band Strapping Young Lad, provides guest vocals on the song “Introspection,” while Jeff Loomis, then of the Seattle-based band Nevermore, plays a guitar solo on “The Eagle and the Snake.” Ihriel sings on the album’s final track, “Departure.”
The music is more mainstream and accessible than any he’d recorded since The Adversary; the album’s opening track, “Arrival,” is driven by a fierce metal riff and blaring organ reminiscent of Jon Lord’s work with Deep Purple, as Solberg provides power metal-style vocals, countering Ihsahn’s hoarse roars. The second track, “The Paranoid,” vacillates between galloping black metal and midtempo thrash, with the mantra-like chorus “And the shame/Feeds the anger/Feeds the shame” lodging itself immediately in the listener’s brain. But several songs are just slow, with clean choruses that lull the listener into lassitude. Andersen’s drumming throughout the album is more solid and metallic than Mickelson’s was, and the fluidity of Lars Norberg’s bass is definitely missed. Munkeby’s saxophone, while present, isn’t used as a co-lead voice as much as it was on After; his contributions are frequently textural, heard in the background as reinforcement to the songs’ main riffs. When he does get a solo spot, as on “The Eagle and the Snake,” he makes the most of it, though, packing a full song’s worth of energy into a few fevered phrases.
Eremita might be the least adventurous of Ihsahn’s solo records, in that it’s more or less a direct progression from After, with little of the element of surprise that each of the three albums before it offered. This is something he admits; when I spoke to him earlier this year, he said, “I’ve very steadily been writing and releasing music as a solo artist and so far it’s been a very exciting journey, starting a bit more metal and building on top of that and ending with my third solo album where I think I found a better platform for my current expression as a solo artist. And then on Eremita I was still working in the same musical landscape—eight-string guitars, saxophone, heavy generally. I enjoyed getting there, but if I had proceeded with a fifth album in that same vein I would feel I was falling into some formula. That’s the liberty of being a solo artist—I can pick and choose. I have the freedom to do what my creativity leads me to.”
His latest album, Das Seelenbrechen (the title of which is a made-up German word meaning, roughly, “the breaking of the soul”), is indeed a new direction, far from the sound of After and Eremita. It’s his most personal album, as evidenced by the presence of only one guest, drummer Andersen. “I could have had the door open when writing stuff, because not to get too bored with my own playing and singing, it’s been such a great asset to have guests,” he says. “I get to work with whomever I choose, so if I have friends or meet people who can add something I can’t do, I can bring them in. But with this album, the way I wrote it, it was so spontaneous, I never really found a way for doing that. That’s why I ended up not having any guests but a session drummer. Also, I think maybe subconsciously, since this album evolved about my relationship to my own work and life and this dark expression, the whole thing became so personal that it was hard to let somebody else in. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but when stuff was recorded, I had recorded everything. I’m not too particular about who to work with or make plans in that sense, that just kind of comes up when I make albums.”
Ihsahn claims to have come across the title term in Nietzsche (a writer who’s been a touchstone for him for virtually his entire career—Nietzsche’s portrait, upside down, is the cover art to Eremita), and says it “gave me a name for this feeling I get when I’ve been listening to music, and what I want to achieve when I create music. Those peaks, where it’s larger than life and beyond what you could hope to achieve in technical terms. Everyone has had experiences where it goes beyond great. It’s not a good feeling, not a bad feeling—you lose yourself in that moment. This is a much more free-form album, very different than what I’ve been doing in the past, and I wanted to get close to this core creative force that’s been the same with me ever since I started writing music. I’ve been writing in a more layered and textured and technical way, and now I want to get closer to the source and create spontaneously without too many filters and too much formula.”
Spontaneous creation isn’t exactly common in metal. Songs may arise out of jamming, whether as a band or just one guitarist sitting in his bedroom searching for the perfect riff, but once that foundation is established, rigorous rehearsal and careful arrangement mark the path to a finished composition. And Das Seelenbrechen certainly contains its share of typically complex Ihsahn compositions, meticulously constructed one layer at a time. But then there are “Tacit 2” and “See.” Those two pieces—and yes, there is a “Tacit,” though it actually follows “Tacit 2” in the album’s track sequence—are single-take improvisations by Ihsahn and Andersen.
“Both those tracks were recorded in the middle of the night in this big analog studio where we recorded the drums,” Ihsahn recalls. “We finished all the more structured songs’ drum recordings earlier in the day, and we had lyrics for ‘Tacit 2’ and ‘See,’ and I had ideas of where I wanted them to go, but there were no themes, no structures, no riffs pre planned. So I rigged up my guitars and a microphone, hit record and said ‘Go,’ and that’s what happened. Both those songs are just one take.”
“Tacit 2” feels improvised—five minutes of bellowed vocals, thundering drums that never quite resolve into a beat, and guitar that sounds more pummeled than played—but “See” might be the most striking piece of music Ihsahn has ever released. Nearly eight minutes long, it’s the final track on Das Seelenbrechen, beginning with slowly rising feedback which begins to loop. Andersen’s drums are spacious and ominous, the hits coming far apart—a slight tick of the hi-hat, followed by a huge bass thump. The guitars rise and fall, waves of distortion filling the sound field and bouncing from the left to right speaker and back. Ihsahn begins to intone snatches of lyrics as the drums become more militaristic and the music transforms into an almost industrial (in the Throbbing Gristle/Test Dept. sense, not the Ministry/Nine Inch Nails sense) ocean of pulsating noise. In the piece’s final two minutes, the guitar becomes a searing wall, roaring and crackling and shifting in and out. It starts to feel oddly reminiscent of the work of Blind Idiot God axeman Andy Hawkins on his solo album Halo, released under the name Azonic. And then, suddenly, the piece—and the album—are over.
Though they are clearly important to Ihsahn, marking personal creative breakthroughs, and are musically quite powerful, “Tacit 2” and “See” provide sharp contrasts to everything else on Das Seelenbrechen, which is otherwise as meticulously organized and structured as its four predecessors. “Regen,” the album’s second track, is emblematic of his methodology here. It begins with delicate piano, establishing a mournful theme, over which his (clean) vocals, compressed and thinned-out, float. About 90 seconds in, a slow, quiet drum pattern begins, leading to the explosion of the full arrangement—for full band, orchestra, and extreme vocals—at 2:15. The second half of the song features multiple vocal tracks (including a choir), strings, a shredding guitar solo, and a generally bombastic eruption of sound.
“No, those are not real choirs,” Ihsahn laughs, when questioned about the song. “That’s me and my wife overdubbing. And those are sampled strings. It just kind of called for this kind of big bombastic arrangement. It starts with this really quiet piano part that’s the basis of the song—the main theme that I elaborate on even if it gets more heavy. And actually the main inspiration was this synthetic scale I was experimenting with. It’s not a diatonic scale, it’s beyond traditional scale forms. That was the starting point, and with the lyrics and the piano intro and everything it returns to that theme.”
“M,” another standout track, is fascinating for the way it goes back even farther than anything on The Adversary, in terms of influence. Its first two minutes feature Ihsahn reciting lyrics in a harsh whisper over delicate feedback and barely perceptible bass throbs. But then…there’s a huge drum fill, and he launches into a guitar solo that’s so utterly ’70s it’s liable to make listeners of a certain age laugh out loud. The phrases and tone are derived from some combination of Robin Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs” and David Gilmour’s playing with Pink Floyd. Behind the guitar and oozing synths, background vocalists repeat the phrase “How Many” over and over again, recalling Floyd even more strongly.
“If you listen closely, the notes that are played in this droning bass sound on the first half is the same as on the second part,” says Ihsahn of the track. “It’s just a different arrangement of exactly the same theme. It’s how the lyrics stand up. I just imagined this floating, spacy almost, the backing vocals going “how many,” and it occurred to me I wanted it to be like an improvised part with the guitar solo and backing vocals in the style of Pink Floyd or Frank Zappa or even Prince, a jam session. And for some reason I was playing the notes of the original theme on the guitar, and it came out like that.”
The eclecticism of Das Seelenbrechen was an extremely conscious decision on Ihsahn’s part, another way of breaking the grip metal has on him. “Of course I wanted a cohesive album where the atmosphere is recognizable,” he says. “I didn’t want a roller coaster, but I wanted each song to have an atmosphere of its own. Not like a metal album, where you create one type of arrangement and stick to it for the entire album. I’ve always admired pop and rock albums where each song has the arrangement it needs and calls for. I can’t always say why I did what I did, because so many things that ended up on the album were spontaneous ideas. And that was the point—making an album where you plan and redirect every musical part. I’ve done so much of that, of fine-tuning the stuff I’m writing and layering and doing big arrangements and all that. But I always come back to listening to Diamanda Galás and artists like that. That’s what it’s all about—expressing something with genuine passion—and that’s what comes through. It’s not like I’ll disregard the tediousness of making metal music, because that’s the craft I know. But I wanted to have a go at making something more spontaneous and leave room for something more uncontrolled magic to happen.”
With Das Seelenbrechen, Ihsahn has made an album which is simultaneously incredibly personal and extremely outwardly directed. It’s a manifesto, not only lyrically but methodologically, a way of saying to the metal community at large, “Other options are available to you.” In this way, it puts him in the company of experimenters like Yakuza, Khanate, Krallice, and other bands determined to stretch metal’s boundaries. But even as he strides forward, part of him is still pulled backward, trapped in the vortex of nostalgia. Next year, Emperor will reunite once again, to perform a series of 20th anniversary shows celebrating In the Nightside Eclipse. How can a man so clearly forward-thinking choose to go backward?
“I’ve been asking myself that question too,” he says with a laugh. “No, I’m kidding. It’s not a secret that I’ve been very reluctant, especially since the last round. I’m very happy where I am creatively, and I think in the beginning when I did the first two or three albums, I was much more subconsciously making more distance between my music now and my past. I wanted to build something steady on my own and not have it be a spinoff. It’s a strange position to be your own little brother. So I fought it for a long time. I ended [Emperor] because there were so many people having opinions on what it should and shouldn’t be, I felt it was taken from me. I’m horrible to collaborate with, so I ended up doing solo work. So I’ve been reluctant. But I’ve become more confident. And this is my fifth album—I’ve made more solo albums than we did albums with Emperor, so it’s easier for me to take pride in that work and my musical history. I’ve come to terms with it not being a secret adversary to what I do now. And also with Nightside Eclipse—personally, this was a very important album for me, and Samoth as well. It’s the starting point for me being so lucky to have this career. So it feels natural to celebrate that.” He acknowledges that certain dullards within the Emperor fan base will take—have taken—the reunion announcement to be much more than it is. “As soon as we put it out there—‘Oh, new album?’ We’ve tried to be very precise. This is not a reunion, it’s anniversary shows to celebrate Eclipse. If we’re doing this, we’re focusing on the songs and music from that era of Emperor. It’s a great plus that we’ve got Bård Faust to take us back to that time.”
In 2010, it’s fair to say he was quite a bit more ambivalent about Emperor. When we spoke then, I asked if he felt his solo work could take its place in the world without being in his old band’s shadow, and his answer then was decidedly negative. “I think it’s a matter of me rather coming to terms with the idea that all my work in future will be compared to Emperor, and I am doomed to live in the shadow of my own creation,” he said. “But that’s because Emperor as a phenomenon has grown into something living a life on its own, not because of we who played in it. There’s all the power of time, and being among the original bands of something new. I mean, there’s nothing new about black metal anymore, and the whole cult thing that developed and all the nostalgia people put into it…maybe in 20 years’ time people will add things together. People change perspective very much over time. I’ve spoken to people these days who ask me how I feel about the overnight success of Emperor. What overnight success? Even in 1996, most of the more traditional metal community made absolute fun of us. It took years and years for people to have this impression of Emperor being an overnight success and selling hundreds of thousands of records straight away. So I don’t really care that much anymore. I’ve been very privileged in the sense that, who would have thought? Starting a black metal band in 1991 was the worst career choice one could make. I’ve never even considered doing anything else, and I’ve had this career for almost 20 years now. So I think I’ll honor that privilege by doing whatever the hell I want and trying to fulfill my musical passion and ambition in the best possible way I can. I mean, doing this form of music, I can’t really be considering while making it if it will please an audience or not. That’s what you have chart music for, Timbaland and that kind of thing. Trying to tailor the perfect something—that’s more McDonald’s way of doing things.”
So, again, the question in 2013 is, has Ihsahn simply found a way to compartmentalize his creativity, to separate the side of him that makes albums as wild and unfettered as Das Seelenbrechen from the side that screams “Inno a Satana” and “Cosmic Keys to My Creations and Times,” attempting to replicate an album he made in his mid-20s for listeners who want to remember 1994? Is he just doing it for the money? Can he even relate to those songs on an emotional level anymore, or will it be a purely theatrical performance? (Not that all rock music isn’t on some level a theatrical performance; David Thomas of Pere Ubu once told me that the difference between David Thomas onstage and David Thomas walking down the street was that walking-down-the-street David Thomas had been paid to manifest the version that appears onstage.)
“I’m glad you asked that,” Ihsahn tells me, “because that’s something I’ve been concerned with, and something I’ve tried to explain when people ask, will there be a new Emperor album? Would they like us to do a theatrical thing, that we think people would like, or would they like an Emperor album that reflects what we do now? If it was up to me, what I do solo is what Emperor would sound like now, because that’s how I write music. But I explained before, I try to create distance between—but in the process of recording [Das Seelenbrechen] and trying to get back to the pure black metal force, I mentally feel it’s closer to that state of mind. Which is not the same, but more similar to the state of mind and that energy 20 years ago when we did Eclipse. So I feel now mentally able to go into that vibe and that state of mind, and perform those songs in a genuine way, like they deserve, and not as a theatrical thing. If I thought I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t. I shun everything that is fake like that. I have to perform them genuinely, and at this point, having done this new album, I feel ready to do that.”
But must he do it with Bård Eithun? The drummer, who was released from prison in 2003, has spent the last decade playing for obscure bands like Aborym and Blood Tsunami, and hasn’t released any work under his own name. And he hasn’t given any interviews justifying his crimes. These two factors set Eithun apart from Varg Vikernes, who’s spent the last 20 years virtually forcing the metal underground to separate an interest in the music he makes as Burzum with the incontrovertible facts that he is a racist, an arsonist, and a murderer. But Eithun set fire to a church, and stabbed and kicked a gay man to death. Doesn’t inviting him to be a part of what’s bound to be one of the biggest metal events of 2014 amount to condoning his crimes?
This is the only time during either of our conversations, in 2010 or 2013, that Ihsahn seems defensive about anything. But his response is emphatic. “No, not at all. And I think if I was a person who was concerned with what other people would think, regardless of what we say, black metal is not really the thing to do.” He continues, “Obviously, I understand your question, and people derive many opinions about that. But the way we’ve chosen to respond to that, especially in Europe—in Europe, we share more or less the same justice system. We don’t have the long sentences you have in America, we don’t have the death penalty. So we’ve agreed that this is the justice system, and when you’ve served your time it’s done with. He’s served his time, he has a family, it’s been ten years. We know Bård, and have done for most of our lives, and we see the whole person instead of just these actions.”
“And in regard to how people will reflect that on me and Samoth or whatever—I don’t know the things I’ve not been called and taken to responsibility for over these 20 years,” he continues. “Eclipse as an album, when that came out—I’ve taken so much shit for that album and the music I’ve been making. We were absolutely ridiculed by the metal press as well when that came out—even the second album was ridiculed, by the same press that now puts us alongside Black Sabbath as an important metal act. So people’s opinions differ.
“All this stuff that happened in the early ’90s was part of why people found it so fascinating. The shock value was part of black metal. So you can’t have genuine black metal but have it sweetened as well. To this day Norwegian black metal is Norway’s biggest cultural export. That’s because of the story and the scene.”
This feels like compartmentalization as well, Ihsahn exploiting black metal nostalgia—and the perverse glamour of its violent, criminal past—while insisting that it doesn’t touch him directly, or that the bad stuff is all safely in the past, we’ve all grown up and moved beyond that, et cetera, et cetera. At the same time, he conflates criticism of his former band’s music and concern about his association with a convicted murderer. Perhaps he always maintained a certain distance from the black metal scene, viewing it as something external to himself even as he participated in it. The signs are there. Emperor as a group abandoned the black-and-white makeup known as “corpse paint,” possibly the single most recognizable extramusical symbol of black metal, very early on, and he was the only member with no criminal record. Still, black metal gave him the career he currently enjoys, and it’s likely that sales of Emperor’s catalog still pay a sizable chunk of his rent. So it’s easy to understand why he would surrender to giving his fans what they want, even if it’s just for one summer. It’ll be very interesting to see what his next move is, given the willingness—“compulsion” might even be the right word—he’s demonstrated to move forward as a solo artist.