When I was a kid, my dad had a Steely Dan box set that I thought was the absolute tits. It came in a long, cardboard box and contained, wait for it...FOUR compact discs that featured no less than THREE exclusive tracks, with a booklet of lyrics and photos to boot! It seems that in the early '90s, all you needed to blow minds was a remastered version of "Bodhisattva" and some grainy photos of Walter Becker.
My, how times have changed. Today's box sets are mammoth creations that often encompass decades of recorded material and feature state-of-the-art packaging with one-of-a-kind extras. Case in point, Blood Music's recently completed, "are you fucking kidding me" box set, Emperor: The Complete Works: 24 LPs and one 7-inch; a 92-page, full-color book; and a metric assload of special features. When it comes to heavy metal collectibles, it doesn't get much bigger than this mutha. We caught up with label mastermind J to talk about the logistics of taking this monolith from concept to reality.
The Emperor box set is 24 LPs and an additional 7-inch, which makes it the largest vinyl box set in extreme metal history. Talk us through the process of this monumental project. When did you start talking to the band about making this happen? How long did it take to put everything together?
To start from the top: the label's first release was the maudlin of the Well 4xLP + 7-inch box set. I wanted to own their material on vinyl and went digging for their rights, and they were parked at a small label out of the U.S. that didn’t have enough money to complete the project. So, I agreed to chip in half in exchange for learning the early ropes of how to release a record.
The release was a massive undertaking for a startup label, but it sold out during pre-orders, and I was addicted. I went looking for rights of other bands to compile and soon happened upon the Strapping Young Lad catalog. That took a year-and-a-half and every bit of energy I could muster to build a 7xLP + 7-inch + book box set. It was like directing my first feature film, and the SYL set had the potential to kill the label five times over. During the preparation of the SYL set, the rights had already been locked for a Moonsorrow 14xLP box set, and that was underway by the time the SYL set was put up for sale. You can see where this is going…
I made a short list of bands I wanted to build a box for after Moonsorrow, and Emperor was on it. Let me just preface by saying that Emperor is (to me) basically the greatest band in all of metal history. And I wanted to push the limits of what was possible. I made an offer to Candlelight for the rights. I also sent an email to the guys in the band and gave them my basic vision. The band said yes. Candlelight said yes.
That waiting period between hearing “yes” and the time it takes to have signed contracts in front of you is an absolute killer. You’re never sure what’s going to happen—is the guy who said “yes” going to accidentally fall out of an airplane and his replacement hates box sets?
When I originally pitched it, the idea was to make a collection of all officially released works by Emperor, properly remastered, in a collection fit to exist in a museum. I didn’t have anything more specific in mind than that. But once the deal was signed, I started building it conceptually with the band—first through phone calls with Samoth and then a face-to-face meeting with Ihsahn. This was nearly three years ago, and it has taken literally that long to put this together. It has been a logistical nightmare to compile everything into a unit that makes logical sense. I just looked through my email box and see almost 500 emails between myself and the band.
What’s your personal history with Emperor’s music? What makes them such a special band in heavy metal history?
Like so many others, Emperor was the black metal band that “turned me.” I was more into hardcore as a teenager, and I went to meet some hardcore kids far across the continent. When they picked me up at the airport, they were driving this shitty van and blasting Emperor. I was caught between laughing hysterically and being intensely attracted to it. I wrote them off as ridiculous, but within a month, curiosity got the better of me and I went out and bought everything Emperor had released to date. It was a strange magnetism that led to it becoming the soundtrack for 3am drives through the countryside.
The thing that makes Emperor unique is the thing that also pisses off most purists: they made black metal palatable. They were probably the first band within the scene to cross over and gain attention from music fans who previously had no interest in the sound of black metal. Not just because of the tabloids but because of the musicality—due to the complexity of the arrangements, the ferocity of the music and the accessibility of the production.
They are also far and away one of the most forward-thinking black metal bands in history. They could have easily ridden the same formula and milked the hell out of it for decades. Instead, they perfected the art of second wave black metal from the get go, modified it into something eerier than ever before and left it there for other bands to mimic. Then completely refined the art of black metal production, arrangement and majesty—more material for other bands to mimic. Then they added even more classic heavy metal and death metal influences (which was pretty taboo at the time)—more material for bands to mimic. Then they added heavy progressive and serious orchestral arrangements before just wrapping it up and saying they’re done.
Every release is intense in vision and a massive “fuck you” to those who see subgenre as existing inside a rigid box. They left a perfect legacy that was always two steps ahead, and they knew when to start and when to quit. I’m a picky bastard, but to me there is not a wrong note in their discography. The perfect material to compile.
Early on, it became my concept to release the material at 45-RPM, making it the first “audiophile” style box set within the extreme metal scene. This has been extremely controversial, as it ballooned the release to a massive 24xLP + 7-inch + book affair that (pushing things to the limits) elevated costs to 700 EUR retail. This devotion was paying homage to the kind of beautiful box sets that are usually reserved for jazz and blues aficionados.
As far as I am aware, none of the band’s other re-releases have been properly remastered for vinyl, which is what makes this release really significant. Sadly and honestly, over the years, I just don’t think a lot of care has been put into making the band’s music available in a quality format for listening.
This is a huge undertaking for any label, but especially for Blood Music since it’s a one-man operation with several other releases to tend to. Looking back on the process, what was the most challenging aspect of putting together the box set?
So much about this box was a death sentence. First of all, to build a proper collection like this, the design should be unified across all titles. This means a complete re-imagining of the packaging and presentation of each individual album, in conjunction with an overall theme that fits within the same universe as everything within the collection. All the while, the spirit of the band should be kept intact with enough original pieces of art in high quality to keep it identifiable and worth preserving.
The other two large box sets I’ve released contained completely new cover artwork for each album, based on their original designs. And that was the go-to idea here. But, test after test was run with great artists, and performance anxiety must’ve taken hold because no one was capturing the spirit of the band. Every single piece was either rejected by the band or myself, and this went on for months and months.
During this process, I came up with a design concept out of frustration. It dawned on me that it actually would work, and I told the band that maybe I should design it. That was the greatest death sentence of all. In a desperate attempt to get the project going forward, I convinced the band I could do it and mocked up an interchangeable die-cut roman numeral system for them to see. It was the only thing we all agreed upon!
So, on this specific set, I was in charge of re-designing everything, which made things much more involving than anything I’ve worked on before. I had to do this in and around finishing the Strapping Young Lad box, the Moonsorrow box, and a ton of other album releases, as the label was continually growing during this time.
Funnily enough, one of the most difficult things to figure out was how to make the die-cut for “IX Equilibrium” be roman numeral IX on the front of the jacket. I had to spend months on that until something finally clicked. Additionally, I had to comb every single piece of audio I could find on the band to determine what I thought would work, which version(s) were significant enough to include, and then pitch the band on a track list. We went back and forth for months until a track list was set.
Then, I hired a very professional mastering engineer to take over the audio reigns. He worked away quietly for many months and eventually turned in the vinyl masters. When I listened, I thought they sounded very wrong. I let him know, but he disagreed with me, said it was fine and told me to send them in for cutting. Cautiously, I sent just one album in for cutting, and it sounded awful to me. Overly neutral, no presence, ferocity gone, majesty non-existent. This wasn’t Emperor.
Already more than a year into the production, I had to fire him and start over again. The entire box set was remastered from scratch with a new engineer. It took many more months of working closely with him on every single record to get them to how they should sound.
The logistics nearly killed me, and I threw in the towel so many times, mentally and emotionally. I’m amazed and proud of myself for completing it. This was the most difficult project I’ve ever attempted. It has definitely lived up to its namesake of being the monolith. Shipping the box sets out will be the final struggle.
The box set comes with some pretty sweet special features, like autographed lyric sheets, a 92-page book and a Wrath of the Tyrant cassette. How did you decide which special features would be included? Did the band have any input?
Oddly enough, one of the toughest things to figure out in these box sets is what would make for attractive extras. Combing through all the band’s material took a lot of time, and that meant finding alternate versions of releases with tracks added or removed or truncated. It also meant looking at remastered versions, original versions and even versions marked as remastered that clearly weren’t.
Wrath of the Tyrant was released in so many versions, as it was a demo that was originally hand-dubbed and released by teenagers. I had the cassette audio in my possession, but for vinyl, the band wanted to release something a bit closer to the original vinyl release. So, that was a no-brainer. I pitched them on doing a re-release of the original cassette, which hadn’t been done since the band self-released it in 1992. I also pitched the band on releasing another alternate rehearsal on cassette, but it was shot down. They thought the “Wrath” tape was enough.
In my search, I also discovered a bunch of audio the band didn’t know existed and dug up the unreleased “Akkerhaugen Tapes” tracks from old tape trades and pitched the band on them. After some arm-twisting, they agreed. The same went for the two early cover tracks—“Call from the Grave” and “The Usurper”—that are being officially published for the first time in the bonus 3xLP section. The band themselves offered the unreleased “Rehearsal 1992” LP from old tapes they had.
The lyrics sheet was Samoth’s idea, and autographing it was my idea on top. A slipmat was also something that really interested the band—they’ve had their logo on a lot of merch, but never a slipmat. The book was a collaborative idea. We came up with it together, and Samoth sent me tons of original photos through the mail. It was unbelievable to handle those originals in person. From that, one of the posters was his idea, and the other two were mine.
The main idea for bonus material should be to have something really worth owning that won’t be there just to take up space, flying around inside the box for no reason. Things like a band lanyard or anything that’s been done to death serves no real interesting purpose. I’m really satisfied with the quality of extras we managed to get in there.
Now that the Emperor box set is available for purchase, do you think you’ll ever take on a similarly sized project in the future? Are there any bands that you simply couldn’t pass up, or is the amount of work just too unrealistic?
One should never say “never” in writing…but I will never create a box set of this size again. The amount of effort that went into the Emperor project was too great; I don’t think I could muster this kind of stamina in the future. There were so many times during the process that I was sure I was going to quit, but luckily something kept telling me to push on.
Part of the initial ideology was that Emperor has been such a monumental band that I thought they deserved a spot at the top of the pile. Something monolithic to mark their importance within extreme metal. As I’ve mentioned publicly, the design reference I used was the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I have one other box set that has been in discussions for more than a year, but it’s something completely different, and also much smaller. I won’t attempt anything over 10xLP again, but even that large…I doubt it. I’m trying to focus more on releasing new albums by artists instead of reissues now.
Which feature of the Emperor box set are you most excited for people to have? Which feature will you be most proud of in your own collection?
I can’t wait for people to hear the sounds. I compared between various Emperor vinyl versions along the way. With test pressings alone, I’m finally satisfied to own the complete Emperor works in the ways they were actually meant to be heard.
Beyond that, I can’t wait to see how the entire thing compiles visually. It’s one thing to prepare everything on screen, but experiencing it in the third dimension is another matter entirely. I’m mostly excited for myself and others to have what (hopefully) is a major part of metal history. Mainly, I really want to see photos of where people put their box sets. It’s massive. I’m still trying to figure out where I’m going to put my personal copies of it.
Also, a museum has obtained a copy of the box set for their permanent collection (as well as the National Library of Norway). As the original idea was to have a museum-quality collection of Emperor’s works, I’m definitely satisfied to have achieved that goal in full.
Emperor: The Complete Works is set to ship in mid-2016. You can order here.