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Having had the opportunity to experience their live devastation on their first proper US tour, I can honestly attest that Emperor was one of the best black metal gigs I've personally witnessed. Even the material from Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk and IX Equilibrium, albums that I don't revere nearly as much as many of their other fans, seemed to take on a new life in the stage setting, dispensing with the sterility I've often related to their studio incarnations. The Emperial Live Ceremony package, which was recorded at a London gig in 1999, is a pretty honest and tight sounding representation of such an experience, and will probably best suit those many followers likely never had the chance to check them out due to age or location restrictions during the Norwegians' prime in popularity.
This was released in VHS, DVD and CD format, the last of which is what I'm covering here. The set list is pretty much what I remember from their tour, opening with some ambiance and then "Curse You All Men!". The whole set is about 49 minutes long, and the sound, while not perfect, very well captures the drumming, guitars and vocals. Trym is his usual, living storm-self while the guitars feel punchy, punctual and every wild thread of lead resonates over the denser and vicious substrate of the recording. I admit I can't really make out so much of the base, not that it has ever been the most important ingredient in their mixture, and the synths do seem a little lost in the shuffle, but nonetheless Emperial Live Ceremony captures the band's proficiency like few live albums of its sort are able to for their respective artists. All of that clinical, studio efficiency that so many worshiped (or feared out of envy) is presented in the flesh, and the shifts from soaring, clean vocals to Ihsahn's trademark rasp are seamless.
As for the set-list selected, this heavily favors the more recent pair of albums. "Curse You All Men!", "An Elegy of Icaros" and "Sworn" are present from IX Equilibrium, and Anthems is represented with "Thus Spake the Nightspirit", "With Strength I Burn", "Ye Entrancemperium". I can imagine at the time I was rather upset by this, but all of these are given excellent showings here, in particular "Sworn" and "Thus Spake..." which sound superb. For earlier fare, they've of course included "I Am the Black Wizards" and "Inno A Satana" off In the Nightside Eclipse and Night of the Graveless Souls from their s/t EP, and honestly this stuff is just as good if not better than the newer material. I can't recall the exact set list from the Palladium, but I believe they might have also played a few other IX Equilibrium tracks, or varied them.
Regardless, Emperial Live Ceremony accomplishes what it seeks to and justifies its existence, a clean and snappy performance. Candlelight and the band were wise in waiting a few years to issue a live performance as product, one of those rare cases where it isn't rushed out the door or shat forth with a bunch of others like Iron Maiden has been guilty of in the past. In fact, this is one of the more solid black metal live recordings I own, even if part of me would have wished for more of the old school material.
This is THE Emperor album. In my opinion, at least. I have always liked Emperor, but after hearing this Live album on a friends computer I rushed out and got the cd and the dvd. Why? Because this Live Recording made me love Emperor.
But before I get to how many faces this album owns, I want to point out its only flaws. One being that this show is far too short, even one more track would make a world of difference and get this album a 100. But two or three more tracks would have been very, very nice. I would have liked to see Beyond the Great Vast Forest, Ancient Queen, and Witches Sabbath. But the songs they were more likely to play, The Curse and Loss of Reverence and Cosmic Keys to my Creation and Times would have been welcomed as well.
The only other problem, aside from that, is the inclusion of one song too many from XI Equilibrium. I know it was the album they were promoting for this tour, but three was a few too many tracks from that good(far from great) album.
But with that said and done, lets get to the reason why I think this is the best Emperor release.
This album, not only contains some of my favorite Emperor songs, but it also has them in a light I have never seen before. The 'light' is great quality. I always liked songs like Night of the Graveless souls, but to hear them play it and have it sound as excellent as it does is just awe inspiring. There was so much to this song I missed from the earlier recordings. Same with the songs from In Nightside Eclipse and even the ones from Anthems are improved.
The album takes off very well, with the exception of the long build up to the first song, with Curse you All Men! The best track from XI E. But after this the album does kind of take a down turn for the next track as when comparing them to the songs on the last third of the album, it just doesn't hold up. Like I said earlier, they could have put on some better songs. And Thus Spake the Night Spirit is a perfect example of one I would have traded. But don't get me wrong, the songs like this are still great respectively.
After this we are hit with I Am The Black Wizards, which is one of the best tracks on the album. Nothing I can say about this can justify how awesome this live performance of this song is.
After this we get to the most mediocre part of the album. The next three tracks. Good, but not great. What is great about all these though, is the fact that the vocals are changed a little bit, and the sound and tone is a little bit different. At least to me. And the change is for the better, it brings these songs into a new life.
Now we reach the pinnacle of the album, Night of the Graveless Souls. This one track steals the entire album. After its great drumming intro, it goes into a heavy, and almost crystal clear rendition of one of their best songs. You haven't heard this song until you have heard it on this CD.
After that, we reach the last two songs, Inno a Satana, and Ye Entrancemperium. Two songs that complement each other very well. With how Epic they are, they could almost be sequels to each other. The other great part about these songs is that Ihsahn does the vocals more clean. Which I see fitting the Epic feel a little more then your regular Black Metal Vocals.
One more gripe I would like to mention is that the bass lines are very hard to hear in this, it doesn't take much away, but Tyr is a great bassist and I would have liked to hear him play a bit more in the mix.
But after all is said and done it looks like my bitching out weights the good parts of it that I mentioned. But don't let it fool you, this is a great album and worth whatever money it takes to buy it or whatever time it takes to find it(hard to come by where I live). This is easily in my top ten greatest Live albums, if not number one. And this can easily go into my top 25 albums of all time.
Simply put, get this fuckin' album. Emperor are still the undisputed kings of Black Metal, if you ask me.
While the music that is here is impeccable, I can't help but wish that there were more of it. 45 minutes is simply not enough for a modern live album, considering that is only about half the available space on a cd. That being said, this album is an amazing look at a very talented, if troubled, band.
The disc opens with Curse You All Men, the first song from IX Equilibrium, and it is a faithful reproduction of the original. At the end of this we can here the intro of Decrystalyzing Reason, one of my favorite songs from IX, and I wish they had recorded the whole thing. Following another great song, Thus Spake the Nightspirit, comes the first highlight, I Am the Black Wizards. Seeing as the production on this live album is light years ahead of both the demo and In the Nightside Eclipse, this one is a treat to listen to. The lead guitar isn't lost in the mix, and Ihsahn's vocals can also be fully appreciated. In addition to the better production, this song also benefits from Trym's amazing abilities behind the drum kit.
Continuing on, we get another song from IX, An Elegy of Icaros, which is probably the weakest song here. Even on the album it drags a bit, and here it really slows the set down. The next song, With Strength I Burn, picks right up where I Am the Black Wizards left off. In my opinion it is the best song on Anthems, and the improved production of the live album really highlights the clean singing and the spoken interlude.
The next song, Sworn, again comes from IX, and once again it is a solid performance, but nothing noteworthy. Following this comes Night of the Graveless Souls, the only song played from the Hordanes Land split album. This one is quite short and fast, and it is nice to see that Emperor remembers their more obscure material.
The end of the album is easily the strongest part. Inno a Satana, like I Am the Black Wizards, sounds amazing with the clearer production. Finally, they play the obligatory Ye Entrancemperium, of which nothing really needs to be said. All in all, if you are an Emperor fan already, this album shoudl already be in your collection, and if you are looking to get into them, this is definitely the best place to start.