IHSAHN has long since established himself as a sort of controversy free figurehead of black metal that the genre has always deserved. If ABBATH has come to be the face of it as a medium of entertainment removed from the famous unpleasant side of the scene, irresistibly vital but knowingly silly and not as painfully obsessed with taking himself seriously as some obvious others, then IHSAHN has right from the get-go embodied black metal as a progressive force constantly pushing radical new musical ideas and never content to rest on creative laurels or stick to anyone’s rulebook.
This is the one constant aside from the quality tying all of his releases together, whether it be the massive strides EMPEROR made with each consecutive album so much so that they’d lost their fair share of more conservative fans by the time Prometheus rolled around or the depths of avant-garde mayhem present in his last solo outing Das Seelenbrechen, constantly and quite rightly telling all who persist and ask that the world has no need for a new EMPEROR album as retreading old ground quite simply isn’t IHSAHN‘s style.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that his new album Arktis is once again a departure from its predecessor. Content that Das Seelenbrechen had been sufficiently out there, Arktis is described by the man himself as his stab at more traditional metal songwriting. Suitably, what is “traditional” by IHSAHN‘s standards is utterly bonkers by just about anyone else’s. Arktis is still very much a hugely creative and highly unique affair, with a great deal of influences and components melded into a distinct blend. The real thing setting this apart from what’s come before is that where Das Seelenbrechen and others dwelt in dark and painful corners, IHSAHN‘s having some fun this time around.
Beyond its harmonised opening leads and the daunting weight of its verses lead single Mass Darkness has a irresistible gallop to it that plasters on a grin long before IHSAHN‘s new best bud and frequent collaborator Matt Heafy of TRIVIUM shows up to deliver the most chest-beating chorus on an IHSAHN record to date. Whether IHSAHN has been listening to the Swedes or the 1970s prog rock bands they hold so dear, My Heart is of the North positively reeks of OPETH right through to the jamming organ at the end, but is made all his own by the cold atmosphere and his demented rhythmic nature. Elsewhere his love of classic metal shines through in Until I Too Dissolve with a riff so instantly gratifying that any metal band in 1984 would’ve based a hit single around it, and In the Vaults which is anchored by a gargantuan triumphant melody passed around from guitars to synths constantly feeling vibrant and on top of the world. Jørgen Munkeby‘s one spot on sax is delivered in a far more sensual and soothing context than the scattershot wailing of After or Eremita, and closer Celestial Violence is one of the most climactic songs IHSAHN has ever written, final guest Einar Solberg of LEPROUS seeming to teeter on the edge of collapse as he gives way to crumbling cacophony.
Tying everything together is IHSAHN‘s voice, that weathered screech paired with his warm clean singing voice that has come a long way since his Thus Spake the Nightspirit days. IHSAHN also plays quite a bit with electronics on this record, whether it’s the queasy synths on Frail coupled with unsettling climbing piano or the most prominent example South Winds where IHSAHN almost seems to be borderline rapping in his throaty rasp atop a pulsating dance beat. The early EMPEROR purists had they not already been lost would no doubt hate it and that’s part of its brilliance; even considering the madness of Das Seelenbrechen, Arktis is the record where IHSAHN feels the most free. On Arktis not only his enthusiasm is contagious but his ability to stick the landing every time; over two decades into his career he’s as far ahead of his peers and the parts of his audience that would seek to confine him to a corpse painted box as he’s ever been.
Arktis is out now via Spinefarm Records.