They could probably be touring auditoriums and playing somewhere low in the billing on the first stage at Ozzfest by now. Instead, the members of pioneering Norwegian black-metal band Emperor took the high road. When they realized that they were pulling in at least two different directions, aesthetically speaking, after they recorded their fourth and final full-length studio album, Prometheus - The Discipline of Fire & Demise, in 2001, the band broke up.
Frontman and multi-instrumentalist Ihsahn (Vegard Sverre Tveitan, at center in the photo) continued to pursue the path of increasing eclecticism and near-orchestral density that had made each Emperor album richer and more complex than its predecessor. Drummer Trym Torson (Kai Johnny Mosaker, left) and guitarist Samoth (Tomas Thormodsæter Haugen, right), meanwhile, turned to bracing death-metal fundamentalism in a new band, Zyklon -- its name a sanitized version of the fairly obvious, unfortunate rubric employed by a previous Emperor side-project.
Separated, Ihsahn and his former bandmates would continue to make compelling music. But demand for an Emperor reunion has been steady, and this year, the band decided to heed the call. "It’s just a few exclusive shows, and then we go our separate ways," Ihsahn told me in an interview some months ago. "It’s nice to go back and revisit the old days, play the old songs and leave it at that."
Among those few exclusive shows were two dates at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill on Thursday and Friday nights -- the band's second-ever engagement in New York City. Unfortunately if not altogether surprisingly, Emperor's past -- and perhaps its genre's general air of scandal -- exacted a toll. Norway's black-metal scene is infamous for having given rise to all manner of heinous crimes, including murder. (The saga is well documented in Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, a book by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind -- soon to be a feature film.) And some years ago, Samoth was jailed for his participation in a notorious spate of church burnings. His transgression, while obviously serious, seems like an instance of civil disobedience when compared to the far more grave crimes committed by others in this tightly knit scene, including those of a former bandmate. Nevertheless, because of his criminal record, Samoth did not receive clearance for legal entry into America in time for this tour.
If Ihsahn felt pressured by his unintended predominance Friday night, he didn't let it show. The band -- a quartet that included Torson, bassist Odd Tony (a.k.a. Zyklon frontman Secthdaemon) and keyboardist Einar Solberg -- ripped through an opening medley that included the first three tracks from Emperor's debut album, In the Nightside Eclipse. In response, the audience, which had greeted the lurching grind of opener Starkweather with hostile indifference and the monotonous goth balladry of Daylight Dies with respectful enthusiasm, burst into a full-blown mosh frenzy, bodies passed around the pit hand to hand -- a sole female crowd surfer held aloft for an atypically long stretch.
Drawing upon all four of its studio albums (including Prometheus, from which none of the songs had previously been played live), Emperor delivered a relentless set that underscored the consistency of its creative output. While it's true that each of the band's albums was more complex than the one that preceded it, all of the songs played on Friday night underscored Emperor's essential rigor and unpredictability. Torson provided a veritable hurricane of rhythmic patterns, shifting from duple to triple meter every few bars while maintaining a steady double-kick barrage throughout. Solberg's keyboards spawned whooping hunting horns and sweeping strings; he also provided harmonies for Ihsahn's heroic "clean" vocals, while Odd Tony's guttural croak was the counterpart to the frontman's frenetic screech.
As for Ihsahn, he was all things at once: charismatic frontman, versatile vocalist, provider of insect-squiggle guitar solos, unwitting but effective diplomat. All night long, he held the entire audience in the palm of his hand... which he proceeded to clench into a fist, shake silly and ultimately release gently. Gracious to the end, he even deigned to strap on the spiked shoulder pads he wore during the band's glory days for the encore. If there was a drawback, it was simply that the stage at B.B. King's -- a sizeable but simple, no-frills club set -- seemed far too small to serve the expansive sounds of a band whose sounds continue to come off as ambitious, five years past its demise. What Ihsahn might have done with that craggy movable structure commanding center stage at the New York State Theater this week... but I digress.
Set list: Medley: Into the Infinity of Thoughts/The Burning Shadows of Silence/Cosmic Keys to My Creation & Times / Thus Spake the Nightspirit / An Elegy of Icaros / Curse You All Men / With Strength I Burn / Towards the Pantheon / The Majesty of the Nightsky / The Loss and Curse of Reverence / In the Wordless Chamber / Inno a Satana / Opus a Satana, Part 1 // Encore: I Am the Black Wizards / Ye Entrancemperium / Opus a Satana, Part 2
Emperor's show wasn't the only thing I caught this week -- just the only thing I had both the time and the inclination to write about. On Monday night, for instance, emo progenitor Cursive played an incredible show at the Bowery Ballroom... or maybe that's two incredible shows. The first part of the night, which clocked in at almost exactly 45 minutes, included the strongest tracks from the band's essential 2003 album, The Ugly Organ, as well as its long-awaited follow-up, the forthcoming Happy Hollow, plus handful of earlier songs -- after which the band left the stage. I got the distinct sense that primary singer-songwriter Tim Kasher and his bandmates -- which included the horn section required by the new album, as well as a new cello player so that they can continue to perform the earlier stuff -- were playing in a concise set for an upcoming European festival tour. After a 10-minute break, the band came back and played another stretch of worthy also-rans and rarities.
And on Tuesday, I saw Grendel. But honestly, I'd prefer not to talk about that.