Emperor – Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk
Released July 8th, 1997 on Candlelight Records
Listen, In The Nightside Eclipse is a stone classic. It’s my favourite black metal record, although if you’re a purist I’ll probably say it’s Sunbather just to piss you off. Regardless, Nightside is the album I would point to and say “that’s black metal”, in case you were wondering. That said, Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk, the band’s second album, does everything Nightside does, only bigger, and in widescreen. While there are somewhat less keyboards overlaying the churn of Anthems, and it doesn’t have “I Am The Black Wizards” on it, it does work in a much clearer fashion, upping the production values and drilling down more on the intense blastbeats to anchor the songs, rather than mixing everything into a shoegazer-approved blur.
By 1997, of course, the Norwegian band was surrounded by a black haze of controversy, like the filth and the fury surrounding the Sex Pistols twenty years prior but much more viscerally psychotic. Original drummer Faust murdered a man in 1992 for making passes at him in a forest near Lillehammer; that day he went with Mayhem’s Euronymous and Burzum/Mayhem-affiliated pagan-fascist Varg Vikernes to burn down one of Norway’s ancient Christian stave churches (the latter two would later fall out, leading to Vikernes’ infamous murder of Euronymous in 1993). He and Emperor co-founder Samoth went to jail in 1994, shortly before the release of In The Nightside Eclipse, although Samoth was imprisoned for arson, having been caught burning down another church with Varg Vikernes. Anthems was recorded after Samoth was released on parole in 1996; still, most of the record is the brainchild of Ihsahn, vocalist, lead guitarist, and main arranger of the sumptuous, vile suites. Controversy followed them on tour (and again in 2015, when Faust was released from prison and went on tour with Emperor), but it only served to bring further notoriety and interest to the Norwegian black metal scene and Emperor specifically.
Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk is arguably (but only barely arguably) the peak of Norwegian black metal, from a technical and sonic standpoint. The band themselves would put out a wildly uneven third record (IX) and then turn into an endlessly-touring machine under the sole control of Ihsahn. The genre would burn out on cheesy adolescent theistic Satanism, cross the Atlantic, and be reborn first as paganism with the Nordic fascism removed (Wolves In The Throne Room) and then as a vehicle for hipster American musicians’ experiments in metal, both failed (Liturgy) and sublime (Deafheaven). Anthems, then, remains the high-water mark for purely Scandinavian black metal.
The Prodigy – The Fat Of The Land
Released June 30th, 1997 on XL Records
The years following Kurt Cobain’s suicide marked a sea change in the makeup of popular music in England and North America. Hip hop and electronic music ate up market share until a rough sort of equality emerged; “the kids” were just as likely to be into dirty south or drum n bass as they were rock ‘n’ roll, signalling that the Boomers were finally old and ready to be put out to pasture. One of the key drivers of this changeover was the popularity of big beat between 1996 and 1998. This movement – a product of the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, Fatboy Slim Crystal Vegas, and helped along by the equally-brash sounds of other electronic acts like Daft Punk and the Sneaker Pimps – brought the slamming sound of drum breakbeats into the bedrooms of suburban teens from coast to coast.
The Prodigy were a little different from the others in that they incorporated a definite punk rock influence into their music. The most obvious of these influences was of course singer Keith Flint, who wore a pink mohawk and looked like he’d just crawled out of a bender in the basement of Malcolm McLaren’s haberdashery. There was also an aggressiveness to the way Liam Howlett arranged and programmed the songs, a certain je ne sais quoi that put the group more in the realm of anarcho-electro-punks Atari Teenage Riot than other English big beat acts that were jamming up contemporary rave culture. “Smack My Bitch Up”, with it’s controversial Kool Keith sample and it’s car-chase propulsion, was discussed endlessly as to whether it was misogynistic or simply a reflection of the culture. “Breathe” and “Firestarter” took the clenched-fist industrial energy of Trent Reznor and made it okay for kids tripping on E and glowsticks. “Funky Shit” and “Naryan”, meanwhile, were closer to what the Chemical Brothers had been doing on Dig Your Own Hole. Regardless of which direction the album took, it had the energy and edge that kids went for in the late Nineties.
It was such a success that at one point, probably around 1998 or so, I overheard a big farm kid claim that AC/DC wasn’t a real rock band and that real rock bands sounded like The Prodigy. He was objectively wrong (and dumb as a rock to boot) but there you have it: proof that, for the thrill and excitement that “the youth” craved, big beat was doing what rock ‘n’ roll acts couldn’t.