Ihsahn – Arktis
Black metal has long been in my blood. Since first hearing (and being a bit overwhelmed by) Emperor’s righteous In The Nightside Eclipse in my early teens, that specific brand of extreme metal has always intrigued me; its harsh, abrasive textures and emotional power are beyond comparison even now. It would have been around 2006 with the release of Satyricon’s Now Diabolical when I learnt that the spirit of the genre wasn't necessarily tied to the frenzied, murderous assault of tremolo-picked guitars and blast-beat drumming – rather, that the atmosphere and the attitude were the key to making great black metal.
Enter Ihsahn, the man who was my Virgil-like guide through black metal’s early wastes and who now, at forty years old, has developed into one of Norway’s best-loved musicians and a man whose ambitions have now superseded the very music he revolutionised so much in the 90’s. In 2016, a full ten years into his solo career, Ihsahn is continuing to push every boundary in sight. The creative freedom with which he’s now operating is palpable (see especially 2013’s avant side-step Das Seelenbrechen), with metal now just a part of his DNA, along with jazz, classic rock, progressive rock and industrial influences re-purposing his musical identity.
Arktis, Ihsahn’s latest project, comes with the disclaimer from the man himself that he ‘can’t recall having had such a great time making an album before’, and this is perhaps the one thread which unites eleven tracks of such musical breadth and endeavour; this record is, more than anything else, one which pulses with life, energy and liberation – a statement sans pressure or expectation. Opener Disassembled typifies this approach, with dark, ominous verses which collapse into bombastic, Devin Townsend-esque theatrics before rising up into a powerful Leprous-tinged chorus (with help from the band's frontman Einar Solberg).
Many of the songs here feature genre-fusion as a key trait, as displayed on Mass Darkness which introduces grandiose power metal guitar work, or South Winds which channels an unexpected Nine Inch Nails industrial groove through a uniquely progressive lens. It’s this which keeps the listener on their toes as, song-for-song, it’s extremely hard to predict what the record will offer up next. In order to avoid the identity-crisis which often accompanies this unpredictable approach in album-crafting, Ihsahn smartly retains a consistent production value and vibe throughout Arktis, bolstered more through the striking art design of acclaimed Spaniard Ritxi Ostariz which goes a long way to crystalise further the light/dark, soft/heavy dynamics of the record.
Highlight and centrepiece Pressure, the longest song on the album-proper at six minutes, gives the gift of Ihsahn’s past to the listener with the reintroduction of some classic black metal fury as the track builds towards its heady climax. With clear production and a raspier, deeper growl, Ihsahn really has never sounded better and showcases his roots beautifully and in a way that doesn't tarnish in any way the legacy left by his years with Emperor. My Heart Is of the North is yet another surprise (on a record full of surprises). Refusing to conform to its Immortal-esque title, the track delivers a showcase of Opethian traditional progressive rock complete with Hammond organ and doom-laden riffs which bring to mind elements of both Blackwater Park and Heritage. It’s a distinctly Scandinavian piece and one of the true highlights of the record. In another wonderful U-turn, Until I Too Dissolve approaches another Scandinavian trope – the cock rock riff – and works it into an affecting piece which flits between upbeat, air-punching rhythm work and airy, 80’s inspired vocal passages.
To conclude the record, Ihsahn loads his rifle with the bullets of his contributors, giving each of them prominent roles beyond the other guest appearances scattered throughout Arktis. Crooked Red Line is the record’s first real moment of calm, with the saxophone of Shining virtuoso Jorgen Munkeby.
Standing tall atop a soulful ballad. As you’d expect, the song’s dynamics shift with the sax, with more aggressive passages being punctuated by violent, atonal stabs and the mellower sections giving Munkeby more room to manoeuvre, tonally and melodically. Celestial Violence is the real highlight here, though, with the ongoing Leprous influence finally coming to a climax with another powerful appearance from Einar Solberg. There’s a strong case to be made for Solberg having the best voice in progressive metal today, and he certainly makes it here, perfectly dancing around Ihsahn’s bleak, wretched cadence with angelic authority. The crescendo of the piece is absolutely stunning and Solberg unleashes a performance which I consider a career best. Though Solberg rose to prominence as part of Ihsahn’s band, they truly feel like equals here; both supreme talents bringing the very best out of one another.
With so many of the black metal stalwarts now dead or MIA, Ihsahn represents one of the first aging musicians in a genre too young, yet, to have an old guard. Despite this, Ihsahn is proving all the time that one doesn’t have to be old to be wise. Like his contemporaries in hip-hop, another genre reinvented in the 90’s and plagued by low life expectancy, Ihsahn is alone in a world which doesn’t fully understand how to contextualise a musician long removed from the youthful fires of the past. But the Norwegian shows no sign of stopping. Intent on forging his own path through the modern landscape, Ihsahn is destined to be the Virgil for the next generation, as he was for me through my teenage years. Fear not.
“For the Emperor of that high Imperium, Wills not that I, once rebel to his crown, Into that city of his should lead men home” - Virgil, Dante’s Inferno
Words: Ben Armstrong