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Too grumpy to give this a real title right now - 55%

MutantClannfear, January 3rd, 2015
Written based on this version: 2004, CD, Candlelight Records (Remastered, Enhanced, Reissue)

Similar to At the Gates and Pantera for most seasoned metalheads, Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse is, to me, an intimidating and frustrating work which is hard to divorce from the bad habits it spawned. While not an outright bad album in its own right, it was both the primary impetus for and suffers from what I would declare to be the single most toxic trait of black metal as a genre: grandiosity. I'm sure other bands later down the line helped quite a bit as well, but as far as I'm concerned this was the most important early release that seemed to declare to the world that this kind of thing was okay. Nay, not even okay, but acceptable! Encouraged! An ideal to be strived for!

By "grandiose", I'm referring to this album's composition, which I suppose could be best compared to that one early episode of SpongeBob SquarePants where the title character, a complete wimp as far as talking cleaning appliances go, decides that considering his circumstances as a weakling, the best way to impress people is to buy some cheap inflatable roid-loaded arms and walk around wearing them like he's hot shit. And everyone in the show believes it, too! Everyone sees this complete doofus walking around with these dorky intertube arms slapped over his usual yellow twigs with fingers on the end, and they all buy into it hook, line, and sinker! That's basically In the Nightside Eclipse: the riffs are SpongeBob, and the presentation is Anchor Arms.

The mix of In the Nightside Eclipse is set up to be this big, monstrous experience that hits you like a glacier in motion. All the traditional metal instruments are carved out to some extent - the bass is nearly inaudible, the drums are huge but have no low end, and most damningly, the electric guitar is almost entirely scooped out. This arguably gives the album a lot of space, and space would be a good thing in most circumstances, but it's a moot point as the band have apparently only set up that space to fill it up with the loudest choir/string synths ever. Seriously, if you haven't heard this album in a while, go back to it just so you can remember how loud and obnoxious the synth work is. It's as if Ihsahn is standing right up in your face, saying, "ISN'T MY SYNTH WORK SPOOKY!? CAN YOU HEAR IT YET? IT'S PRETTY SPOOKY, ISN'T IT? TELL ME IT'S SPOOKY!" Whenever the synths are blaring, the guitars just sound like vague fuzzy scraping underneath; 15 years later metal bands like Vemod would find ways to do this sort of thing with enough interplay between the guitars and synths that the end result wouldn't feel like the latter unintentionally drowning out the former, but the ability to achieve that was apparently still an unknown craft around the time In the Nightside Eclipse was released.

Now, the lesson to take away from this isn't "synths are literally cancer and taint the pure representation of TRUE UNHOLY BLACK ART" or some goofy shit like that, but rather that synths shouldn't act as an integral element of the sound unless the music itself is already rock-fucking-solid. Put simply, Emperor's is not. Now, don't get me wrong, none of the riffs here are really bad when evaluated in a strictly melodic sense - not at all. On the contrary, there are a few here that are actually pretty great - the very first riff in "Into the Infinity of Thoughts" is a good example, and "Cosmic Keys to My Creations & Times" opens with a nice one. But the problem is that for the most part, In the Nightside Eclipse is a bit more behind the times than its contemporaries were in terms of riffing, and so it attempts to mix older black metal riffs with a newfound early-90s level of seriousness and pretense, to limited success. This seems to have missed out on the developments that bands like Darkthrone, Mayhem and Burzum had picked up on, who were shifting to a more technical and focused style of black metal with more chords, more layering, and more blasting. Emperor, on the other hand, are still hanging onto the Bathory standard at this point in their career - on this album, there's a notable degree of thrash still present in their sound, the melodic progressions are basic and pretty unexciting (most of the riffs here which I actually especially like are isolated tremolo streams that actually are up to the standard set by Emperor's contemporaries by 1994), and the rhythm is usually either blunt and stomping, or bouncy and galloping. These elements worked wonderfully when used by Bathory himself, and they would work just as well here if the original sense of minimalism were maintained, but In the Nightside Eclipse seems confused as to whether it wants to wholeheartedly worship Bathory or present itself as a piece of high art. It aims for common ground between the two and doesn't get either right.

It's riddled with several other serious flaws, as well. The songs have no business being as long as they are, considering most of the riffs don't seek to progress the songs in any noticeable way (Bathory riffs tend not to be especially good at doing that, anyway). Also, I'm not sure how it's managed to avoid general mention, but the vocal performance is absolutely terrible. The screams are extremely high, but there's no element of force behind them. In other words, they are impish rather than anguished. They represent the huge sound of the album very poorly; something as vast and layered as this was intended to be definitely deserves something a bit more, I dunno, vast. Ihsahn's vocals here mostly just feel like a beetle attempting to narrate an epic journey, except you can't trust what he has to say about it because he's a fucking beetle, what is he supposed to know?

I'm on the fence as to how much at fault the album or band itself is for this, but it seems to have played a pretty big part in spreading the general sentiment of "Anybody can make a big majestic black metal album! Yes, you! Even if you lack the songwriting skills to pull it off, just stack some synths on top of it and make it sound big and people will eat it right up!" In the Nightside Eclipse lacks the melodic cohesion, the complexity, the compositional genius that its creators would have needed to truly justify changing the presentation of this from "raw 4-track" to "big synth-laden journey", and yet people seem to have cheered it on all the same because WOW IT'S BLACK METAL WITH BIG SYNTHS GIMME. Thanks to that sort of attitude, in the 21st century you can hardly walk ten feet without tripping over a black metal band that polishes over their faults with fancy-pants crap. You get bands writing these completely hackneyed and uninspired black metal albums and then going into professional studios and spending hundreds of dollars to get everything recorded and mixed. The fuck is the point of that, other than to generate some cheap and contrived illusion of the music being worth more than it is at face value? Oh, wait, it's because that's what people actually want to listen to nowadays. Thanks, Emperor.