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As the mid 90s arrived, Norway's Emperor were riding upon the peak of their career momentum, even while resting on the laurels of a single full length album. Granted, that's one fucking hell of a full length album, and in my opinion one of the best in its genre to date, but by 1996 Ihsahn and Samoth could have recorded a double CD set of live, syncopated armpit farts and it would have sold gangbusters. Rather than such bodily emissions, they instead decided to whet the audience's appetite for new material with their third EP, Reverence, including one preview track for their sophomore Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk and a pair of non-album tracks.
"The Loss and Curse of Reverence" itself is a track I find quite representative of Anthems as a whole: a few riffs of potential hurled into a sodden mire of near mediocrity. I realize this is not the popular opinion of the full-length, and I'll get more into that in a proper review, but of the six minutes present, I found about two of them worth the time. The opening blast explosion does well to get the blood stirring, but outside of the ambient, angelic choir first introduced at around 1:00, and the curvy, thrusting tremolo riff leading up to the first verse, I don't find all that much to remember here. Clearly Emperor were keeping with the symphonic, menacing night sky aesthetics of their debut, but the result is something more refined to a more surgical, technical definition than the crushing nightmares of that impressive work.
As to its companions here, I have no real complaint. "In Longing Spirit" features a good interplay of organs and elevating, ominous riffs as it collides into its more measured, pacing, but often the silly snarling and the keyboard driven breaches might remind some of Cradle of Filth, and this may or may not be welcome. "Opus a Satana" is a symphonic keyboard outro lasting over 4 minutes which makes the perfect backdrop for some lost Castlevania level or perhaps a boss battle in Final Fantasy. It's not meant to be taken frivolously, but the amount of pomp here is comparable to Bal-Sagoth on a fine day. I rather enjoyed it, in fact it's my favorite song on this EP, but I'm a massive geek so take that as you will.
Alas, the biggest problem with Reverence is that the Century Media CD release of Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk renders it Irrelevance. So aside from those eight or so months of empty, masturbatory anticipation you got out of this, it just doesn't matter when the original US edition features all of it and more (you also get a video and live rendition of "The Loss and Curse of Reverence"). I thought to combat this slight by simply importing the CD, so that I wouldn't have the redundant tracks, and then I got robbed out of that other bonus content. And even at it's best, it's little more than a pair of non-album tracks which, while enjoyable, are not among the band's better works. Life's a bitch, so pucker up.
After the groundbreaking release "In The Nightside Eclipse", hard times unexpectedly crossed the Emperor's path, consderably slowing down his triumphal march. Due to various prison sentences and other negative circumstances, Ihsahn found himself to be the only available member of the band left. Very unproductive months followed, marked by uninspired rehearsal in search for new permanent band members which led to no satisfying result (or almost: it was during this period that Ihsahn recorded a new version of "Moon over Kara-Shehr with very special guests Hellhammer and Sverd later featured on the "Nordic Metal" complilation), until a big turning point was reached in 1995, when Trym Torson, skin thrasher in the Viking Metal band Enslaved, was brought into the Emperor fold right after his deaprture from his previous band. His brilliant drumming style - an unique combination of precision, power and insane, relentless speed - woul dsoon become a fundamental trademark of the new Emperor sound. Not too long afterwards Samoth was free to return to band, and with the addition of new bass player Alver the newly reborn Emperor was armed and ready to conquer new glory.
The band felt that they needed something to break the long, forced silence that followed the previous album, so they agreed to release an EP as a forerunner of the new masterpiece, as a warning of what the Emperor's return would really mean. Thus, "Reverence" was unleashed...
The main purpose of this release was to offer a brief but significative sample of the band's new sound, and in this respect, "Reverence" accomplished its mission.
The main track of the EP comes in the form of "The Loss and Curse of Reverence", definitely one of the highlights of the new album and a great example of how Emperor had grown musically while retaining their past unique features. This song opens with an incredibly fast, razor-shrp riff which immediately shows how much Trym contributed to the creation of the band's signature sound, followed by a great tremolo driven riff sustained by earthquake-like double pedal drumming. Strangely, Ihsahn's voice on this song is still pretty screechy and doesn't sound like it would in the near future, but it's definitely not a drawback. The guitar work is amazing from the every beginning, with its abundance off licks, harmonics and whatever else, and the multi-guitar layering is immensely more developed, generating deep, unparalleled distorted soundscapes. The keyboards, which burst into the scene a little later, are also a huge suprise, for not only do they sound once again a lot more complex and well studied (you can hear a sequence of 7+ major chords in this song, for example), but their interaction with the rest of the instruments is way more intricate: in some sections they follow the riffs provide a suitable background; in others, they become the real basis upon which the rest of the music is built. In the slower sections, we also hear some wonderful, almost symphonic passages whihc make a huge contrast with the ferociousness of the more aggressive parts, yet the various segments of the song blend together perfectly, and the progression never sounds fragmented or abrupt - and there are MANY different riffs, rhythms, passages and elements in this song.
The sound is also very peculiar, and yet again foreshadows the masterpiece that would follow: the guitars and keyboards dominate above the rest with their incredibly thick sound, leaving the drums and especially the vocals (which at a first listen are barely audible) more in the background. It takes time to get used to this unusal blurry production, but it fits Emperor's "controlled chaos" so well.
"The Loss and Curse of Reverence" is followed by two more tracks which wouldn't appear on the album (until the re-release, that is), and are equally worth attention.
"In Longing Spirit" is presented as "a progressed version of an old Emperor song descending from the 1992 era", and quite curiously manages to sound neither like the Emperor that was nor the Emperor to come; its "ancient" origins are however revealed by its much more basic structure. The song opens with a nice intro riff backed by a cool organ sound, soon joined by a speedy drum rhythm; after a while it slows down and morphs into the song's main riff, slow, doomish and once more spiced by eerie synths. What keeps the riff from becoming intolerably repetitive is the very clever arrangement: on the verse, the intrumentation is kept to a quiet minimum with Ihsahn reciting the lyrics with his clean voice, accompained by distorted licks which ultimately create a feedback buildup leading into the more aggressive version of the same riff, coming in after every verse, where the drums double the rhythm and guitars sustain the melody. After two repetitions of this pattern the song goes into a slower break to which Trym soon adds his insanely fast double kick, before going back to the main riff, this time played with a much faster and thrashy rhythm. The track finishes with a diminished chord passage which reminds of the "In The Nightside Eclipse", and will be featured as it is (although played 4 times faster) on "The Acclamation of Bonds" on the new album.
"Reverence" is finished by "Opus a Satana", a very original and amazing rendition of the band's classic "Inno a Satana" as an instrumental performed only on keyboards, arranged to simulate a whole orchestra complete with brass, choir and percussion. This gives the listener a chance to experience the greatness of the song from a different point of view, and might help to discover some elements tha at first weren't heard on the original version (most of the lines featured on this arrangement were already present in the original song). Absolutely superb.
The artwork of the EP also deserves praise, with its beautiful shots of the awe-inspiring Northern nature, a theme that also re-occurs in the video filmed for "The Loss and Curse of Reverence", which is also featured as a multimedia bonus on the cd version.
"The Loss and Curse of Reverence" is out of print today, but its non-album tracks and be found on the reissue of "Anthems To The Welkins At Dusk", while the video is featured as a bonus on the "Emperial Live Ceremony" VHS / DVD.
All in all a short but fantastic release. It's true, most modern EPs are more or less worthless, but it's also true that most modern bands can't stand a chance against the Emperor.