If there’s one thing you can always count on when it comes to Ihsahn it’s evolution. Throughout his work with Emperor, Peccatum, and his solo work it’s been a constant examination of musical styles, finding new avenues and strains that work within the ever-expanding identity of the man himself. Àmr, his seventh sojourn as a solo artist acts more as a refinement rather than another branch into the unknown. As such it feels a little less immediate, but even treading water there’s enough stellar musicianship on display to further cement his stature as a visionary in the genre.
Since setting fire to organic expansion that started with Emperor’s Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise with 2013’s Das Seelenbrechen there’s been a welcome embrace of classic and krautrock, electronica and jazz, even some hints of R&B. And while an argument can be made these influences were always present if you dug deep enough into the chords and song structures, 2013 was the point where black metal ceased to be the musical foundation in which everything was constructed (though you can argue as Ihsahn has that the spirit is ever present), and became instead just another tool in the belt. Striving for a more intimate, indoor feel than the more expansive Arktis the first thing immediately evident on opener “Lend Me the Eyes of Millennia” is the synth work. It’s indicative of the album as a whole, finding a warmth in analog sounds and a sense of space in the composition – something that’s always been a hallmark of Ihsahn’s work post-Emperor – but it also harkens back to those flashes of fury and turbulence. The song is incredibly fast and aggressive, even as it moves into more more progressive moments.
Spread out over the album’s lean 44 minutes “Arcana Imperii,” “In Rites of Passage” and “Wake” take the mix of progressive and black metal that Ihsahn’s perfected and polishes it to where new facets begin to gleam, such as the great harmonizations on “In Rites of Passage” and the killer chugging on both “Arcana Imperii” and “Wake.” The extensive keyboards don’t feel like a capitulation to the growing metal electronica movement; rather, its employ here is color and texture to the tracks. “Marble Soul” begins the same way, but when that middle section hits with the beautifully layered vocals you’re reminded there’s a whole other facet we don’t talk about nearly enough when it comes to Ihsahn.
Namely his vocals. It’s been long established that his distinctive metal rasp is one of the most identifiable signifiers in metal, but it’s time to really appreciate and call out how the man can layer clean voices and melodies like a wizard of the Devin Townsend school. The other half of the songs that comprise Àmr explore darker, more sensual tones. And yeah, I definitely meant to use sensual in relation to an Ihsahn track…how else to describe what he does in the opening “Twin Black Angels” before moving into an almost AOR progression in the chorus? “Sámr” is another great example of how Ihsahn effortlessly and fearlessly breathes life into things that on paper or in lesser hands would never work. The chorus in particular is a marvel of how the vocals shape the chords rather than the other way around.
Nothing on Àmr is going to change anyone’s opinion of Ihsahn or his music. I still haven’t decided if I like it more than Arktis or not, but the more I listen the more I an finding those tiny facets that reveal themselves with each spin, and I find myself sinking into those warmer moments, black as their spirit may be. That’s enough for me.