Ihsahn - Arktis.
Released 08/04/2016

Ihsahn - Arktis As a founding member of Emperor, one of extreme metal's most legendary bands, no one could blame Ihsahn for resting on his laurels. With that kind of pedigree behind him one might think he may have nowhere else to go and nothing else to say but since the initial demise of the band, Ihsahn has continued his musical journey. Horizons have been expanded and boundaries have been pushed well and truly beyond breaking point as Ihsahn has released several superb albums under his own name, creating a second amazing body of work. As Ihsahn himself has explained the last Emperor album Prometheus (The Discipline Of Fire And Demise) was pretty much entirely written by him, so his solo career has expanded upon that album exponentially and left the restraints of the Black Metal scene back where they belong.

Arktis. opens with the driving Disassembled. Pounding drums and bass drive the song forward while over the top of the rhythm section the guitars riff away. Stabs of keyboard break through the solid wall of rock and Ihsahn's trademark gravelly vocals dominate until the chorus which sounds like Europe in all their pomp! There's some clean singing by Einar Solberg during the chorus and a slower middle section, which contrasts nicely with Ihsahn's demon growl. The start of Mass Darkness sounds even more like a prime slice of traditional European heavy metal, with Trivium 's Matt Heafy lending his vocal talents. Triumphant guitars blaze away but the song quickly takes a turn for for the sinister. Off-kilter guitar and ever changing rhythms clash together in different styles as screaming solos vie with wild keyboard splashes. Supremely catchy and incredibly inventive, Ihsahn proves again how wide a pallette he can call on when writing.

My Heart Is Of The North leads us up a very strange alleyway with Hammond Organs in the background along with some very eerie keyboard noises before we are hit with another sublime guitar solo. The song collapses into a quiet, almost folky section before the Hammond, courtesy of Nicolay Svennæs Tangen, kicks back in for a solo that John Lord would have been proud of before fading gently away. South Winds sounds like nothing Ihsahn has ever written before with it's backward, heavily processed industrial stylings and insistent rhythmic thud. Sinister whispered vocals add to the atmospheric delivery before another supremely catchy chorus breaks through. "Get up off your knees" implores Ihsahn as the song twists and turns almost like it's trying to break free of the restraints placed on it. This must rank as one of the best songs of Ihsahn's career, demonstrating just what an ingenious and experimental songwriter he is.

Whilst not a concept album in the traditional sense, Ihsahn has stated that he has been influenced by Fridtjof Nansen's journey to the North Pole in the late 1800's. "The atmosphere of facing the cold, immense unknown fits rather good with the general lyrical concept of the entire album". The songs on the album deal with doubt, frustration, hopelessness and yet there is also a celebration of man's thirst for knowledge, and an unwillingness to conform, something Ihsahn knows about all too well. "It is, at best, an observance of one's insignificance In relation to time, nature and space yet each individual's ability to make things matter, if only to themselves." With this in mind it is no surprise that every song on the album is different from its fellows.

As mentioned there's a huge, traditional metal streak running through Arktis. There's plenty of Judas Priest style guitar harmonies and histrionics, and colourful keyboard embellishments marking parts of this as some of the most accessible music Ihsahn has written. There's still plenty of darkness, however, and these songs are complex compositions. There's the ghostly, piano-led Into The Vaults and the atmospheric crunch of Until I Dissolve, where Ihsahn proves he can sing as well as roar. There's the dense, claustrophobic noise of Pressure (probably the closest the album comes to anything Emperor-esque) and the medieval/industrial stylings of Frail.

Ihsahn proves what a special talent he is by writing all the music and lyrics for the album and playing every instrument himself, with the exception of the drums which are played by Tobias Ørnes Andersen. He also records and produces the whole thing just for good measure. And you thought your life was busy! There are excellent guest musicians, some of whom have already been noted. However there are two outsanding contributors. The first sees the welcome return of Jurgen Munkby, saxophonist extraodinaire, who breathes his magic into The Thin Red Line. I can imagine this languid tune being played in a dingy jazz dive somewhere on the wrong side of town. Munkby carries the tune with his glorious playing, like a nightmare Pink Floyd gone mental.

The second is Leprous vocalist Einar Solberg who, as well as singing on the opening track, also contributes amazing vocals to closing track Celestial Violence. Starting gently with a piano refrain, Solberg's plaintive vocals drip emotion. The song explodes into the chorus, where Ihsahn takes over singing. There's some flamenco-like guitar work as a bridge back to Einar's second turn. As his vocals build so does the song's orchestration - a triumph of excess.

Bonus track Til Tor Ulven (Søppelsolen) is another unique song in Ihsahn's cannon. Named after a noted 20th century Norwegian poet. Gentle piano is accompanied by spoken word sections, presumably parts of Tor's poetry. I'm assuming they are spoken in Norwegian (although equally possibly spoken by The Muppet's Swedish Chef). It sounds like a funeral dirge, as atmospheric keyboard noises colour the background. Thrumming bass insidiously appears and by the song's climax it's enough to give you a migraine.

Despite the underlying themes of the album, Ihsahn's production is warm and clear. These multi-layered, complex songs come across with a wonderful clarity. Delicate in places, full on metallic firestorm in others, this album sounds fantastic. Artwork is fairly minimal and muted, using photos taken by Nansen on his journey across the ice. Whilst the CD booklet is nicely designed, the lyrics are very hard to read. This is not unexpected though as it is the norm for Ihsahn's solo releases. Not as dense and impenetrable as some of Ihsahn's albums (hello Das Seelenbrechen, I'm looking at you), however the variety and quality of work on display marks Arktis. out as a very special release.

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