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Emperor: the story behind I Am The Black Wizards

For almost three decades, symphonic BM pioneers Emperor have been consistently ranked among extreme metal’s elite. Their unassuming origins in the snowy forests of Norway put them at the forefront of a game-changing yet initial minuscule movement, injecting eerily bombastic grandeur into the distant, lo-fi roars made infamous by contemporaries like mayhem and Burzum. Emperor’s unhallowed union of mania and sophistication soon allowed them to birth the closest thing their subsect ever came to a “hit”: the medieval I Am The Black Wizards.

The opening track of the band’s fiery self-titled EP and the subsequent harmonic high-point of their lauded debut, 1994’s In The Nightside Eclipse, this six-minute slice of orchestral extremity has been a fan-favourite for a quarter of a century. But when asked to give his thoughts on why the trailblazer has had such a crucial impact on heavy music, the eclectic Ihsahn is reduced to pure guesswork.

“It’s hard to say. You could say that it has a rather strong hook and a melody line that is very distinct,” he thoughtfully muses. “I would say that it’s a very typical example of some of the early emperor stuff. [Guitarist] Samoth would come up with the opening chords and I had a sometimes annoying tendency to find melody in those progressions. I Am The Black Wizards is an example where chords are tweaked into something that feels almost like a singable melody.”

The intense opening hook of …Black Wizards is legendarily cathartic. Ihsahn’s frantic strumming quickly descends into an oddly enveloping breakdown, where lead guitar shredding dances over thrashing rhythms and earth-shaking drumming. It’s an unapologetic jolt of energy both on record and during any live performance. However, that invigorating introduction appears to have fallen into place by happy accident. 

“There was nothing conscious about the songwriting or any thinking about hooks in those days,” insists Ihsahn. “It was pure intuition; it was never as cynical as, ‘Oh, OK, let’s get the people going!’ at the time, we wanted to have a limited group of people, [and] not the ‘wrong’ people listening to our music.”

As is inevitable with black metal, after another pummelling breakdown, Ihsahn’s screeching wails slice through the mix, hissing words that punctuate I Am The Black Wizards’ clear dark fantasy theme: a lyrical concept that was the bread-and-butter of early Norwegian heaviness.

“It’s similar to Quorthon in Bathory. He was inspired by Motörhead and he wanted to sing about girls and driving fast cars, but he was only 16: he didn’t have a girlfriend and he definitely didn’t have a driver’s licence. Ha ha!

“With I Am The Black Wizards, it’s [ex-bassist and songwriter] Mortiis’s lyrics – who other than him can actually make sense of them? I still can’t make sense of them, but there’s an energy behind them that just fits. It’s so abstractly expressed that it resonates with other people who are in a similar space. I Am The Black Wizards’ lyrics don’t make sense, but you see people singing along, thinking, ‘I am them!’”

The epic imagery conjured forth by such lines as ‘Mightiest am I / But I am not alone in this cosmos of mine’ and ‘Summon the souls of macrocosm / No age will escape my wrath’ becomes increasingly apropos as I Am The Black Wizards proceeds to flourish further and further into grandiose territory. In keeping with its constantly empowering yet destructive tone, …Black Wizards’ mid-section and conclusion imbue the song with a mid-paced extravaganza of enticing lead guitar-work and heavenly keyboards, the sheer melodic brilliance of which perhaps epitomises the key to the anthem’s unprecedented popularity.

“It was one of those early songs where the keyboards played a major part, especially in the mid-section. I get the feeling sometimes that, because we do play extreme metal festivals, the melody lets you tell those songs apart, in a way,” Ihsahn proposes.

“I came back from playing a show in Poland yesterday: I saw grown men cry when we played I Am The Black Wizards. It’s a humbling experience, as a music fan that has close relationships with songs from when I was growing up, to realise that you’ve created a song that has had a similar effect on some other people. They’ve attached emotions and memories to that soundtrack.”

This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer 311