“I think you know this,” Emperor frontman Ihsahn told a German audience in 2006 with a look of stoic pride on his face. After a burst of feedback, he launched into the rigid, darkly symphonic riffs of “I Am the Black Wizards,” one of the standouts on the Norwegian black-metal band’s 1994 full-length, In the Nightside Eclipse, a record that turns 25 today. The concert, at the Wacken Open Air festival, was one of the group’s biggest-ever sets, and it came on the heels of their 2005 reunion, four years after they’d split up over musical differences. Although they were no longer wearing black metal’s signature corpsepaint, Ihsahn donned spiky shoulder pads for the occasion.
Ihsahn had written his part of the song when he was 16, complementing guitarist Samoth’s riffs, and they recorded it when the frontman was 17. The band’s bassist at the time, Mortiis (who went on to become a prosthetics-wearing darkwave artist), penned the track’s lyrics in the summer of 1992, including genre-defining lines like, “How many wizards that serve me with evil, I know not/My empire has no limits.” The song first appeared on the group’s four-song Emperor EP, but they went on to refine it and re-record it with new bassist Tchort for In the Nightside Eclipse.
“When we did In the Nightside Eclipse, the material was well rehearsed and tight as hell, but at the same time we had a very relaxed feeling to it all,” drummer Faust said in the book Louder Than Hell. “We had no idea of the importance of what we were about to record. … Ihsahn was 17 years old at the time and couldn’t get into the bars so he just stayed in the studio working. I used to say that all the great vocal work on the album was thanks to his being underage because Ihsahn had so much time to work on it.”
The song, and In the Nightside Eclipse as a whole, represented a new benchmark for black metal. Although there were records by Norwegian black metal artists Darkthrone and Burzum circulating, Mayhem hadn’t yet released their first full-length, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, and the controversy surrounding the scene — including the murder of Mayhem’s guitarist Euronymous at the hands of Burzum’s outspokenly fascistic frontman Varg Vikernes, and several church burnings — sparked interest in the seemingly dangerous nascent genre. Emperor’s Nightside, which they dedicated to Euronymous, featured a level of sophistication the other bands hadn’t yet reached and it became one of the scene’s touchstones.
Emperor too faced their share of strife when Samoth was arrested for church arson, Tchort was arrested for assault and drummer Faust admitted to murdering a gay man in 1992, prompting him to leave the band in 1994; he rejoined for a brief time in the mid-Nineties. But other than espousing the philosophies of Satanism, Ihsahn stayed outside the fray of the Norwegian black-metal scene and, with Samoth’s return and the addition of new drummer Trym (featured in the video above), they pressed forward with 1997’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk (one of Rolling Stone’s Greatest Metal Albums) up through 2001’s Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise. Through it all, “I Am the Black Wizards” remained a consistent crowd favorite.
“In Poland, we played ‘I Am The Black Wizards’, it’s one of the songs that we always play and you see grown men cry because they get very emotional,” Ihsahn said last year, via Blabbermouth. “It’s in a similar way that some of my favorite music I grew up listening to or going to an Iron Maiden show and hearing some of my favorites from back in the day, it has a huge emotional impact on me.”