Reviews: Emperor In the Nightside Eclipse

Album’s best of lists rarely include classical music. That’s not because classical music is downrated; quite the opposite. It’s because classical music is seen as off in an analytical and qualitative space of its own—its catalog too extensive, too critically validated, and too powerful for popular music critics and aficionados to fuck with.

A couple of jazz albums on your list don’t necessarily make you question the reasoning which puts the three Beatles albums in the top ten. But if you’ve got Mozart at number 170, you start to raise uncomfortable doubts. Do you really think Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones are better than the entire recorded catalog of Brahms and Bach and Stravinsky? That’s a mighty cultural edifice poised to fall upon you, there.

If there’s one bulky, teetering edifice bulkier and teetering than all the other weighty, imposing obelisks in the classical Stonehenge, it’s Beethoven’s 9th. The 76-minute capstone to Beethoven’s career is a quintessence of ostentatious bombast—and nowhere more so than in Wilhelm Furtwängler’s famous final performance at the Lucerne festival in 1954. The Berlin Philharmonic live is a powerhouse, and the mild mud of the mono recording actually increases the sense of rolling vastness, as if the thunderous tumult cannot be contained by mere mortal microphones.

Nor for that matter can it be constrained by best of lists. There are not many pieces of music that so nakedly announce themselves as Great Art, prepared to bludgeon you into reverence. From the initial orchestral swell of the first movement, which crescendos in a flurry of martial brass and percussion, the symphony demands you contemplate awesomeness—thunderstorms, waves crashing, great armies moving upon broken fields. Even the swift second movement scherzo has a lumbering inevitability, like quick-stepping elephants, with passages of light lyricism setting up gigantic blasts of rapturous booming.

And of course the final choral movement is one sky-crashing fanfare after the other, with false-endings so titanically serious it’s hard not to giggle. The impossibly catchy “Ode to Joy” makes a pretense of delicacy when the supple bass Otto Edelmann booms out “Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.” (“Where your gentle wing abides”), but the chorus quickly leaps back in with enough noise to send a thousand doves into tailspins.

The “Ode to Joy” is an ecstatic celebration, but its very bigness gives that ecstasy an ominous edge. Pop, with its less insistent pretensions, tends to present happiness in more accessible form, as personal love or romance—something tailored to a human-sized heart. In the 9 th , though, joy isn’t something you feel, but something outside that rolls in and annihilates you—transcendence via apocalypse.

The individual soloists follow their intertwining lines only to be subsumed in the choral mass, resolving at last into Furtwangler’s driving final crescendo. The last notes feels like all of Western culture bearing down upon you. Which is a little unsettling when you remember Western culture includes the Lucerne performance’s masterful soprano Elizabeth Scwartzkopf, who (unlike Furtwangler) was a member of the Nazi party.

Black metal band Emperor’s debut 1993 album In the Nightside Eclipse makes more explicit European classical music’s tendency to flirt with cosmic horror. Emperor was part of the notoriously violent and politically ugly Norwegian black metal scene; like many of their peers, they declared themselves Satanists, and toyed with a quasi-fascist paganism. Faust, the drummer, was convicted of the murder of a gay man. Lead singer Ihsahn praised the destruction by arson of a historical church, declaring “this symbolic act of anti-Christian war enlightened the night with pagan flames. Heathen barbarism is on the rise. We will bring back the forgotten past of strength, pride, and victory.”

That’s a statement which rivals Beethoven in bombast, and In the Nightside Eclipse often sounds like the ninth gone sour and moldering. Up to the release of the album, Norwegian black metal bands like Burzum and Darkthrone had cultivated intentionally low-fi production, embracing an ugly, scrabbling sound. Emperor, though, added keyboards and sweeping, distant choruses. The result was a foul symphonic grandeur.

The first song on “Into the Infinity of Thoughts,” opens with echoing plainchant slog before the guitar and blastbeats rush in. Like the 9th, the sparse passages provide contrast for the overwhelming assault—they’re empty space to be flooded and filled with violent coercion. “I Am the Black Wizards”—one of the all-time great ridiculous metal titles—is taken at thrash metal pace, the twisted distorted guitar winding its way through quick march rhythms that leer back at their classical roots.

Mightiest am I
But I am not alone in this cosmos of mine
For the black hills consist of black souls
Souls that already died one thousand deaths
Behind the stone walls (of centuries) they breed their black art
Boiling their spells in cauldrons of black gold

“Inno a Satana” is an inverted “Ode to Joy,” with a buried chorus singing virtually inaudible hymns to misery and corruption.

Thou art the Emperor of Darkness
Thou art the Emperor of Darkness
Thou art the king of howling wolves
Thou art the king of howling wolves
Thou hath the power to force any light to wane
Sans mercy
Sans compassion

Clotted guitar chords and Istahn’s gargled shrieks are buried under the pulsing blastbeat drums, until they fall silent and the chorus, processed and wavering, is clearly audible for a measure or two before the song ends, a disturbingly imperfect tribute to a bastard god.

Metal isn’t classical music, but Emperor picks up classical references and grandeur as a deliberate provocation and a threat. In the Nightside Eclipse is music meant to pillage your world and your best of list; it’s a giant summoning of fire and sword upon your human-sized and shivering musical alternatives.

The album is funny, in the way H.P. Lovecraft is funny and in the way Beethoven is funny too; giant totalizing systems intended to explain the world and contain the world are ridiculous in their overreach. But they’re not just ridiculous. They’re also an imposition—a demand to be outside categories or judgment, possessing and filling everything with themselves, whether list or land or heart.

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