Disposable Heroes: Emperor's "In the Nightside Eclipse"

Nothing's more annoying than the immoral majority telling you how essential, transcendent and (huh-huh) seminal a particular extreme album is, when you know that it's overrated as fuck. Hence, our OCCASIONAL Wednesday morning column, "Disposable Heroes," in which one brave soul sails against the current to inform all you clones why you can't spell classic without "ass." In other words, it's just a minority opinion, so don't get your pussydiaper in a bunch. Or do. This week, Kevin Stewart-Panko continues his Sherman-esque march through our HOF, torching Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse. One point that has continually come up over the years of my writing about metal pertains to the issue of handing out negative reviews. Do bands that have been on the KSP carving block get all pissy and whiny and call for my head? The answer is yes and no. Do I have personal relationships with bands I’ve ripped on? The answer is yes and no. What is it like having to rip on bands featuring people I know or are friends with? Obviously, that’s not a question that can be answered with a yes or no, but it is a topic that rears its goofy head once in a while.

Maybe I’m a very good compartmentalizer, or simply a shitty friend, but worrying about offering an honest opinion about someone’s music in any circumstance or situation has never really been an issue for me. I may ease up on the brutality or fanboy gushing when appropriate, but I just call ‘em like I see ‘em. I’m not the sort of person who equates the quality of your music with how decent or shitty a human being you are. As a former musician/band asshole myself, I can say it goes both ways. Example: an EP my former band released sometime in the '90s got absolutely pasted by Ryan from Hanging Like a Hex ‘zine. We’re talking one or maybe zero out of whatever reviews were rated out of. However, the review was well-written and rather humorous, so I got in touch with Hex to tell him so, and we’ve remained in touch on and off ever since. Why am I telling you any of this? Why do I tell you anything? I don’t fucking know. Apparently, there’s a point somewhere in there; something about personal relationships not getting in the way of opinions in my retarded world. I have great friends in great and not-so-great bands. As far those from the latter category are concerned, I’m only one person who thinks they suck. Why should they care? I wouldn’t make hot monkey love to them even if I thought they were awesome. But there are people who will, I tell them. Go make friends with those people who would make hot monkey love to you. Why worry about what I think?

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Which brings us to Emperor and one Mr. Tomas Thormodsæter Haugen. You probably know him better as Samoth. Actually, so do I, but I also know him as the dude married to a friend of mine who, before she moved to her idyllic wedded life in Norway, lived a few short minutes from where I sit at this very moment. The details are boring, but I had an indirect hand in the blissful couple’s initial meeting and a direct hand in at least one subsequent face-to-face rendezvous during what even the most satanic of black metal maniacs would refer to as the courting stage of their relationship. So, even though Samoth and I may not be bosom buddies, we have hung out, he has stretched his spindly frame on one of my futons, my kid probably doesn’t remember being held by the very tall Norwegian when he was a toddler and there was a time ol’ Tommy left a bunch of discarded cigarette butts on my front porch after which I joked I was either going to sell them on eBay or extract the DNA and clone him so as to create the ultimate black metal boy band that I would manage to fame and fortune. Shut the fuck up! This isn’t about name-dropping! Seriously! I’m trying to make a point here! That point being, despite Samoth being a pretty awesome dude, Emperor aren’t as awesome. Granted, Prometheus, the last album they (or Ihshan) did wasn’t all terrible, and I did have a greater appreciation for their craft after seeing them put on an enjoyable live show at one point in the late '90s, but man, this band leaves me hanging higher than a convicted old west cattle rustler. And there’s no better example than In the Nightside Eclipse.

OK, I don’t completely have my head in the sand. I know this album is considered a black metal touchstone, but I don’t get it. This probably speaks to my general dislike of whatever comes out of the starting blocks with :"troo kvlt" written all over its corpsepainted ball sack more than anything, but after all of Norwegian black metal’s church burning, murder and mayhem, I always expected the resultant music to drip with acrimony, menace and pure skullfucking hatred. Most of it didn’t, especially In the Nightside Eclipse, because the album always seemed more like a glittery and chintzy exposition of how many bells and whistles could be layered onto a series of songs during the mixing process instead of the dark and terrifying slice of bombast it’s supposed to be - or I assumed it would be.

It starts with the keyboards being super high in the mix. If you’re looking to scare people into believing you’re a satanic pagan Viking or some shit, or even a killer metal band, having the twinkling of pseudo-classical synths, pianos and symphonic gobbledygook trample over the screaming axes of fury isn’t the way to go about that. Prime example, “Into the Infinity of Thoughts.” The main riff to this song is actually pretty f’n awesome. All the shit that gets dumped on it, not so much, and if anything drains the impact of a killer riff, it’s neutering that killer riff with no-so-killer crap. “Cosmic Keys to My Creations and Times” has a some very solid riffs and sequences – though when you listen closely, you can hear a lot of borrowed Slayer, Metallica and NWOBHM – but again, more symphonic strata that’s supposed to be majestic or whatever gets thrown all over everything like an unnecessary layer of Italian sausage on an already artery-clogging meat lovers pizza. That some of the classically-inspired parts sound like a warped calliope from a state fair in rural Indiana doesn’t help their cause.

My next bone of contention is the drumming of Bård “Faust" Eithun. His playing on Nightside is as one-dimensional as the Sunday comics page. It sounds like the mandate he was given by Ihsahn and Samoth was to select one tempo at the start of the song and truck along at that pace for the entire length, and if he did switch tempos, well, remember what happened to Euronymous? For the majority of these nine songs (though Bathory and Mercyful Fate covers are included in the reissue), there’s no flair, little variation on a rhythmic theme and even less that draws my attention. The goal of this repetitive style is supposedly to create a hypnotic effect that draws the listener in, but what usually happens, in my case anyway, is that the mind wanders, concentration is lost and attention goes out the window. Maybe I don’t have the mental fortitude to be a black metal fan, but a song like “The Burning Shadows of Silence” trucks along with no apparent rhyme or reason with the same hop-skipping riff and drums blasting for what seems like an ice age, offering no dynamics or context. It’s like the musical equivalent of trying to have a conversation with a stoic mute. And when Emperor attempts to vary things up and muck around with different tempos, like in “Beyond the Great Vast Forest,” “The Majesty of the Nightsky” and “I Am the Black Wizards,” the hanging chords and swelling keys of the slowed down sections are intolerably empty-sounding, with the “moshy” part in the latter being achingly sloppy and clumsy.

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This brings us to the vocals. Yes, that screech that is part-demonic banshee, part-Mustaine snarl is a vocal chord-shredding style that caught on like wildfire everywhere panda make-up and capes were available for rent or purchase from local costume shops. However, most of the time it sounds not so much like singing as it does someone spouting off constipation-addled conversational interjections. There seems to be very little thought to Ihshan’s vocal phrasing, with his voice buried amongst the wall of noise and treated like a shitty afterthought.

“Inno a Satana” sounds like an attempt to write some single-note technicality a la Watchtower or Coroner, but a Shaq-sized air ball was thrown up instead as the layers of diverging guitars, vocal scowling, operatic moaning, keyboards and production that makes the album sound like it’s being listened to at the end of a marble hallway, feel like someone trying to cram 11 pounds of miscellany into a one-pound bag. Too much, too little, too late.

So, there you have it; my dissection of one of black metal’s sacred lambs. And, yes, it’s been a long, long while since the Haugen family and I have crossed paths, but in case you’re wondering, the next time I see him, I’ll be sure to mention all of the above points concerning my opinion of Nightside. Again.

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