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The evocative melodies and icy vocals of Norwegian black metal captivated audiences in the 90s. But beneath the surface, a fire burned – a fierce “us vs. them” mentality that tragically spilled over into violence. Ihsahn – renowned solo artist and frontman of the legendary black metal band Emperor – recently offered a sobering reflection on that turbulent era to Metal Hammer, shedding light on the dangers of seeking validation through shock.

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The “black metal inner circle,” centered around Oslo’s Helvete record store, housed bands like Emperor, Mayhem, and Darkthrone. Their music challenged societal norms, often drawing on anti-Christian themes. However, for some, this transcended artistic expression. Ex-Emperor drummer Faust committed murder, and Varg Vikernes, infamous for killing his Mayhem bandmate Euronymous, burned churches alongside Samoth, another Emperor member. Both received lengthy prison sentences.

While Ihsahn thankfully never personally participated in the infamous acts of arson and murder that stained the scene, he acknowledges the collective immersion in the sensationalism surrounding it: “I was very fortunate to not get involved in any of it in that respect, but I think we were all very consumed with the whole thing. The attention it got. All the negative attention and our local community’s reaction to it, it became fuel to the fire. It exaggerated this feeling of ‘us and them’. So I felt involved like that and in my band, there were of course consequences.”

He draws a disturbing parallel to modern trends in music, where some young artists resort to criminal activity to bolster their authenticity. Ihsahn attributes this behavior to a “teenage wish for power and to be taken seriously,” a vulnerability exploited by the allure of rebellion and perceived danger.

“And you can’t really deny that it kind of validated the seriousness of what we were doing. I heard someone talking about young rap artists these days who start doing criminal activity to give credibility and validity to the things they’re singing about.:

Looking back with the perspective of time, Ihsahn sheds light on the immaturity and naivety that fueled such actions. He recognizes the complexity of these events but stresses the importance of understanding them within the context of youthful rebellion and a desire for validation.

“It’s a very strange teenage thing, some kind of rebellious wish to have power and be taken seriously. To be dangerous. Because when you’re a teenager you’re also so vulnerable. We don’t have to psychoanalyze it all but as a grown-up, I think it’s much easier to see how this happened.”

The interview also touches on Emperor‘s early struggles against a dismissive metal press. Despite facing harsh criticism, Ihsahn learned a valuable lesson: true satisfaction lies in trusting your own artistic vision, independent of external validation.

“The major metal magazines absolutely slaughtered our first albums. And then I’ve seen these stories 25 years down the line with the first Emperor album put next to the first Black Sabbath album. I learned very early that you have no control over what people think; the only thing you can trust is your own motivation. If you put your happiness in someone else’s hands, if that’s what controls whether you feel good or bad about yourself, you’re kinda fucked.”

Ihsahn‘s introspective reflection offers a glimpse into a dark chapter of metal history, prompting contemplation on the dangers of extremist ideologies and the complex motivations behind them. There’s a fine line between pushing boundaries and succumbing to destructive forces.

Ihsahn forthcoming self-titled album (his first in six years) lands on February 16 alongside a second, entirely orchestral version of the same album. Pre-orders are available here and you can read our own review of the album here.

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