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Emperor's creative inertia had previously carried them to soaring heights within black metal, but by the time this album was released, that inertia was spent, and the band was rapidly falling back down into the influences from which they initially wrought their style. This album is the sound of them plummeting back into heavy metal and death metal - which would make Prometheus the sound of the band hitting the ground and splattering, I guess.
This is a fundamentally more direct and accessible music than anything Emperor had released prior to it, more focused on recognizably "metal" riffing, possibly catchier, or at least intended that way. It really sounds hopelessly normalized, and far too close to a typical modern "extreme metal" style: thrash- and heavy metal-influenced crunching guitars only with harsh vocals and keyboards and blast beats et cetera et cetera. Classic stylings adapted for modern trends. All but the last of the black metal is gone.
This is generally generally the sign of a band shrugging their shoulders, sighing, and figuring they ought to just give the kids out there a fun show for their money. What's keeping IX Equilibrium from turning into an irredeemable horror like the last Immortal release or any random Dimmu Borgir album is the fact that Emperor, even at this point, seem so damned serious. Say what you will about Emperor, they never gave up... or at least when they did, they did us the favor of actually disbanding instead of gracing us with another six albums.
And so we're treated to the rather peculiar spectacle of thrash-death tremolo guitars dueling it out with some rather colorful keyboards, and to Anthems style melodic digressions breaking up grooving stoccato riffing, with the band multitracking to hell and back, layering guitar on guitar and keyboard on keyboard. A total misapplication of the band's talent, but if they're going down, at least they're going down in flames.
For what it is - which has nothing whatsoever on what Nightside or Wrath was - it generally works fairly well. The first song, Curse You All Men!, manages to earn its exclamation point by being probably the fastest and most violent song on the album, particularly during the exhilirating middle break, with some nice riffing that recalls Morbid Angel's Covenant album to some degree. Decrystallizing Reason is one of the better songs on the album for successfully matching the band's signature pomp and grandeur with straight-up metal riffing (check the guitar/keyboard exchange during the last couple of minutes). Sworn is probably the single best song of the bunch, partially for deftly mixing some classically-inspired guitar flourishes into some of the heaviest music of the album, but mostly for that one riff, which you can't possibly miss.
But there's also more than a little goofiness that just doesn't work at all, on any level. The most imfamous thirty seconds or so of the album would be the short bit of The Source of Icon E in which Ihsahn gives a shot at imitating King Diamond's inimitable vocal style. He did it before in Emperor's cover of Gypsy, and did it rather admirably, but, well... that was a cover, whereas this is an actual Emperor song that sounds nothing like what one would want an Emperor song to sound like, ever. And while we're on the subject of things one would never want Emperor to sound like, I must mention Elegy of Icaros. Ihsahn's moaning "sung" vocals are probably the least endearing part of this album, in all the songs, but the sound of his voice singing that flamboyant melody over those happy guitars right at the beginning of the song achieve a true apogee of awfulness. I hear it and I wince. However, the very worst track on the album, and quite possibly the stupidest-sounding song in the entire Emperor catalog - yes, including Prometheus - is no doubt Warriors of Modern Death, which was apparently intended as some sort of tribute to the more rock-influenced black metal that immediately preceded the modern style. Basically, it sounds like a professional band attempting to write a suped-up version of early Bathory to amuse themselves - which is probably what it is - and the results aren't pretty. It sounds more fun than evil.
Final verdict? I find the disc to be worth having around, and every so often, when I'm of a frame of mind to be listening to music that's not terribly demanding, I give it a few spins with my finger poised on the track skip button. Still, if you go to your grave without having heard this, I can't say you missed out. Not even essential for Emperor fans, honestly.