“There is in music and poetry an art of the ugly soul, as well as an art of the beautiful soul; and in achieving art’s mightiest effects – breaking souls, moving stones, and humanising animals – perhaps that very art has been most successful”. Friedrich Nietzsche there, describing one of art’s greatest achievements – das Seelenbrechen. Now it’s down to the much less eloquent me to try to sum up this new musical opus in words that make some sort of sense. Twelve listens so far and I still don’t know how best to put it; an ideal situation for someone tasked with writing a review of course.
Ihsahn is, as most folk reading this will know, one of the godfathers of Norwegian Black Metal and has always been a hugely skilled musican and accomplished composer, with a vision that stretched way beyond the boundaries of the genre he helped hone in the early days of Bergen’s thriving scene. His classical bent and progressive leanings twinkled in early Emperor releases and by the time “Prometheus…” was unleashed we basically had ourselves a solo album in all but name. Pulling further and further from the blastbeats and satanic imagery and delving deeper into the light and shade of the never-ending grey, exploring time signatures and challenging his own abilities, he seemed to be embarking on a new path altogether.
Last year’s “Eremita” may have been a more consistent, predictable and assured release than previous works, but it nestled comfortably in the top three of many a metalhead writer’s 2012 countdown. It seemed almost inevitable to many of us that any follow up would see him swing back towards a more prog soundscape. As it turns out he has swung back so hard he’s bounced off into another musical orbit altogether. This is a genuinely wild ride – swerving between Emperial screeches, Frank Zappa jams and Magma‘s Mekanikal fanfares.
Opener ‘Hiber’ is a reassuringly familiar sound, pulling together elements from his last two records and hitting that distinctive blackened prog stride with his hallmark rasp punctuating an almost jazzy guitar/keyboard interplay. However, ‘Regen’ is a fresh masterpiece that extrapolates many of his ideas to their ultimate conclusion with craftsmanship and finesse. Warm piano and xylophone strains envelop you as he sings tender lullabies of lost love before the orchestral bombast and wails of torment overreach to the point of claustrophobia. Choirs herald the arrival of frenetic soloing that is pin-pointedly precise yet somehow manages to meander carelessly enough to have you fear it may wander off into another song altogether. There is such structure to this album but such chaos too, bringing with it the exciting feeling that at any moment it could simply fall apart.
‘NaCl’ has already been heavily previewed on various sites and is one of the more accessible tracks, reminiscent of Leprous, although in fairness they owe a lot to him where their sound is concerned rather than the other way round, and of course effectively make up his touring band. Their drummer Tobias Ørnes Andersen does an absolutely sterling job, keeping the music moving along, adding colour and power, with interesting percussive ideas that zig zag through the maelstrom of riffs but never become intrusive or clutter the compositions.
The closing trio is the icing on the cake and provides such a triumphant finale that it’s hard to see where Ihsahn will go from here. ‘M’ flickers into life with brooding keys underpinning a spoken word passage and gentle screeches and howls from the custom 8 string…and without warning it transforms into a classic strat as he gets his Gilmour on like a fanboy. With a full rich backing chorus chanting away, we are treated to a flight of fancy on the fretboard and unashamed worship of the tone and sustain of Uncle Dave.
‘Sub Ater’ calls to mind very early (as well as very recent) Opeth and also adds the same air of subtle menace that Åkerfeldt and Wilson brought us with Storm Corrosion. Soft vocals taunt and Carl Palmer drums crescendo as this track crawls gently up your spine and firmly embeds itself into your brain.
And at last, ‘See’; swathes of feedback, reverb, shrill echoes, with Ihsahn himself as the hoarse whisperer. Erupting with the cacophonous rage that Tom G Warrior imbued into Triptykon yet with the emotional impact of his lesser know Apollyon Sun project as well as refrains reminiscent of Cult Of Luna at their punishing best.
To sum it up in a few paragraphs doesn’t do it justice; there are shades of ‘Mekanik Zain’ seeping into frenetic black metal; pomp and circumstance duelling with ugly scything guitar; themes of love and hope shattered by bile and betrayal. A lesser artist would not be able to blend all these elements with such aplomb, but this works spectacularly well.
The record company release notes boldly claim this album is his most adventurous yet and can be likened to the free spirited approach of artists as diverse as Diamanda Galas and Scott Walker – and for once, that isn’t too far off the mark for the PR guff that tends to precede such highly anticipated releases.
When all is said and done, my efforts to put into words what Ihsahn has put into music are futile. This is something you need to hear, so – before I run out of superlatives, similes, metaphors and cliches – may I commend to you my album of the year.