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"Sophisticated Black Metal Art..." - 31%

Nightgaunt, April 16th, 2009

...My rubbery, winged ass. This, Emperor's second full-length offering, has (unfortunately) become the "face" of the band--the album that is most remembered; most talked about; most lauded. These eight tracks are the laurels on which Emperor's reputation has rested for just under a decade now….interesting that said reputation, perhaps always just a bit corpulent (as one might reasonably expect of a band that has always been as extroverted and as highly visible as Emperor), has now become as bloated and "sacred" as the cold flesh and warm memory of a recently deceased housepet. "Buttons" met her end beneath the wheels of the family's old rust-red Caravan (Sarah never was one to check her mirrors before backing out); Emperor as a respectable entity met its end under the silky, molesting caress of the rhinestone-gloved hands of overexperimentation and overexposure-and it began here. Truth be told, this is the nadir of the band's career…and with a career like Emperor's, that's saying something. Actually, "Anthems" really isn't the weakest of Emperor's albums in any single respect--it's not as haphazard and directionless as "IX Equilibrium"; not nearly as pretentious and self-serving as "Prometheus"; and, by most measures, sounds more hale (on the surface, anyway) than its predecessor, "In the Nightside Eclipse." No, it's more like the other albums all caricature certain aspects that this album combines in concert. You've all most likely heard the expression that something is "greater than the sum of its parts", yes? In this case, the inverse is true. The instruments don't work well together, the various passages don't build up momentum or coalesce into memorable songs, and the individual songs don't establish any kind of flow or real interplay between themselves, despite the fact that they do all sound like they belong on one album (with the exception of "The Wanderer", which was written entirely by Samoth and hence doesn't fit in quite as well).

Recorded in late '96 at Grieghallen, Anthems is one of many examples of the rather peculiar (and sometimes unfortunate) sounds for which Pytten and company have become known over the years. By most material (read: monetary) measures, Anthems is endowed with a stronger production than its much more well-written predecessor--guitars are distinct and reasonably crisp, percussion is clear and forceful, synth sounds slightly more expensive, and vocals have more presence. As so often happens, the bass gets the shaft, but it matters little in this case, as the instrument never does a single thing of note on the album. However, although the sounds of (most of) the individual instruments have been bolstered somewhat, the mix remains a serious flaw…Nearly everything is integrated at exactly the same level and at nearly the same volume. Everything is even--too even--and this creates several problems. First and foremost, this monodimensional approach has the effect of subjugating the rest of the instruments to the loudest and least subtle of their number, which is in this case the drum track--Trym spends most of the album blasting at top speed (whether the moment calls for him to do so or not), and his enthusiastic but unimaginative performance quickly becomes both annoying and distracting, especially when contrasted with the rather tame and wishy-washy nature of the other performances. The guitar, synth, and vocals compete for what limited "listening space" is left. It's a competition which doesn't really have a clear winner; although I'd say the vocals tend to get the short end of the stick (which isn't so bad, really, as it does help to spare us somewhat from Isahn's awkward singing voice). This poorly thought-out (if it was thought out at all) mix is part of what I mean when I say that the instruments don't seem to work together; more important, however, is the more complicated realm of songwriting and arrangement.

If the album's problems were all purely cosmetic, the character of this review might be a bit different--for after all, there is no shortage of well-written albums clothed in production jobs that might be described as sloppy, over/underdone, amateurish, or any number of other undesirable adjectives. Unfortunately, the music is nearly as one-dimensional as the production.

The guitar riffs and passages are a bit more uptempo and pronounced than on the previous album. While most of them don't lack for (kinetic) energy, most of them do lack subtlety or any really evocative qualities--they seem a bit like souped-up cast-offs from previous works. Occasionally a brief (keyword) theme with real feeling behind it will present itself, such as the intro to "Ye Entrancemperium." This little theme is probably the single most memorable utterance from the string section on the entire album, having a half-crazed, insistent quality…and it wasn't even written by Emperor (rather, by an odd little fellow by the name of Euronymous), funnily (or not) enough. I suppose the significance of my complaints here can be tempered somewhat with the fact that the guitars don't really seem to have been intended to carry the album, anyway…rather, they seem to have been intended to cohabit on equal terms with the synth. Ah, the synth. The syrupy synth. The intrusive, unnecessary, ridiculous synth. From the hokey "trumpet" at the conclusion of the intro track and onwards, the album is vexed with tasteless synth. Not quite baroque, and not quite ambient, its "majestic" Casio tones will occasionally burst forth in some ill-conceived little spat of soloesque eloquation (what in Cthulhu's name, I ask you, are those fruity chirruping notes in the middle of "Entrancemperium" supposed to be?), but most of the time they vacillate betwixt smothering on one hand and pedomorphizing on the other what little atmosphere the lackluster strings can manage to muster over and above the nonsensical masturblasting from the drum kit. To give him due credit, Trym does seem to realize that something is amiss (of course, it's hard not to get that sort of feeling when one's own performance at times sounds to have been recorded for a different album than that on which one is playing), and tries to vary his blasting a bit--sometimes accentuating the hi-hat, at others the cymbals (which is a pretty cool effect for the first 10 seconds or so, actually), and at still others going for a more "equal opportunity blast"---but nearly always with the blasting. He only slows down when a blastbeat would sound so out of place that no amount of "avante-gardes", "shockingly originals", "cutting-edge darings", or any other number of megazine-borne superlatives could excuse it. One might say that he seems to have no setting between "very high" and "not quite off."

Wandering in and out of the teeming warren of oafish blasting, harebrained synth noodlings, and half-baked guitar structures like a lost child through some nighted industrial burrough, Ihsahn's often smothered vocals range from his always-serviceable shriek (which took on its slightly "throatier" character here) to his increasingly ubiquitous clean vocals. While it's true that there are many (metal) singers far worse than he is, Ihsahn, like so many extreme metal vocalists, has rather a reedy voice, and no real business attempting clean singing. He seems aware of his limits and doesn't try to soar beyond them for the most part, at least; instead adopting a forgettable sing-songy approach, as on "With Strength I Burn." There are a lot of spoken sections on the album, as well, and not a one of them works well--Ihsahn and his shy-sounding and vaguely philosophical recitation is inevitably lost behind some other facet of the performance, usually a mincing wash of synth or some half-assed guitar lead. And now we come again to my earlier complaint…the failure of the album's components to "gel" in any significant way is not, after all, simply a matter of the way it is produced. The various components simply don't work together very well, or at times even at all. Indeed, not only do they fail to compliment each other; they often outright compete. This is not good arrangement, never has been, and never will be. Very likely what we can observe here is the beginning of that musical schism between Ihsahn and Samoth that would eventually widen to a veritable chasm. Because the instruments don't usually work well together, the musical passages follow suit, and what results is a collection of songs in which each fails to build up to any kind of climax; an album devoid of tension or any real dynamism. Look at "Alsvartr (The Oath)"--a half-hearted acoustic lick is swamped by boorish synth, nature sounds, and some arbitrary electric guitar warbling, only to eventually erupt forth into a cute little "trumpet" /vocal fanfare that sounds like something Blind Guardian would've (very wisely) left on the cutting room floor. The whole album is written like that-all melodrama, no drama.

So, what do people see (hear, rather) in this? I don't know, to tell the truth, but it certainly has no shortage of fans. Indeed, I must confess that I can't shake the impression I've had for many years now that "Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk" has through some arcane and/or accidental series of events come to be something of a "token appreciation receptacle" for those having a cursory or nonexistent interest in black metal (if you doubt me, you have only to look around you)…not that they're the ONLY ones, of course, but a good portion of them. Again, the question…why? Well, I often hear that the album is "epic." I suppose that would depend on one's conception of "epic." To once again give due credit, Emperor has avoided the pitfall of only playing at one speed on the album…every now and again, they'll lapse into a brief slower section, as in the doomier bit at the tail-end of "Thus Spake the Nightspirit", or that beloved-by-many little spoken bit in "With Strength I Burn." Of course, these slow sections are generally as inept as their more volant counterparts, but it's the thought that counts, I suppose. So, is that it? Is it this vulgar contrast between fast and slow that makes it "epic?" Intense; relaxed; trickle of renewed intensity. Is that it? If so, most of you have probably had bowel movements more "epic" than this.

It's a shame. Emperor is or was capable of so much better than this, and they deserve to be remembered for the portion of their work wherein their potential was realized. Hell, there are even brief flashes of potential here. For example, "Ensorcelled by Khaos", with its openly recursive structure, is a fleeting bit of genuine dynamic that could be a solid song if the synth were reigned in (the faux choir is a serviceable bit of texture; the keening "ambience" and the unpiano need to go) and the tempo were varied a bit more. By and large, however, what we have here is a real JFK of mid-nineties extreme metal. Take that as you will.

Standout: Ensorcelled by Khaos