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"Emperor performs Sophisticated Black Metal Art exclusively!", boldly states a note on the back cover of the band's long awaited second full-length "Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk". A proud declaration of identity that the music featured in the album has no problem living up to. If "In The Nightside Eclipse" had been the band's insuperable achievement when their music was still rooted to more traditional Black Metal, "Anthems To The Welking At Dusk" witnesses Emperor taking off to reach incommensurable heights of musicianship, originality and general brilliance.
With the addition of machine gun drummer Trym Torson and bassist Alver in the line-up, Samoth and Ihsahn have found what they were looking for to take Emperor where they wanted to: beyond any boundaries, daring anyone else to follow them.
The progression shown on the new opus is enormous in every category, and the album is also graced by a much more suitable sound. Gone are the buzzy and trebly days of early Black Metal, for this is where the band introduced us their well known "wall of sound", an unique combination of overpowering layers of guitars and keyboards with the drums and bass more in the background and, most oddly, the vocals - especially the clean ones - pretty hidden in the mix. It sounds unorthodox and it certainly takes several listens to be fully appreciated (the very complex structures of the songs don't help the stranded listener either), but enhances the spirit of the band's music to such a level that it's impossible to doubt that the band spent several hours in the studio trying to create this particular atmosphere. This sound is made to drench and saturate, and manages to sound overwhelming even at low volumes. It must be heard to be really understood.
The album opens with a rather long and unique intro, namely "Al Svartr (The Oath)". Forget all the keyboard / guitar only intros you've heard, because this one features ALL the band's instruments as well as vocals, plus a series of sound effects and other studio tricks such as haunting guitar feedbacks and filtered vocals, to summon a cold, nocturnal atmosphere. It begins with a quiet clean guitar melody but soon becomes much darker and menacing, and as the song progresses more elements join in, until the climax reaches a peak when Ihsahn proudly screams "O' Nightspirit, I am at one with Thee! I am the Eternal Power! I am... THE EMPEROOOOOR!!" Right after this, synth horns announce the Emperor's arrival, soon joined by guitars and drums, and the song becomes a kind of triumphal march; Ihsahn sings the last verse, but instead of the last note, we are assaulted by a ferocious drum fill, and so begins the first "proper" song... "Ye Entrancemperium".
The first riff of the song is actually borrowed from an obscure Mayhem song (it's stated in the song's credits, don't worry), which to my knowledge was only featured on the live bootleg "Ha Elm Zalag"; Trym's drumming is insane from the beginning, and the guitars shred all that stands in their way. Soon, this introduction gives way to the song's first main riff, and the drumming gets EVEN FASTER; some sparse keyboard inserts complete the unearthly atmosphere, and the chaos begins. Ihsahn's harsh voice is rather different from early Emperor days: this time he is less shrill but much more clear and aggressive. Very soon, we get a chance to hear his improved clean voice too, although as I said they are kept pretty low in the mix: the "Empyrium" chantings during the faster sectins are almost completely buried, but his wonderful contribution in the slower break is luckily more audible. The song has lots of twists and turns, ranging from the total violence of the blasting parts to more mid-paced but still prety fast section; what amazes, however, is how Trym keeps complex and fast patterns all the way through the song. The guitars are also more layered than in the past, with tons of dual guitar harmonies to be found; there is also a wide usage of full chords rather than simple power chord patterns, and in order not to make the sound too chaotic these are played with a lower distortion (this is apparent in the slowest section of the song, where the less distorted guitar plays a very beautiful arpeggio, while the other provides additional melodic lines when Ihsahn isn't singing). Highilight... and we have only just begun.
"Thus Spake the Nightspirit" is relatively simpler rhythm-wise (although you can't really notice it thanks to Trym's constant variations) but even more intricate when it comes to the arrangements, with layers and layers of guitars and occasional keyboards submerging the listener with floodwaves of aggressive melody; Ihsahn's voice is a bit higher in the mix here and even more fierce-sounding. Some really catchy riffs are hidden in the maelstrom here, and can be made out after some listens; the most memorable part, however, is the slow and majestic grand finale, where Ihsahn's voice is sadly almost completely inaudible (check out "Emperial Live Ceremony" to hear it loud and clear, it will be easier for you to make it out here then) but on the other hand, you can hear Alver's bass. Yes, the sound on this album is pretty chaotic, but the bass manages to be audible.
"Ensorcelled by Khaos" is a title that describes pretty well by feelings for this album... jokes apart, this one opens with a series of very melodic and memorable riffs backed by majestic keyboards, only played at an absolutely frantic pace. There is, however, a long slow part in the middle of the song, introduced by a fantastic keyboard section which sustains it all the way to the next riff change. The speed goes up again towards the end, and the song finishes with the sound of guitar feedbacks which always conjuers to my mind the image of the band standing in awe after having performed the song, surrounded by the equipment they have just bown with their intensity.
"The Loss and Curse of Reverence" takes the album standards even higher in terms of complexity, as it can be best described as a feast of riffs and variations from the beginning to the very last chord... all of this, of course, without being fragmented or incoherent. The guitars unleash once more a deadly harmonic attack, while the keyboards provide a broad symphonic contributin; Ihsahn sounds closer to his older style on this one, which appears atrnge at first but soon is archived by the ears as a welcomed variation.
Next is "The Acclamation of Bonds", and in my humble opinion, it's a rather forgotten masterpiece we have here. This one opens with a great guitar intro, and then offers many of the album's most memorable riffs without sacrificing speed and power. The keyboards add a huge amount of atmosphere, as well as a hook for the ear to follow during the most chaotic sections, and the guitars sprt once more that semi-distorted trick in the mid-paced section in the middle of the song. Curiously, when the frantic rhythm comes in again, the riff the guitars play is the very same featured at the end of "In Longing Spirit" (one of the non-album tracks off the "Reverence" EP), only played obviously faster. The break where only the guitars and keyobards play the melody before the drums come back with their blasting is one of my favourite bits of the album... so atmospheric and enthralling.
And yet, none of the atmosphere shown here can foreshadow what's next...
Enter "With Strength I Burn", arguably the most immense, epic wonder Emperor have ever created during their career. It's foolish to think that words can describe this masterpiece, but I'll try to give you a hint of its greatness. First, I'll have to say that the lyrics of this song are nothing short of excellent, a tale of thirst for knoledge an inner strength which has to be mentioned since the music follows its mood quite closely.
The song begins with a very fast part, backed by unusual and beautiful chord progressions, then it becomes slower and more bombastic, with the guitars and keyboards singing enchanting melodies. This part is the main core of the song, and it's entirely sung with harmonized clean vocals, luckily kept higher than usual in the mix; the verse "I hate my flesh / Its dimension poisoned my soul with doubt / It made me questin / The essence of... the I!" gives me shivers (in the best possible meaning) every time. Then, a fantastic keyboard break occurs, and Ihsahn narrates a prose section; it might seem totally out of place the first time(s) but as this part ends with Ihsahn proclaiming "...and away they sailed!" and the plodding rhythm begins again, you realize that it fits with the rest perfectly, in every sense. The song then goes into a rather sorrowful and fast riff, and vocals revert to the harsh pattern; the break that follows is one of the fastest pieces of music on the album. "Hear my call!", screams Ihsahn during a split second pause, and the sad riff comes in again, providing the fading out instrumental bit that closes the song, enriched by many guitar melodies after the last verse. This album would be worth buying for this song alone, and I really mean it.
But it's not over yet, as Samoth was kind and inspired enough to offer us a short but absolutely marvellous outro called "The Wanderer", built upon a single entrancing riff to which the guitars and keyboards add new elements with every repetition. And with the image of the lonely wanderer carrying its way on through the desolate landscape, the album ends.
On the re-released version, though, there are three more songs to find. Two of them ("In Longing Spirit" and "Opus a Satana") were originally featured on the "Reverence" EP which was released as a teaser some months before this album and therefore fit rather well (they were also recorded during the same sessions, so the sound is basically the same). The third track is a live version of "The Loss and Curse of Reverence" recorded during the tour that followed the release of the album; frankly, this one sounds like it was taken from a bootleg and slapped on this release, because the sound is pretty poor, but it still manages to prove how Emperor are confident when playing such complex material in a live environment. It's a pity that a better live rendition of this song was never officially made available, so we'll have to stick to this one, with its overly buzzy guitars, pot-and-pan drums and overpowering loud vocals. Whatever...
At any rate, "Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk" is probably the album which best represents Emperor's unique musical essence, and is very recommended for anyone willing to get into this band... as well as everyone else, of course. Emperial Hails!