Review Summary: Seizing the throne of symphonic black metal
Among the number of symphonic black metal firsts that Emperor logged on their debut LP In the Nightside Eclipse
, perhaps the most important is how they managed to so masterfully weld together a seamless bead of harsh second wave black metal and massive keyboards. Symphonic black metal nowadays hardly represents the brand fashioned by Emperor here on their seminal 1994 release – a record that arguably created the sub-genre. It is symphonic black metal that is appealing even to those who normally detest keyboards in this kind of music, simply because it does not make them the end-all-be-all of the record’s sound. Instead, Ihsahn and company revealed that their core focus was a very volatile take on the Norwegian scene at the time – a scene that was just emerging into maturity from the fledgling second wave years of the early 1990’s. What materialized was a defining record that proved black metal to be capable of much more than just one narrow-focused set of criteria that defined what a black metal record was. Like Ulver did with the folk-laced Bergtatt
, Emperor took the genre in a direction now seen as a natural extension of black metal’s sphere of influence.
It is easy to look at all of this in retrospect, because over 20 years later there is little doubt that In the Nightside Eclipse
symphonic black metal record that everyone turns to when they reference the genre, but looking at it amidst its more straightforward Norwegian contemporaries at the time it is still simple to point at In the Nightside Eclipse
as the odd man out. Emperor had some sort of vision when they went to write the swirling riffs of “Into the Infinity of Thoughts” and decided to give keyboards a majority stake in the atmospheric stock. It was a bold choice given the fact that keyboards can be an overpowering influence even when paired next to the abrasiveness of black metal, but it was a choice that proved to be more complementary rather than opposing. This is in large part due to the vision and talent of Ihsahn in his compositions, with his uncanny ear for balance within the music so that the two heavyweights in the room don’t start brawling with each other. Letting the guitars do the heavy work in manufacturing an overtly raw base allows the “black metal” part of “symphonic black metal” to not be pushed aside by the genre’s leading namesake. Indeed, the symphonies woven by the heavy keyboard usage lend a mystical aura to the record, one that clashes brilliantly with the sinister underpinnings of the blasting drums and wailing shrieks.
In the Nightside Eclipse
is a masterwork because of this compositional balance. It allows the keys to be overbearing without stealing the show – an attribute that the lack of which has since proven to be the downfall of countless symphonic black metal acts. This is still, at its core, a harsh, obscenely heavy record, and one only needs to place themselves in the maelstrom of tracks like “I Am the Black Wizards” to realize there is more than just symphonies at work here. Sure, the keys have their moments in “Cosmic Keys to My Creations & Times”, but it is never a tiresome or overtly cheesy affair. In the Nightside Eclipse
is without question a serious black metal record because it was approached from a serious point of view, rather than from a perspective that is open or even welcoming to allowing free reign of every symphony within a thousand miles to join the party at the same time. For that, the atmosphere Emperor crafted here is quite simply without equal.
Taking it from a point of view that has allowed the record to age for two decades, In the Nightside Eclipse
appears an even more worthy candidate for the greatest black metal album to come out of Norway at the time. It is pure evil in a way that many black metal bands would only dream of being, and it achieves that through a very clear and unique set of intentions along with the ability to realize them from a compositional point of view. Still, despite the relative roundness of the guitar production that muffles many of the more distinctive riffs, it gives the guitars just enough leeway to craft a twisted kind of melody that carries itself throughout the record’s runtime. It is not as creatively suffocating a mix as it may at first appear to be, because beneath the loudness of the drums and eerie keyboard swells there is ample room to carve an adequate support structure. There are eyes within the eight storms here, and within them fleeting moments of pure ambiance charge the atmospheric pressure of the record to the point where it carries sufficient heft to be able to stand up to the raging cataclysm that the heaviness of the record conjures. At no point does one given aspect of the record seem overshadowed or overpowered by another, because there is ample room given for every piece to flourish.
There is little in the way of criticism to oppose the tremendous amount of praise and respect In the Nightside Eclipse
has garnered over the years, simply because this album lives up to the reputation it has most definitely earned. The record proves to be a battleground between the keyboards and guitars, with neither side showing any signs of weakness as they massacre each other for the benefit of the album’s ridiculously lofty atmosphere. Emperor managed to pen a masterpiece here, and with it also managed to spring symphonic black metal to the forefront of the wider black metal genre as an approach that does in fact have the ability to stand up on its own for an entire album. Even now, the spellbinding aura cast by In the Nightside Eclipse
is so vivid and palpable that it seems unlikely that it will ever be supplanted on the highest throne of the symphonic black metal world.