without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
Man, if only splits were typically this creative and rewarding. Thorns Vs. Emperor sees these two titanic bands do battle in an interesting, transitory stage in their respective careers. The result is for the most part compelling and quite unique. While Emperor were at the time (and eternally in retrospect) the more established of the two bands, Thorns handily dethrone them at their own game, all the while boasting their own modernized take on second wave black metal in the Norwegian scene’s twilight years of the late ’90s.
This split is very much a collaborative effort, and shouldn’t be seen as the kind of split where a couple bands throw together some songs they have lying around just for the sake of putting them out there. There’s nothing disjointed between the two bands; on the contrary, both employ a similar futuristic interpretation of the black metal we’d expect from their namesake. This kind of aesthetic is a clear foreshadowing of Thorns’ full length, which would come out two years subsequent to this release, and would develop this sound more completely. As for Emperor, on the other hand, this is quite a black sheep in their discography, as it’s a notable departure from pretty much anything else they’ve done before or since. Not all black sheep are ugly, mind you, and even though Emperor’s side is inferior to Thorns’ more commanding presence, their contributions are still perfectly worthwhile.
Beginning with the best, Thorns’ “Ærie Descent” is easily one of the best songs Snorre has ever blasphemed to construct. While its skeleton first appeared in the ancient Trøndertun demo of ’92, this is its definitive form in all its glory. Developing from a slow pace, this song is a lesson in heaviness and constancy, with Snorre’s ungodly riffs reigning endless havoc on the soundscape. If you’re not captivated by the 2:25 mark, you’re then treated to, honest-to-goodness, one of the best, most memorable black metal riffs I’ve ever heard. This is an immediate reminder of why Snorre is regarded as such an influence over the songwriting of the Norwegian second wave. This kind of triumphantly melodic tremolo work is what he’s known for, and the material here captures him in the height of his powers. Melas Khole is decidedly more atmospheric, with the repetitive riffs achieving a Burzum-like hypnotic effect. On top of the excellence of the musicianship, Satyr performs vocals on all of Thorns’ material here, and injects a welcome dose of aggression into the songs. Included as a bonus track is another great Thorns song called “You That Mingle May”. At just under three minutes, it’s a lot punchier than the lengthier Thorns numbers here, but I’d hardly call it more ‘straightforward’, with its bizarre guitar affects throughout. While it’s credited as a Thorns song, the line up consists of Snorre on guitars, Fenriz from Darkthrone on drums, and, again, Satyr on vocals.
Admittedly, perhaps the main reason Emperor come off as less compelling is simply because there’s nothing exactly “new” from their side of things, as all of their songs are either remixes or covers. The strange reimagining of the god-like classic, “I am the Black Wizards”, here more humbly titled, “I Am”, is stripped of its metal and is instead presented as a slowly building martial industrial dirge, including samples from the Thorns song, “Fall”, off the Thule demo. It comes off as a bit needless at first, but once the signature melody begins to brood as a build-up, it pays off nicely. “Thus March the Nightspirit” is a purely synthesized take on “Thus Spake the Nightspirit” off Anthems… and doesn’t offer much replay value after the novelty of the first few listens. As if to really get the point across about “Ærie Descent”, Emperor includes their own version of the song. This is a bit faster and more condensed sounding than Thorns’ incarnation, and while it’s not all that different, it’s cool to hear the monstrous riffs backed up with come cheesy symphonics.
While I definitely find myself turning most often to the Thorns material on this release, the entirety of it is highly recommended, if not essential. I imagine many Emperor fans might not want to bother with what’s here, but personally I find their side intriguing, if only for its uniqueness within their career. Still, Thorns undeniably reigns supreme, with this split showcasing some of their strongest work ever.
The most exciting and interesting aspect of Thorns vs. Emperor is just how well-integrated its components are. Most split recordings or team-up releases feel segregated due to their traditional formatting. For whatever reasons, geographical or stylistic gulfs, each of the two or more acts will be assigned a 'position' on the track list (CD) or a 'side' if it's being released in vinyl or cassette format. Not the case for this cyber-black extravaganza, which feels more like a collaboration being held directly between Snorre Ruch (billed here as S.W. Krupp) and the members of Emperor. Over the course of 48+ minutes, the two parties deconstruct one another's past glories, their own work, and in some cases, offer up new material.
Granted, not all of the tracks here feel equally revelatory, and I'm quite partial to the Thorns contributions over the Emperor cuts, but this is largely due to the newer material. By this time, Ruch's project had only been heard through demos, so Thorns vs. Emperor was likely its first introduction to the larger underground, and he really delivers. "Melas Khole" is an electronic trudge with poignant, excellent lyrics and shifting industrial percussive currents and swerving bass lines that carry the spikes of dissonant, fragmented black metal licks. "The Discipline of Earth" is a mix of straight black metal bursts and almost drunken narrative over a matrix of whacky, frivolous electro sounds. But "Ærie Descent" is likely the best of his pieces here, a tune that was brought forward and expanded from the Trøndertun demo (1992) and slapped with horns and other atmospherics that truly work themselves upon the listener's conscience. I quite loved the trance-like break at around 1:30, and Satyr from Satyricon does a decent job of slavering this tunes with his hoarse rasp and unnerving, clean vocals.
As for Emperor, they include an martial/industrial intro piece ("Exördium") with deep coils of distorted bass and a gradually building cadence. A crazed deconstruction of their own "I Am the Black Wizards" track known simply as "I Am", which spiritually feels like it inhabits the margin between a Third Reich pep rally and some touring carnival carousel. There is also an entirely instrumental, martial/synthesizer orchestration of "Thus Spake the Nightspirit" called "Thus March the Nightspirit" which feels like the boss battle for some obscure Castlevania or Final Fantasy title. Perhaps more interesting, though, is the metalization of Thorns' "Aerie Descent" which is more compact than the reskinned version Snorre has included. Ihsahn and Samoth have festooned this with lurching, slicing and dissonant riffs that give me the aesthetic impression of attempting to weave through one of those swinging pendulum blade trapped corridors you always see in games or action films.
In return, Snorre has broken down Emperor's "Cosmic Keys to My Creation & Times" into the reductive "Cosmic Keys", taking a few of the guitars and dowsing them in Satyr's spoken word alternative, while a throng of industrial percussion beneath. This was actually my least favorite track on the album, but I'd have to say that the rest of the pieces were quite fascinating to sit through, and though such earlier black metal/industrial experiments do not always hold up for long periods of time, I feel that Thorns vs. Emperor retains some freshness, not unlike those Satyricon electros on their EPs, or Mayhem's "A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun (Part II of II)" from Grand Declaration of War. It's not nearly perfect music, but Thorns and Emperor do prove a near perfect match, and even though the split skews towards the former for its more quality content, this is a collaboration that might have yielded amazing results had they decided to release more.
In one corner we have Thorns, a band whose half-formed demos in the early nineties had an enormous impact over the developing Norwegian black metal scene. Think of bands like Mayhem, Manes, Blut Aus Nord, even Ved Buens Ende – that freezing, eerie guitar style is a mark of this band’s continuing influence.
In the other corner, we have Emperor, who probably need no introduction to anyone who’s even reading this. They are surely the most popular and influential black metal band worth taking seriously – they even managed to “sell out” rather gracefully – and their early work has rarely been matched, in my opinion.
This split album seems to represent some sort of initial warning shot for the wave of “futuristic” black metal that was to follow (the Moonfog aesthetic). I think there were at least a few black metal bands dabbling in industrial music before this, though I don’t know if many of them sound so prophetic in retrospect. In addition, this album announces the return of the Thorns project to active duty, and shows Emperor expanding into experimentation that they would never match on their proper albums.
The best song Thorns ever wrote is “Ærie Descent”, and luckily it appears on this album twice, first in a re-recording by Thorns and again as an Emperor cover. The Thorns version introduces the project’s new, semi-industrial sound: the guitar is so heavily distorted it sounds nearly electronic, the drums are probably artificial, and there is a degree of experimentation with electronics. There are little bends in the guitar pitch that emphasize the haunting, dissonant quality of the riffs. Surprisingly, the Emperor version is arguably a bit more faithful to the original, although the keyboard tones and vocals clearly mark it as a product of post-Anthems Emperor. The song itself really sums up in a nutshell what Thorns have to offer as a band: mid-paced, dissonant, absolutely strange riffing and an alienating atmosphere. Both versions generally preserve the gist of the original and together form the highlight of the album.
The rest of the album is rather an odd assortment of ideas. Emperor contribute a symphonic (well, synthesizer) version of “Thus Spake the Nightspirit” from Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, similar to what they did with “Inno a Satanna” before. It’s an interesting take… sounds a tad inflated but entertaining for anyone who’s heard the original. They also give us two experimental industrial tracks, one the ambient/industrial introduction to the album, the second a strange collage made up of bits and pieces of the first two Emperor albums, partially in the form of newly-recorded guitar and synth parts and partially in the form of direct sound sampling. Between all that and the peculiar drum machine, that second one is probably going to send a lot of metal fans running for the hills, and while I can’t entirely blame them I do enjoy the piece for the throw-away piece of mad science it is.
As for the Thorns material: there are another two songs reworked from demo material; neither is quite as strong as “Ærie Descent”, in my opinion, but both are quite good nevertheless. Those two songs and “Ærie Descent” present sort of a paradox: they do both feel like a product of the time before the famous Norwegian black metal scene, and yet that dissonant riffing style sounds bizarre even today… and then, of course, we’re listening to versions of these songs which are recorded so as to sound very modern. Anyway… in addition to those three songs, Thorns also provide a very unusual “cover” of “Cosmic Keys”, one of Emperor’s better songs from the old days. It’s scarcely recognizable: slow and sparse, almost minimalist, stripped down to its bare essentials to the point of being little more than a single repeated riff, with spoken vocals and a crawling industrial beat. Not a definitive take on the song by any means, but the fashion in which they’ve “ruined” it is interesting to me.
Anyhow, I could hardly say that this is an essential album overall, although the revamped Thorns songs might be of historical importance. It’s mainly an interesting diversion for those of us who like the two bands involved and get a kick out of hearing familiar songs being mutilated… for me it’s still a better listen than most “electronic” black metal (including the self-titled Thorns album) because of its mix of familiarity and novelty. Basically, a pretty fun trip.