A few nights ago, Emperor played a show in Sydney for the very first time. Just let that sink in for a moment. Emperor, one of the most significant bands of the second wave of black metal, came all the way from Norway to perform on Australian soil. Oh, and they played their genre defining classic Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk in full. “Epic” is an overused cliché of a word, but there’s really no other way to describe the experience.
Tasmanian black metal mainstays Ruins were the sole supports, with a slightly rockier and death-influenced take on the genre. Their filthy, and yet beautifully balanced harmonic tone topped with gritty, guttural vocals, they’re the kind of brutal audio assault that pummels your body to a pulp. But the driving drums, deep, dark guitar melodies and demonic vocals are so strangely alluring, you quickly accept the beating and willingly wait for more. By the end of a Ruins show, not unlike their opening slot that evening, you feel like you’ve been dragged across gravel and are all the better for it.
Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk is right up there with Slayer’s Reign in Blood or The Shape of Punk to Come by Refused. It’s an album by a band that had the drive, the skill and the confidence to take a risk and redefine their genre forever. It’s the kind of album you hand someone when they’re doing a crash course in metal, the kind of record that drifts into your mind at least once a year, and still fills your heart with demonic joy even after hundreds of spins over the course of two decades. And Sydney got to hear it live.
An Emperor show has a kind of immediate energy like no other. The air feels electric, people aren’t just excited, they’re astounded that they get to go beyond the records and see Emperor, to feel every blast beat, every scream, every discordant tremolo pulsing through their bodies. Emperor’s all-encompassing, haunting, extreme and yet enthralling art eradicates the outside world, and drags you into their dark fantasy land.
Anthems… is the best example of this. “Ye Entrancemperium” extends its grasp and holds you with a vice-like grip forcing your attention. However, the album doesn’t pull you in, instead, the other hand gentle beckons, inviting your body and soul into the depths of its frost-riddled forest, so you can find the beauty that’s buried within. You’re not alone, there’s 1000 other people with you on the journey, but it still feels somehow unique.
That’s why Emperor is an essential live band. The show suddenly transports you from the isolated experience of listening to a record, into a shared world where the band is taking you on the journey through transformative tracks like "Ensorcelled by Khaos," or the high-flying symphonic tones in "The Loss and Curse of Reverence." The unrelenting horror of Ihsahn’s otherworldly vocals and Samoth’s tearing guitar creates a chaotic mental maelstrom that only lets you rise to the surface when "With Strength I Burn" hits its triumphant clean vocal peak. It’s an album that you need to experience live because only then, can you go on Emperor’s adventure through haunting, ethereal landscapes.
Of course, Emperor’s career doesn’t begin and end with Anthems… As “The Wanderer” drew to a close, to the tune of a roaring crowd, the band leapt into “Curse You All Men!” With that, they began a brief, but brilliant celebration of their legacy, as the Emperor crest emblazoned above a monochrome forest, filled the screen behind them. Though Anthems… electrified the room, “Curse You All Men” set the place ablaze.
Film footage of a ghoulish monochrome forest ebbed and flowed with the music, swirling and distorting to match chaos, then rolling into calming footage of streams and trees when things slowed down. “I Am the Black Wizards” elicited a similar reaction, and yet everyone on stage and off managed to outperform themselves when it was time for the final track.
“Ok Sydney, let’s end this in the traditional way,” Ihsahn said, knowing full well that even though this was Australia’s first Emperor show, the entire room knew exactly what to do.
“Inno a” he screamed! “Satana,” Sydney replied!
“Inno a Satana!”
And in that moment, involvement became involuntary. Winter ensconced the venue, Emperor’s hooks dug deep into Sydney’s flesh as it plunged into darkness, in an amazing moment of black metal unity. It was wonderful, but short lived. The song came to a close and feelings of shock, awe and utter amazement exploded amidst a sea of screams, applause and immediate exhaustion as the adrenaline wore off, and the band said their final farewell.
Emperor is a tight, well-oiled, extremely refined machine, made up of stunning without a hint of pretension. All it takes is one performance to leave an impression, a positive one that will stick with you forever, that attaches new emotions and sensations to their records. It’s hard to say where Sydney wound up when that show came to an end, but Emperor lead everyone to a special space within the warm, dark embrace of a beautiful place that won’t let them leave - and honestly, nobody wants to go home.