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Second albums are frequently a tough task for bands. Whether they are refining a rough sound found on their debut or forging a new direction in their music, many bands stand the risk of alienating part of their initial fan base in one way or another. Emperor was one such band. “In the Nightside Eclipse,” Emperor’s full-length debut, is generally considered a defining piece of black metal and one of the classic albums in the history of all of heavy metal. With Emperor’s second album, “Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk,” the band decided to both refine their existing mastery of black metal while experimenting with slightly cleaner production values and heavier symphonic elements. What results is an incredible display of black metal, which manages to sound completely fresh while maintaining Emperor’s defining sound.
What first stands out on “Anthems” are the differences between it and “In the Nightside Eclipse,” namely its production values and symphonic elements. In comparison with their debut, Emperor’s efforts here sound less raw and more audible. That’s not to say that this album has a clean sound. Instead it’s quite the contrary, with Ihsahn’s vocals being very low in the mix and the instruments taking the forefront. Those instruments (the guitars and keyboards especially), find themselves with more definition on “Anthems,” and no longer feel like they are being used merely as a means to create atmosphere and ambience. The feeling created by the keyboards on this album is decidedly different than Emperor’s previous work, as it is used more selectively and creates a symphonic feeling compared to the constantly present tones of frost and darkness found on Emperor’s debut.
The guitar work, as previously mentioned, plays a central role on “Anthems” and is more prevalent in the mix. Ihsahn and Samoth do a phenomenal job, creating lightning fast riffs that can become quite technical at times. A big departure from their previous work is the use of guitar solos, which can be seen in “The Loss and Curse of Reverence,” and “With Strength I Burn.” Although not as technical as the solos found in other genres, Ihsahn’s soloing is very good and demonstrates a good combination of speed and emotion in his playing.
Ihsahn’s vocal performance on “Anthems” is impressive, and shows how wide his range is. Although he switches between a more “necro” style of vocalization and cleanly sung passages, this actually helps his performance. Although black metal purists show disdain for clean vocals, the cleanly sung passages on “Ye Entrancemperium,” “Thus Spake the Nightspirit,” and “With Strength I Burn” are among the best moments in any Emperor song. Ihsahn’s lyrics also show some progression from “In the Nightside Eclipse.” The lyrical content is still dark, but more poetic in nature. Although I personally prefer the lyrics on their debut, “Anthems” shows a growth in maturity and sophistication that is much appreciated.
Trym Torsen, the drummer and final new element to “Anthems,” puts forward a stellar performance. Between the blast beats of “Ye Entrancemperium” and his lightning fast fills and footwork, Trym is a tremendous improvement over previous drummer Faust. At times, however, Trym can almost be too good at drumming. Since the album’s mix is still very raw, at times the drums come to the forefront of the song and can overwhelm the rest of the composition.
Minor gripes aside, “Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk” is an astounding achievement. It not only cemented Emperor’s legendary status within the black metal community, but displayed that Emperor could take some risks while still maintaining their characteristic sound. Although it may live in the shadow of “In the Nightside Eclipse,” “Anthems” fully deserves to be recognized as a masterpiece of black metal on its own merits.