Ihsahn - Ihsahn

Artist: Ihsahn

Album Title: Ihsahn

Label: Candlelight Records

Date of Release: 16 February 2024

I have spent several hours of my life listening to this new self-titled album, or should I say ‘double album’, from Ihsahn. However, it’s possible that I’ve spent even more time thinking about it, the music that appears on it, and what I ultimately think about it. I may even need a bit more time, so let me procrastinate a little more before nailing my colours to the mast.

The word ‘legend’ is thrown around too often these days, I find. But if ever that word was going to be used correctly, it’d be here. Born Vegard Sverre Tveitan, it is through his musical alter ego that Ihsahn has become such an important and legendary figure for those who know, admire, or love heavy music, black metal in particular. We are all aware of his exploits with Emperor throughout the 1990s and very early noughties, helping to create and then shape one of the most revered bands in black meta, as well as the genre itself. And, whilst most people hear ‘Ihsahn’ and think ‘Emperor’, it’s now the reality that the Norwegian’s exploits as a solo artist now far exceed those with his former band, certainly in terms of quantity, if not equally matched in notoriety perhaps.

Ihsahn is an innovator, an experimenter, and someone that seems to have little or no interest whatsoever in repeating himself. And so, it will come as no surprise to learn that this, his eighth solo album is another collection of material quite unlike anything he has done before. For this outing, which he has confidently named after himself, Ihsahn has explored the idea of combining heavy metal with cinematic, orchestral music. This idea, in itself, is not new, but arguably the way in which Ihsahn has gone about this endeavour absolutely is. The first album sees metal music combine and interweave with orchestral elements but not as an added bonus or embellishment, but as an integral aspect and an equal partner. The second album is purely the symphonic manifestations of the compositions. Again, not just the self-same music without the metal elements, but separate compositions in their own right. As the press release puts it, the entities are “two melodically interlinked versions of the same album.”

Ever since this was first mooted some months, perhaps years, ago, the buzz around it and the expectation for it have been ever-present and growing in intensity. It’s an intensity that seems to have only further heightened since the first single, ‘Pilgrimage To Oblivion’ was released at the back-end of 2023. I fear then that my review will either be completely ignored or temper a little of the enthusiasm slightly.

Here’s the thing. When Emperor were a recording entity, I was a big fan of ‘In The Nightside Eclipse’ and ‘Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk’. I adored, and still do, the expansive sounds, the epic nature of the music, and most importantly, the melodies. In fact, on songs such as ‘Thus Spake The Nightspirit’ and ‘The Wanderer’, the melodies were so huge and anthemic that I instantly fell in love and it’s a primary reason why the latter of the two records remains my absolute favourite Emperor album to this day. However, I struggled with 1999’s ‘IX Equilibrium’ and their final studio album ‘Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire & Demise’ released in 2001. I still do, to a certain extent, because of the greater progressive nature of the music and the downturn in those moments of anthemic, rousing melody. Sure, both albums are great, but I admire them rather than loving them.

The same is true of ‘Ihsahn’, too, an album heralded by some as the album that Emperor never made. Undoubtedly, it is an incredible and powerful body of work, with some fantastic compositional qualities and it is instantly recognisable as Ihsahn. It is also unique, fresh, bold and progressive. But, as with the latter two Emperor albums and other solo Ihsahn records since, I marvel at what is being presented without ever falling head over heels for it. At the core of this is, I believe, a lack of stop-me-in-my-tracks melody, at least to my ears and for my personal preferences. The album has lots of melody within it – to say otherwise is, frankly, crazy. But it isn’t that rush of melody, or that killer hook that pulls me back regardless of whatever else is being thrown at us. It happens occasionally, but just not enough. I feel churlish and miserable even thinking this, let alone writing it, but I’m honest if nothing else. I respect Ihsahn greatly and bow down to his abilities as a musician and a composer. But on ‘Ihsahn’, I can only doff my cap in his direction and show my appreciation. I don’t love it, as much as admire him.

Ihsahn - Ihsahn
Photo Credit: Andy Ford

I felt, over and over again, that if I spent long enough in its company, I might realise that epiphany that I so desperately wanted. But it has not materialised, at least, not enough across the album. And, if truth be told, I have generally focused my attention on the metallic offering for the purposes of this review.

In terms of what I like, it actually starts with the opening piece, ‘Cervus Venator’ which, regardless of the version you choose to listen to, it’s a hugely lush and majestic orchestral composition that has an undeniable cinematic quality to it. It sets the tone perfectly for what follows because immediately you know you’re in for a hugely ambitious listening experience. Indeed, throughout ‘Ihsahn’, I cannot speak highly enough of the orchestral aspect, as Tveitan has truly done a remarkable job across the entire album.

The initial calm is blown away immediately by ‘The Promethean Spark’ as it bursts forth with a mid-tempo riff and a strong central beat brought forth by drums and bass guitar alike. The raspy vocals are a delight, throwing me back to those heady Emperor days, but Ihsahn mixes then well with a cleaner approach at points too. The track flits all over the place with a progressive playfulness, and works in perfect unison with the orchestral arrangements, both feeding off each other throughout. And, for all the extreme metal trappings, it never feels too aggressive or overbearing; it’s a song that has grown in my affections I must admit, and it’s the same elsewhere on the record, too.

For example, it’s difficult not to form an appreciation for the sheer over-the-top symphonic bombast of ‘Twice Born’ at its beginning and at various points throughout. The sweeping vistas that are conjured by the more measured ‘A Taste Of The Ambrosia’ complete with one of the more melodically satisfying approaches means that this cannot fail to be a personal highlight. It’s also one of the more complex songs due to the way in which it shifts direction around the midpoint. The incredibly rousing closing crescendo caps it off perfectly, too.

It takes until the seventh composition, ‘Blood Trails To Love’ for Ihsahn to unleash his clean voice to the fullest and, when he does, it’s like a pressure valve is released. The complex, multi-layered, and intense soundtrack is, for a brief moment, replaced by a wonderfully exuberant section where a greater sense of melody comes through. If more of the album was like this, I suspect my overall appreciation of this album would be markedly different.

Towards the end, the intensity is given some respite within the introduction of ‘At The Heart Of All Things Broken’, a nine-minute affair that starts off delicately and melodically accented by clean vocals, before building only to inexorably unfurl into an epic, multi-faceted composition that fully underlines Ihsahn’s considerable talents.

If you’re looking for a full-on black metal assault though, then ‘Pilgrimage To Oblivion’ is a great place to head. The drumming is frenetic, the riffing has that unmistakeable fast-picked delivery for which Ihsahn is known and loved, and there are a few screams of anger, frustration, and raw power. It’s easy to understand where the Emperor references have come from when listening to this song alongside parts of ‘Twice Born’ and sections within the otherwise highly progressive sounding ‘Hubris And Blue Devils’.

Ultimately, ‘Ihsahn’ is an astonishing feat and maybe, with more time and attention, it might win me over completely; it certainly has the quality, the ambition, and the intelligence to do so. In the meantime, I will implore you all to check it out and form your own opinions. Many of you will utter ‘album of the year’ sentiment, whilst others, like me, may approach it with a more cautious enthusiasm. One thing’s for sure, though, I’d love to hear this music in a live setting with a full orchestra – that might be an experience to truly behold.

The Score of Much Metal: 85%



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