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Ripping 'Extreme' Metal - 93%

OlympicSharpshooter, June 11th, 2007

There are some albums you admire for their serenity, their subtlety, and their ability to really make you think. IX Equilibrium is not an album that could ever be confused with one of those. What it is instead, boldly and with an utter confidence few other bands could hope to even fake, is one the most formidably constructed sonic batteries ever intentionally summoned up and release upon an unsuspecting populace without a trace of mercy. Virtually every song is a flurry of impossible riffs that sounds more like a blizzard of razors than anything so innocently named as a ‘note’. IX Equilibrium is, to cop a line from a much lesser band, simply a vulgar display of power.

What truly sets this behemoth apart from any of its mongoloid peers is the phenomenal skill possessed by its executors. Where one might refer to the work of say, Vital Remains or Marduk, as a sickening homicide in which some unlucky victim was put to an ugly death by way of an hour's worth of unconstructive bludgeoning, IX Equilibrium is more akin to Jackson Pollack engineering a siege. Over Trym's unceasing battery of his kit, inscrutably shifting tempo and time signature to confuse the defenders, swirling riffs splatter on the walls like so many splashes of well-aimed paints, and massive symphonies of keyboards rise overhead and gradually transmute into siege towers. But while there is beauty in the abstraction, IX Equilibrium is also authentically violent.

As intense as previous Emperor offerings were, in particular the cascading keyboard fanfares of Anthems..., IX Equilibrium pulsates with electrocuted life. Ihsahn plunges from his untouchable ivory tower into the baser waters of human aggression, and tears his throat to shreds in the act. While remaining as mystic as ever in form, what seems to put off many core black metal fans is that there are no deep ominous spaces in which to search for one's reflection. Here Emperor seems to be thrashing about without regard for making contact, beating blindly against the walls that bind them 'til their blood coats every surface, flinging about their limbs and their magics in a primal expression of chaos. But there is no God, Christian or Pagan, who can save you when they lock onto something solid, and tear form and substance from the shrieking void. The most striking example of this occurs at 1:50 of "Sworn" wherein the band suddenly locks step and slaloms down one of Samoth's most priceless riffs before terminating in an absolute headbanger's paradise. It's moments like this that are that core of Emperor's fearful dominance of their style; this is a riff that, on its own inherent quality, even Dimmu Borgir couldn't screw up. But Emperor take it somewhere far beyond, ripping into it with a sheer ferocity seldom if ever seen in classic black metal. It's practically animal.

Even on more sophisticated arrangements, like the nifty solo/bridge of semi-title track "Nonus Aequilibrium", every muscular downbeat is struck with unimpeachable authority. The band takes their multi-tracking to Mutt Lange-levels not simply to emphasize the grandeur of their visions as on previous releases (though the likes of "Of Blindness and Subsequent Seers" can surely challenge the most pompous Anthems... compositions), but rather to increase their 'emperial' might one-hundred fold. The term 'army of guitars' has been used to the point of becoming meaningless, but on "The Warriors of Modern Death" the band comes as close to making the cliché a reality as anyone ever has. It's critical, trench-slogging extreme metal the way they used to do it, but with a teeth-bared seriousness in its craft that would leave Venom or Sodom fearful and aghast at their own comparative weakness. It’s true that neither of those bands had access to the kind of power tools employed by Samoth and company, and that these classic band’s recordings are lent a certain eccentric charm by virtue of their anaemic recordings, but it would be foolhardy to suggest, as many are wont to, that every extreme band should restrict themselves to sounding like the first two Bathory LPs. The grave fallacy of this view is only underscored by an honest comparison of, say, “The Triumph of Death” with a track like “Decrystallizing Reason”. It’s like Polish cavalry versus Panzer divisions all over again.

So many puritans of the black metal underground profess to love the nihilistic extremity of their chosen form above all else. It is a closeted, tradition-bound genre that leads to a lot of highly formulaic dreck that more than overwhelms the handful of undeniable masterworks it has produced. What makes Emperor as a band so special is their willingness to smash to bits any of the expectations of the genre that don't conform to their vision. IX Equilibrium is mightier than black metal in the same way landmarks like Hammerheart were bigger, Goat Horns richer, and Aspera Hiems Symfonia more intelligent. It filters the strengths of the genre through the high level of artistry Ihsahn brings to any project, and bonds it to the sheer strength of will that is a hallmark of Samoth's best work. It does what modern black metal rarely dares to do: it actually kicks ass.

Stand-Out Tracks: "Sworn", "Nonus Aequilibrium", "Of Blindness and Subsequent Seers"