The mid-1990s were an important time for me personally, musically, and also for the Metal community in general. I was finally wrapping up my career in the vilest of high schools, and it was with the sounds of boundary-pushing Extreme Metal that I found solace and inspiration daily. Death Metal had become a viable force in Metal, and the second wave of Black Metal heralded a slew of bands of myriad degrees of talent and originality. One such band that absolutely floored me upon first discovering was Emperor. When the band released Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, I not only knew who my favorite Black Metal band was but also the band that was pushing the envelope the most forcefully and blazing into territory no band had before ventured. Ihsahn was the mastermind behind the music, injecting Norwegian Black Metal with a sharp sense of music theory displayed through the Neo-Classical symphonic elements he used to orchestrate the band’s music. Luckily, I was able to catch the band live in New York in 1999 because one album later, the band would be broken up.
Thankfully, Ihsahn revealed his musical intentions and new direction with 2006’s The Adversary. Though not all fans could get behind his more Progressive leanings, surely no one could say he was doing anything other than what he truly intended to. Six studio albums later, Ihsahn will be releasing his new solo album, Ámr, this coming Friday, May 4, 2018. Luckily, I have been afforded the chance to methodically go over this upcoming release and my impressions, true and uncut, follow.
Upon first firing this album up, one is greeted with “Lend Me the Eyes of the Millenia,” what I deem as the second-best, if not the best song on the album. Certainly, this opening track has the fiery execution which we have become accustomed to when listening to his work. The main riff retains the massive Black Metal style which afforded him fame over twenty years ago, and there is no shortage of fury and bombast as haunting synths are tastefully layered over the top creating a continually-building sense of urgency throughout. When the guitar drops out in the latter half of the song, one is greeted with the orchestrated sound that is a preview of some of the other tracks on the album, but upon its return, the sheer enormity of the track is revealed. Vying for the top slot of favorite songs, the last track, “Wake,” is quite reminiscent of later-era Emperor. Ihsahn‘s ultra-fluid, refined picking style is on display setting up a feeling of anxiety during the verse sections. Like water washing over the song, the giant chorus enters with its carefully layered vocals decorated with gorgeous synths. It is an arduous task to top these two angst-filled tracks.
Some of the other tracks, however, end up being much more accessible than his previous output. “Arcana Imperii,” the second track, features a main riff that is honestly not the most attractive. The way the song is developed, though, is impressive with its curves, peaks, and valleys. A guest solo from Opeth‘s Fredrik Akesson sets the stage for the song’s more palpable resolution, a giant bleak chord that shouts pure Doom. The fifth track, “Where You Are Lost and I Belong,” is another example of new territory as Ihsahn creates a wall of sound adorned with analog synths and his trademark guitar tone, though dialed down, to create a sound very much rooted in the 1980s. The eighth track, “Twin Black Angels,” continues this simplicity with more analog synth-developed sections and über-melodic guitar.
The end result with Ámr is an extremely focused effort regardless of stylistic variance. Part of the joy of listening to an artist like Ihsahn is that having heard his previous output, one is aware of his capabilities, and thus, restraint is seen as more calculated and is, therefore, more appreciated alongside the parts steeped in his past.With some of the softest vocals he has ever put on record creating a very melodic album, there is a sleek shine throughout.This would be an excellent album with which to introduce a friend to the genre.
After listening to this album many, many times, I couldn’t help but be reminded of two unique though unrelated artists: Opeth and Peter Gabriel. The Opeth comparison is obviously stemming from Ihsahn‘s mirrored career of starting very heavy/extreme and then moving on to become quite exploratory in terms of musical direction and songwriting. In comparing Ihsahn to Peter Gabriel, I’m making a reference to the absolute top-notch recordings featuring phenomenal production which Peter Gabriel has released as well as the sheer breadth of his musical output, all resulting from following his own creative voice. Yes, it seems Ihsahn has hit his stride, and despite the fact that the album is not particularly very heavy, it is a more accurate reflection of a mature musician, comfortable in his own skin, willing to spread his wings. It will be truly interesting to see what he does next, and that is the intended result.