Emperor - Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk (1997)Release ID: 313
A swirling labyrinth of intense black metal, Anthems is one of the elite metal albums.
After the Reverence teaser EP demonstrated that Emperor had overcome their line-up issues and formed a devastating new unit (Ihsahn, Samoth, Alver and Trym), I was very impatient to see what these Norwegians were about to let loose. I figured whatever the end result, it would undoubtedly be highly ambitious, yet I was not prepared for just how intense Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk would turn out to be. In the Nightside Eclipse was a brilliant album, but its symphonic black metal seems like easy listening compared to this beast. Emperor pulled out all stops for Anthems by cranking the production up to extraordinary levels, with the symphonic aspect fleshing out massive metal compositions. I have to admit that the first couple of times I experienced this album, the sheer chaos and complexity of it all was just too much to take in. I knew it was something incredible immediately, and that the apparent chaos was somehow masterfully controlled, but with all the aspects of the band intertwining at such high velocity and with such abrasiveness, my poor brain was just struggling to keep up. Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk is an extremely loud album that wants to make your ears bleed, but if you don’t mind the loss of blood, there’s immense masochistic pleasure to be experienced here.
A major point of discussion for the album has always been the production. In theory, it may not sound that unusual to give each instrument exactly the same volume in the mix, but in reality that can result in an impenetrable wall of noise. Emperor was very lucky to get away with it here and at times I’m not sure they really should have. The guitars, drums, keyboards and vocals are all extremely loud and clear, but given that drums in general are far more dominating as an instrument in general, they threaten to suffocate the whole recording throughout. There are two main reasons why this doesn’t stop Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk from being critically lauded as one of the most important black metal releases ever recorded. Firstly, Trym’s drumming performance is outstanding! His blasting is ferocious and he keeps things varied and intense for the entire running time. Secondly, black metal never demanded that all instruments be audible at all times. There’s always something new and impressive jumping out of the production, giving the listener multitudes of things to grab hold of. Majestic keyboards, kick ass riffs and Ihsahn’s vicious vocals all fight for attention resulting in a blissful labyrinth of glorious darkness. This may sound frustrating on paper but each time you listen to the album it will make more and more sense until the collective genius becomes apparent.
Ihsahn’s vocals are vastly different to the high pitched shrieks found on In the Nightside Eclipse. His technique is now much lower and more venomous, but he also adds clean vocals regularly to good effect. His clean style can sound a bit awkward and pretentious at times, but they fit nicely enough within the tone of the music. His performance on With Strength I Burn in particular makes for an album highlight. The guitar techniques are also startlingly different to the debut with very few riffs going for the hypnotic black metal effect. Ihsahn and Samoth instead produce a constant flow of time changes and a general level of complexity not normally associated with black metal. There are quite a few early signs of the progressive take that Emperor would utilise on later albums, but Anthems remains firmly grounded in black metal. The keyboards still consist mostly of choir-like gothic backdrops, but there’s an extra level of classical sophistication which was expected after the Opus a Satana instrumental on Reverence. Ensorcelled by Khaos is a good example of this increase, with the symphonic aspect combining beautifully with the bass for a seriously grand outcome. You may have noticed that this is the first time I’ve mentioned the word bass. That’s because poor Alver got left behind in the cacophony of sound. Undoubtedly a shame, but he does raise his hand temporarily during the album’s less intense sections.
Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk starts off calmly enough with the Alsvartr (The Oath) intro building up magnificently. The transition into the complete savagery of Ye Entrancemperium has to be one of the most exciting moments in metal, and just when you’re thinking how brutal it all is, they step it up further with Trym launching into violent blast beats and Samoth and Ihsahn unleashing an awesomely killer riff. The infamous Euronymous gets credit for the opening riff which he wrote for an unnamed Mayhem song, but I’m fairly sure it would have sounded nothing like it does in the hands of Emperor. Other highlights include the still amazing Loss of Curse and Reverence and the absolutely monstrous With Strength I Burn, the latter which showcases all the elements that make this period Emperor so impressive in one 8 minute epic. Special mention should also go to closing instrumental The Wanderer. While the majority of versions of the album now come with the Reverence EP tacked on the end, I can’t help feeling that this negates the power of The Wanderer as a closing track. After the complex maelstrom that comes before it, it’s soothing yet haunting melodies are the perfect come down. Of course you’ll want to get another fix before too long, because Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk is an incredible experience by one of black metal’s elite bands.
Emperor is known as the band that pioneered symphonic black metal and a once forbidden aspect adding keyboards to black metal, with their 1994 debut In the Nightside Eclipse. I've actually checked out that album a few years ago, but backed out from there, because I wasn't ready to go down that route, and all members of the band who recorded that album except Ihsahn were arrested and jailed for murder, assault, arson, etc. So let's go 3 years later (both the past and present) to their second album!
Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk continues to shape up the band's symphonic black metal. Here the songs are more anthemic and the keyboards have much more prominence instead of being left in the background. With synthesized string crescendos and mystical lyrical themes, the vibe is more medieval than satanic. Also to add into the sound of extreme chaos, the imprisoned murderer drummer Faust was replaced with the guy from Enslaved's Frost, Trym. His crazy blast-beat drumming was what made the first two Enslaved albums stand out in pummeling fury with his super strength, and he has encouraged other extreme metal drummers to break the ground to the Earth's core.
"Alsvartr (The Oath)" is the album's long intro. The nocturnal atmosphere slowly builds until reaching its epic climax in the time for the next track... "Ye Entrancemperium" begins the devastating blackening earthquake. The relentless drumming barely gives out, staying as a fast stampede and only slowing down when necessary before ending the song in a total bang. "Thus Spake the Nightspirit" has more chaotic speed and technical riffing from the guitar duo of Ihsahn and Samoth, and their tremendous writing shows their true genius. Dissonant harmonies and tremolos add more to the sound that's already cinematic as it is. The epic fury shows the direction the band wanted to take, heading for glory while having some of their earlier brutality.
"Ensorcelled by Khaos" displays Trym's blast-beat chaos with so much heaviness that I'm surprised his snare never broke at all during recording. However, this constant raging stream can be a bit repetitive and get old fast. As much as I enjoy this speedy chaos, it's not as essential as everything else in the instrumentation. Trym and Hellhammer are two amazing drummers, but... Yeah, we get it! You can drum like a madman. Still they're true forces of chaos in the genre. "The Loss and Curse of Reverence" has more of the epic intensity. Wonderful classic sound there! Though the lyrics are a bit cheesy, especially in the spoken passage.
"The Acclamation of Bonds" resembles their debut the most, in which the bass, drums, and guitars pick up furious speed. The guitars still stay behind the keyboards for its needed atmosphere. "With Strength I Burn" is the perfect way to summarize symphonic black metal here. The keyboards stick around until the end, and the lyrics have grand mystical narrative. Ihsahn's clean singing sounds the best here. "The Wanderer" is a short inspiring outro with guitars and keyboards expanding in a desolate soundscape.
Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk may be different from their debut, but it's an essential part of the band's evolution that would continue into their next two albums. Apart from a bit of repetition and cheesiness, this is epic furious symphonic black metal that any of the more extreme metalheads should listen to!
Favorites: "Ye Entrancemperium", "Thus Spake the Nightspirit", "The Loss and Curse of Reverence", "With Strength I Burn"
Much like the debut, Anthems is a crowning achievement of Symphonic Black Metal. Incredibly talented musicians play extreme music with much more competence and ability than most Black Metal players, and the compositions are complex and layered. Every instrument is ever busy, a cacophony of epic darkness assaulting the listener with nonstop force. This thing is dense with complex arrangements, and despite all instruments staying at overdrive territory much of the time, the songs are written well (and production is strong too) so that no piece overpowers the other.
All of the main songs here are fantastic. Never a wasted moment with these compositions, full of unique riffing and deliciously icy keys, ominous choirs, and an insane rhythm section. The vocalist commands presence as well – really getting into some crazed dark fantasy persona in some of these tracks. We get classic Black Metal shrieks, but also some good operatic, layered cleans.
The non-Metal/filler tracks are a weakness. The intro is an offensive example that goes on almost 4 and a half minutes before letting us get to the meat, and the outro is good, but still the weakest real track to end on. Never understood why bands insisted on sandwiching albums between tracks like these. Still a fantastic album, but it hurts the listening experience.
Emperor's debut, In the Nightside Eclipse is a classic for many reasons, notably all of the things that made it so unique for its time. Emperor created the symphonic black metal genre by committing a taboo worse than human transmutation, killing your parents or putting pineapple on pizza: synths in black metal. Cue Carmax commercial ending. But because the group took it seriously by using a thin layer throughout the whole with a more gothic and cinematic approach than anything, as well as going head-to-head with some astounding riffs and melodies, Nightside Eclipse became an instant classic.
What we have here is a thematic improvement on every aspect of Nightside. The elements that comprise Nightside are a heavily present but thin layer of dungeon synths, melo-traditional behavior and clean production. On Welkins, everything here is not only improved, but refined like a purified crystal, now with some or another power of night, darkness, yadda yadda. The album is one of those that goes through a plethora of influences ranging from some of the most blatantly gothic synth the genre has, newly found progressive styles, and the original genre components of Nightside, all purified... but like Butcher the Weak, it recycles the same influences throughout more than half of these songs. This is because of the final element of Nightside: the shifting riffs and layouts. This is what united the identities of Nightside as one whole, and it largely does the same here. But I'll be damned if I didn't honestly say that each melody and riff wasn't great if not incredible. I gave Butcher the Weak five-stars for that behavior because it worked, and this 40-minute maelstrom of gothic evil lasts without a real blemish throughout its 40 minutes. I mean, technically each song is predictable when you think about it: heavy start, several symphonic riffs, abrupt ending. But each song is pulled off in an almost beautiful manner.
There is dirty, edgy and speed-based metal like Darkthrone or Immortal which knows how to amaze, and then there's the orchestral presence of Emperor, especially on Welkins, where the album doesn't simply "emit demonic energy: it glows black and violet behind its thickly green album cover, never oozing or dripping, just glowing. The definition of the album is majesty, and is a rare example of me giving an album with "technically" samey behavior on a song-to-song basis five stars. The finest tuned axample of symphonic black metal I can think of, Welkins is a rare breed by a band all about crafting a different kind of breed each album. All of these songs amaze with the various influences, and that shows something: Emperor can actually get away with the behavior that leads many bands to write the same song over and over again, because Emperor still had new rhythmic and melodic tricks up their sleeves.
An Unfortunately Deferred Experience
Emperor is a name i've known for a long time in the Black Metal scene. I even absolutely love Ihashn's solo project. Then why has it been until now to fully check out Emperor's stuff? No idea, but i'm glad that i'm doing this challenge to go through albums I probably would have never listened to. This album is probably perfect, and I have listened to it non-stop over the last week and enjoy every minute of it. This also being 2020, it definitely holds up. Black metal has a way of doing that since it's in a world of it's own.
Anthems to the Welking at Dusk just fits everywhere. Listened to it driving, sleeping, walking around and just everywhere in the background. Doesn't work the best as just plain background music since it can suck me in and then I forget what I'm doing or I forget what I'm listening to and a softer more ambient part finishes into a loud screeching part and i'm scared a bit. Both not exactly negatives. First album of my challenge I really want to give a 5* but I have just started listening to it and may just retroactively go up later.
This is what I feel like Black Metal should be. I love the symphonic elements, and the dark spooky vibes were just pure bliss. I can't even come up with imagery for this album, but I still enjoy it. Some times it feels spacey, some times cold, some video game soundtrack, almost always a sci-fi/horror vibe. Looking forward to hearing more of this.
As it turns out, doing these album reviews not only puts me onto new records that I have never gotten around to listening to but also it seems it is highlighting former favourites that aren't perhaps ageing as well. Anthems... falls into the latter unfortunately. For the first time today, I noticed how confusing the whole experience of the album was. All of sudden the sweeping keys and the grandiose swagger of the symphonic elements seemed hurriedly put together. The once well-formed maelstrom of sound came across as being more a wall of noise nowadays.
Maybe my ageing brain is the part of the equation that is all out of fluster here, musical tastes do change after all over time. But, as per my review of Dimmu Borgir's Enthrone Darkness Triumphant there really is a sense of their being an utter rejection of the concepts and notions of coupling poise and calm with direct and driving pace to give a more clear vision of what the direction an album is taking.
With more traditional BM the journey is much easier of course. The raw, lo-fi ethics of the music lends itself well to repetition and sustained attack. When Anthems... applies the same ethos with symphonic elements to boot it loses sight of the need to temper one or the other. It is like a pack of racehorses, neck and neck for the whole race, resulting in no clear winner. Imagine a whole day at the races where every race was like that, where nothing was clearly putting daylight between itself and the rest of the pack. This is how the track listing feels to me now as I listen back. Everything kind of becomes one. Just a singular charging mass that allows nothing to really standout or for any leader position to change hands over the course of what soon becomes a slog.