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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.