After the smoke cleared at Columbine High School, some commentators began working up a list of pop-culture accomplices to the startling murders there. Among the most alarming suspects was "black metal," a variety of Scandinavian hard rock identified with Satanism, paganism, racism and desecration of Christian sites and images. Black-metalists rarely perform their speedy, howling but grandiose music in this country, but the Norwegian group that many call the genre's premier band, Emperor, plays tonight at Jaxx in Springfield.
Black metal has little sway outside Scandinavia, but as he prepares for Emperor's first American tour, singer-songwriter Ihsahn is prepared for questions about the connection between violence and his band's music. "I think it's important for young people to have rebellion," he says, sounding less like a high priest of chaos than a high school guidance counselor. "And I know that many musicians take advantage of that. I suppose many musicians have a very bad influence, because young people are very easily led. But I don't think you can blame music alone for what happened."
Temperate words, especially coming from a man who--by some accounts--began his metal career as a Satanist. Although Ihsahn (real name: Vegard Tveitanhas) has dedicated himself to music, his band mates have been implicated in some of the most lurid sideshows of black metal's controversial history: Former drummer Faust (Bard Eithun) is imprisoned for murder, and rhythm guitarist and co-composer Samoth (Tomas Haugen) served time for burning down a historic Norwegian church.
Church-burning was a fashionable activity among Norwegian black-metal musicians and their followers, who in their more lucid moments claimed to be protesting Christianity's role in banishing Scandinavia's traditional gods. But Samoth's arson conviction and other sensational incidents from the band's past are no longer issues in Norway, claims Ihsahn, who blames the church-burning craze in part on a familiar villain. "There was just a program on Norwegian TV about how the media was a cause," he reports. "In the beginning, this scene was like 20 people. In a couple of months, when the media had made a very big deal out of it, there was suddenly a following of like 500 people. Because this kind of strong imagery of course attracted very many young people who aren't necessarily--how can I say?--leaders of the pack.
"I think it's very important for people to find their own way," he continues. "Don't be led either by the media or by pop stars who tell you what to think. That's very much my message. You need to be very strong to hold your personality tight, without being influenced." Echoing one observation widely made about the American high school experience after Columbine, Ihsahn argues that "the way society excludes those that don't fit in, it creates its own enemies."
Emperor has no political message, Ihsahn insists, but he does remember hearing remarks delivered by President Clinton soon after the Littleton shootings that might be interpreted as blaming pop music. "He said it's very important that we teach our young people that they have to solve their problems without violence--while the war in Kosovo was running at the same time. So I don't think that it's necessarily extreme-metal bands that give that bad message. You should see what the politicians do, and how they solve their problems."
The new "IX Equilibrium," the third full album of Emperor's seven-year career, features complex compositions that rival Wagnerian opera for pomp, although the double-time tempos and Ihsahn's screeching vocals would probably daunt most opera house regulars. The disc also demonstrates the interest in pagan mythology that's the source of one of the other names for the genre: Viking metal. (Ihsahn pronounces it "wiking," which sounds much less ferocious.) "The pride of the warriors is far from dead/ The colors of death are black and red/ Though modernized, blood will be shed," announces "The Warriors of Modern Death," the album's most martial song.
"I wouldn't put too much weight on that song," Ihsahn cautions. "That may be the lyric on the album that is the least important one for me. It is in a nostalgic perspective; it uses the imagery of old metal stuff. I still relate to the warrior figure, but not necessarily by running around with a sword and wearing a helmet. But maybe by being more a mental warrior, by having strong views that you protect and fight for, in a verbal way."
Indeed, Ihsahn expresses little interest in the Nordic pagan tradition that supposedly underlies his band's music. "In black metal, and all underground music, there's always been an attraction to mysticism," he says. "But to say that Viking metal has a pagan tradition, I think that limits it. On the new album, the lyrics are much more free of the traditional metaphors. I want to be a bit wider than what is expected. In the earlier days, I suppose we were very cliched. I think it's important now to build something of our own, independent of all the preconceptions that people might have."
Ihsahn laughs when asked why the album's credits specify that the music was recorded in 1998 and 1999 C.E.--an abbreviation for "Common Era," the term some scholars use instead of A.D. (Anno Domini, "in the year of the Lord"). "Do we? I didn't even know. I'm sorry, but when it comes to layout things, I have absolutely nothing to do with that. I have to admit I didn't really know the difference."
The songs on "IX Equilibrium" feature death-metal's customary cadences (lumbering or breakneck) and timbres (rumbling or shrill). But the lyrics--all sung in English, which Ihsahn says has "more nuance" than Norwegian--range from the battle cry of "The Warriors of Modern Death" to the gentler "Elegy of Icaros." The latter opens with a brief pastoral air, rendered with synthesized strings, and draws on the sunnier paganism of Greek myth.
Despite such new horizons, Ihsahn still sings in the traditional black-metal mode: Alternately screechy or guttural, his vocals reveal the lingering effect of horror movies, whose scores were an early musical inspiration. Yet the singer, who also plays bass, keyboards and lead guitar, has been taking classical voice lessons. He drops the names of such metal bands as Judas Priest and Manowar, but he also cites his study of classical composers. "Handel, especially, is one of my favorites," he says. When not head-banging, he performs in a semi-classical trio, Peccatum (Latin for "sin").
Emperor's classical bent can he heard, he explains, "in how the different voices are built. I think there are more similarities to classical music in the building of chords and chord progressions and melody lines in this type of metal than in the rock and blues type of metal, where you have more basic riffs. Especially with most of the vocals being non-tonal, you can open up a wider variety of melody, like in classical music. The keyboard parts often simulate strings, horns and other classical instruments. It's the basic instrumentation we use--distorted guitars and fast drums--that divides us from regular melodic instrumental music."
The musician is pleased with "IX Equilibrium," which reflects both musical growth and the technological advances that allowed Ihsahn to store his compositions on a computer disk. "We were much more organized this time," he notes. "The vocals and the bass lines were produced in the studio, but all the keyboard parts, which are essential to Emperor's music, I was able to work out in my own studio and bring the file."
Onstage, Emperor is supplemented by a bassist and keyboardist--"it's very hard to play those things simultaneously while singing," Ihsahn jokes--but he prefers to restrict the core band to himself, Samoth and drummer Trym (Torson). "It makes things much easier," he says.
Emperor's current American tour is its first, so Ihsahn is unsure of the size of the band's U.S. following. Early sales figures for "IX Equilibrium," he says, have been encouraging. The band did previously play a metal festival in Milwaukee, where Ihsahn observed that "the audience in America is a bit different from our following in Europe. Americans saw us more as just one of the other metal bands."
That's not such a bad thing for a band with Emperor's reputation. "I think the focus has been too much on controversy, and too little on the actual music," Ihsahn laments. "I suppose Emperor will always be viewed as a black-metal band. But I don't think it's so important. I think musically as well as lyrically we cannot be called just black metal. We're a metal band."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8185.)
CAPTION: "I don't think you can blame music alone for what happened" at Columbine, says Emperor's lead singer, Ihsahn, right.
CAPTION: Emperor plays tonight at Jaxx in Springfield, part of the Norwegian band's first U.S. tour.