Ihsahn‘s career has been a long one. As the front man and primary songwriter for the legendary Emperor, he’s kept himself busy for the better part of the last twenty years. So it came as a surprise that his solo project was not only so ambitious but perhaps that it existed at all. And ambitious is certainly putting it mildly. Since his first solo release as Ihsahn in 2006 he has explored progressive, experimental, ambient, atmospheric and rock n’roll inspired black metal. Ihsahn has composed symphonies, included free jazz saxophones, displayed an immense talent for vocals and generally done essentially whatever he wants. And that’s exactly what makes his new album Arktis so successful.
The first Ihsahn release, The Adversary released in 2006, reveals a brief framework for his career. While that album might have been more raw, thin and chaotic than his later releases, he rode the gamut from heavier symphonic black metal to expansive tracks with electronic and ambient touches. It wasn’t until his 2008 release angL that his caustic, more full production values and composition were displayed. While that track is bereft of the trademark saxophone (always provided by Jørgen Munkeby of Shining) there is plenty of symphonic and digital brushtrokes interspersed. angL is, overall, Ihsahn’s most aggressive, pure release to date. The followup, After released in 2010, is likely Ihsahn’s trademark release and the pinnacle of his composition. It was the first album to incorporate the free jazz touches of the saxophone as well as a departure from the relentless aggression of angL. Come 2012 and Ihsahn was ready to release Eremita which, like *After* used a fair helping of tricks from After yet, for it’s lack of originality, so to speak, it was a slow burner that, after time, really grows on the fan.
Things get wacky in 2013. It was then that Ihsahn released Das Seelenbrechen which varied drastically from his earlier releases. Ambient tracks such as “M” were a departure from instrumentation and over composition that was symptomatic of Ihsahn’s sound and prior career. While Das Seelenbrechen might not be Ihsahn’s most popular release, it’s an important work within his canon. Heavily laden with keyboards, synthesizers and other digital affectations, Das Seelenbrechen gave Ihsahn room to grow his vocal performances and expand his rhythmic reach. Certainly that album, with it’s Joe Satriani-like guitar work, is his most rhythmicaly diverse to date. So, it’s with all this in mind and all this for Ihsahn to draw from that his 2016 release Arktis must be viewed as Arktis is, for all intents and purposes, a celebration of Ihsahn’s career to date with his characteristic touch for out of the box thinking and unique composition.
For that celebration, Ihsahn brings back Jørgen Munkeby of Shining for saxophone, includes Matt Heafy of Trivium and Eina Solberg on vocals. The inclusion of such a diverse trio allows Ihsahn to expand his horizons further than ever before. Arktis is beyond a successful work for Ihsahn. In fact, the album isn’t even about success. Touches of Das Seelenbrechen can be seen on both “South Winds” and “Frail” (which is metal’s de facto breakdance anthem). Additionally, much of the work that made After and Eremita so successful can be seen across the entirety fo the nine tracks. Ihsahn breaks out his full array of vocal abilities, his full acoutrement of guitar styles and certainly his suitcase full of rhythmic catches and shifts. The opener “Disassembled” feels very much like a return to angL for most of it while touches of *The Adversary,* can be heard in the cleaner vocal parts.
Never one to abandone hooks and riffs, the highlight of the album has to be “Until I too Dissolve” which features near Ratt levels of cock riffs using a For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge era Eddie Van Halen guitar sound. Ironically, the most successful track is also the most unique when compared to his prior catalog. More straightforward and pop-glam, “Until I too Dissolve” is a tune that would be at home in the days when metal sold out arenas as well as today where metal resides in the global bedrooms of its biggest fans. It’s a track that will cause you to roll your head around, sing along and potentially jam out on the air guitar—it’s catchy as hell.
Alternately, there’s the expansive and serene “Crooked Red Line” in which Jørgen Munkeby provides a 1980s Miami-like saxophone soliloquoy over a largely drum and bass ballad. Nearly a full two-minutes before the guitars explode like waves crashing on the Miami coast, “Crooked Red Line” builds slowly, peaks and then slowly fades away as if it were the tide slowly receding into the Atlantic Ocean.
For all its heft, Arktis is Ihsahn’s most progressive release to date. It’s also his most easily pallatable for fans of all music rather than just metalheads. It’s an album that should be played on Top 40 stations and broadcast across Vimeo and Hulu. Yet, it is also an album tob e appreciated by the deepest of Ihsahn purists. To love Ihsahn is to follow his vision; to explore the depths of his mind and the nearly limitless bounds of his talent. Simply put, if he can hear it in his head he can make it happen in life. He is, as always, independent and bold, brave and uncompromising across his latest. Ihsahn celebrates his flawless career with aplomb; never showing pomp or circustance. Rather, he lets the music reveal his intellect and speak for itself. Ihsahn is at his best when he’s absorbed in the process and Arktis is no exception—he’s absolutely at his best.