Every Emperor album ranked from worst to best

Emperor performing live in 2018
(Image credit: Mark Horton/Getty Images)

Venom gave black metal its name, Bathory wrote its original rulebook, and Mayhem announced it as heavy music’s most evil-sounding and dangerous movement. However, when it comes to sustaining the genre through the ’90s and testing the limits of its capabilities, Emperor are the true royalty.

Formed by frontman Ihsahn and co-guitarist Samoth in 1991, the Telemark evolutionaries fast stood out among the Norwegian scene, raising the game when it came to precision and melody. They only released four albums before splitting (and, despite their reunion, it looks like it will stay that way), though each one was a bold, peerless leap into the darkness beyond heavy music’s known borders. Here’s Emperor’s every full-length release, ranked:

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4. IX Equilibrium (1999)

A disclaimer: even though IX Equilibrium bottoms out this list, it is still in the 99th percentile of all black metal albums ever made. Such is the greatness of Emperor. From the moment a Rob Halford-esque falsetto squeal drops into the maximalist carnage of Curse You All Men!, the band’s third album is yet another declaration of their ever-broadening yet still-brutal vision. Decrystallizing Reason may be the performance of drummer Trym Torson’s life, nailing the acceleration from groove to full-tilt blasts, while Of Blindness And Subsequent Seers is crammed with dark melody and symphonic drama.

So why have we cruelly deemed this the nadir of Emperor’s discography? The sole reason is that IX feels more like a transitional step than a blowaway statement, bridging the game-changing Anthems To The Welkin At The Dusk with the somehow-even-more-batshit Prometheus.

Trust us, it’s painful having something this excellent in this spot.

3. Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire And Demise (2001)

By 2001, Emperor had suffered a creative schism. While Ihsahn was driven to continually explore uncharted territory, co-writer Samoth still treasured the band’s black metal roots. The pair knew this would be their last album together as a result, with Ihsahn taking charge to pen the least accessible material he could.

Prometheus is a labyrinthine record: a birth-to-death concept piece stuffed with technicality, orchestras and avant-garde turns. Less inspired by popular songs than the structure of classical compositions, it accelerates, decelerates and crescendos seemingly at random. However, there’s enough magnificence throughout – be it from the strings, refined production or Ihsahn’s improved melodic singing – to signify that this was no haphazard creation.

Although Prometheus was understandably controversial in its day, repeat listens have granted it its rightful status as a black metal classic – not to mention a fitting swan song for one of the genre’s most restless adventurers.

2. In The Nightside Eclipse (1994)

Outside of Mayhem, no band has done more for the advancement of black metal than Emperor, and In The Nightside Eclipse proves it. In 1994, Euronymous was dead and the Norwegian “inner circle” was fracturing, with many bands still clinging to the tremolo picking and rawness their leader had prized. Not this one, though.

Rather than adhere to the black metal blueprint, Emperor continued the genre’s musical transgressions, factoring in keyboards and more varied influences. Inno A Satana is the band’s self-confessed Judas Priest moment, rising from hellish extremity to heroic singalongs, whereas Into The Infinity Of Thoughts scraps in all directions for nine minutes, like the world’s angriest prog song.

Then there’s I Am The Black Wizards. Eternally Emperor’s signature song, its balance of soundtrack-inspired bombast with slicing metal melodies has made it a measuring stick for anyone who wants to write an irresistible black metal track. It impressively stands out on what is, from start to finish, one of extreme music’s most vital albums.

1. Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk (1997)

Emperor’s enduring legacy will be the balance of the precise and the primal. No release of theirs does that better than Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk.

The band’s legendary second album keeps their black metal core alive, as instantly announced by Ye Entrancemperium, which opens with a thunderous riff penned by Euronymous himself. Yet, from there, the band charge through all manner of nuanced ideas while keeping the pedal to the metal. Thus Spake The Nightspirit starts as pure NWOBHM pomp, its bouncy riff begging for fists to pump. Then The Loss And Curse Of Reverence exacerbates its own sonic attack with sharp strings and demonic-sounding choirs. By the end of With Strength I Burn, the savagery of black metal has been layered against then-unfathomable levels of melodic singing.

The back cover of Anthems… originally declared, “Emperor performs Sophisticated Black Metal Art exclusively”, and that was not a lie. With this release, the black metal bar was hoisted to astronomical heights. And, arguably, no one has touched it since.

Matt Mills
Contributing Editor, Metal Hammer

Louder’s resident Gojira obsessive was still at uni when he joined the team in 2017. Since then, Matt’s become a regular in Prog and Metal Hammer, at his happiest when interviewing the most forward-thinking artists heavy music can muster. He’s got bylines in The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Guitar and many others, too. When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him skydiving, scuba diving or coasteering.