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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.
This is probably one of the most well-constructed split releases I have ever come across. It isn't the usual first-half-first-band-second-half-second-band deal you get so often with splits, no, it gives the impression that both artists are genuinely working together, and create a sense of both halfs actually belonging on the same CD, rather than just happening to be randomly thrown on the same one. However, to make things easier for the reader, I will review both halves seperately.
Thorns - Snorre Ruch's peak of perfection - 100%
This man takes his guitar sound straight from hell. No, scrap that, hell is a nice, fancy weekend vacation place with 24 hour room service, a swimming pool, a view on a tropical beach, free access cable tv and quality entertainment compared to where these sounds are coming from. And it isn't just the sound, it is what he plays and how he plays it that makes Snorre Ruch such a unique guitarist. This is like nothing that existed before he invented it himself, not the usual "Rock & Roll simply played harder and faster" we got used to expect from Heavy Metal and its more violent subgenres to that point, no, this is a whole new dimension of cold, menacing darkness. It doesn't end with the guitars either. Snorre displays an impressive talent at programming. Breathtakingly driving drumlines take on a life of their own, shape the songs in ways you never before even imagined drums could, and lifts the atmosphere of the rhythm alone into the unthinkable with the addition of Industrial style noises. From machinal thumps to low-end synthetic growls, from strangely disturbing hisses to sounds too weird to even describe, the way Snorre constructs the rhythmic elements on this material is beyond just atmospheric or climatic, it is captivating at a level I never ever found on any other release again, except maybe to a degree on the best two songs of his own full-length, "Shifting Channels" and "Vortex". If you were to judge by my enthusiasm so far, I probably wouldn't need to add anything about the arrangements of the percussion with the guitars. Of course they are perfect! The way percussion and guitars interact is stunning to a point of eternally blissful delight. Moving from one climax to the next, the arrangements shower you with intensity, capturing the whole of you, pulling you into the world of creepily dark imagery this music creates. This is then rounded up by the synth, as if it needed any more rounding up... Snorre Ruch certainly decided to give us a complete overkill of magnificence here. The synths play a major role in two aspects: Most of the time, they provide a darl but very progressive and well thought-out background ambience. In fact, they are so far in the background that you may not even fully notice them during your first few listens, but when you are getting more familiar with the release, they hit you with their sheer ingenious complexity. Other bands would simply place two-note boredom that far in the background, Thorns composed a masterpiece of neoclassical, progressive Dark Ambient just to use as background ambience. You can't help but admire such obsessive-compulsive dedication to perfectionism about every single detail. Last but not least, Satyr, normally one of my least favourite Norwegian Black Metal singers, fulfills his role on this album to a point near perfection, delivering the best vocal performance of his career - by far. The vocals sound authoritarian and spiteful, and subtle effects add to their menacing quality, making them blend into the music perfectly.
This release is a monument to the incredible talent of Snorre Ruch. He succeeded in releasing some of the most eerie, menacing, pitch-black, ice-cold Black Metal there is, ever was, and ever will be. He has had his moments before, on his demos, and later, on the full-length, and all of those were highest class essential Black Metal as well, but nothing quite gets close to the songs from this split. Everything that can be done right about the sound of Thorns has been done right here, and if there is so much as a point of total perfection in a style of music such as this, here is where we find it, and here is the standard by which we can measure everything else.
Emperor - Mostly filler, but with great parts - 70%
This is - for the most part - likely the most unusual release Emperor ever made. Next to a rather shyly interpreted cover of Thorns' classic "Arie Descent", which is none the less impressive mostly due to the high class of the original, and a once again stunning example for Ihsahn's sickening love for the pompous and ultimately trivial in the supposedly "neoclassical" synth-and-clean-vocals-only reworking of the "Anthems..." song "Thus Spake The Nightspirit", we find two rather bizarre tracks, which seem to be mostly copy & paste job with elements from previous releases plus added backing electronica. But, first things first. The one or the other among you - myself included, actually - might wonder about the merit of including a cover of a song on a release when the original already appears earlier on the same (!!) release, not to mention that - as you might have guessed from the Thorns part of this review - an original that couldn't possibly be topped or even reached. But, all criticism of this rather odd choice aside, Emperor did succeed in adding something to the original by interpreting in a pretty different way. Nowhere near as eerie, this is more of a "party version", as in having a catchier groove to it and a generally more driving, upbeat feel. Nothing like the original in terms of atmosphere, but very solid and straight-forward, and a very pleasing listen, my compliments to Emperor for making something good out of a choice with such high risk for self-defeat. Hey, speaking of self-defeat... we now arrive at "Thus March the Nightspirit". Ihsahn sure likes to fool himself into thinking he is stroking his ego by creating something grand and ambitious, when he is really making an ass of himself by what sounds like he's been randomly throwing together some almost childlike pomp. This song is a category five hurricane of reeking pseudo-intellectuality, and it will probably leave your nerves in a shape worse than New Orleans, my ears certainly declared a state of emergency and called in the national guard already. I think what he tried here - once again - grew out of his apparent wish to hear his name spoken in one breath with the great classical composers of past centuries, and he seems to have thought that with enough pomp and fiddlery people might mistake this for a genuine attempt at classical music. Nope, just a cheesy little melodic Dark Ambient tune. Next, please!
Finally, the two songs I called "rather bizarre" before, and damn I really like them. I think that behind the godly classic "I Am the Black Wizards" and the "As the Shadows Rise" EP, this might be my favourite Emperor material, and it doesn't even sound anything like Emperor. As I said before, they seem to be assembled from a wide range of various bits and pieces of previous Emperor recordings (plus part of the song "Fall" from the Thorns demo "Grymyrk"), then spiced up with additional effects and apparently some pieces of programmed electronic beats for the rhythm. The songs create a very strange feeling, they have a strong science fiction touch, very spacey and futuristic. In fact, part of the intro reminds me of the Captain Future theme actually. But generally there is this feeling as if this is the perfect soundtrack for watching a starship cruise through the vast unknown of outer space, with a darker touch of course. There still is some morbid quality to these songs, their spacey feel doesn't really feel cheesy, especially not as cheesy as what we have come to expect from Ihsahn. These songs sound like an interstellar call to war, epic, but morbid in the subliminal expectation of galactic mass-genocide. Definitely some impressive material.
I wouldn't hesitate a second to call this release essential. For the Thorns material alone, this is something everyone should own and frequently enjoy. But, while plagued with a high ratio of what feels like filler material, the Emperor side isn't too bad, and this split as a whole is on a high standard from start to end. As for the rating... since - at least in my humble opinion - this is mostly a Thorns release with some bonus material from Emperor, the Thorns side weighs heavier in the total rating, so instead of a purely mathematical average I rate this release at 90%, because Thorns takes priority, and plays a more prominent role in the quality of this release as a whole.
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.