Ihsahn
Arktis.

The lone traveler on the cover of Arktis, Ihsahn’s sixth solo release, may as well be the man himself. Ever since departing Emperor, Ihsahn has charted his own paths across rough and largely unknown terrain. Previous album Das Seelenbrechen veered off into particularly strange and challenging territory – even for me, a die-hard fan of his work for almost the last 20 years. Arktis sees him back on a steadier and more straightforward path, but this is not a step backwards by any means. There’s still much here that’s unexpected and eccentric, but it’s more focused, engaging, and balanced, making this my favorite release since After.

Ihsahn explains it best: “My focus for this album was to write within more traditional song structures and still give each song a strong individual identity, be that through a re-occurring melody, a chorus, sound design or a good old guitar riff. I also wanted to explore this on the production side, blending organic rock sounds with more modern expressions.” If that was his goal, then he’s succeeded brilliantly – this is an exceptionally rich and textured album, and its varied compositions and palette shows just how much his vision and creative confidence have expanded over the years.

Longtime fans will be pleased with the more metallic tracks, like the muscular blackened-prog of “Disassembled,” and “Until I Too Dissolve,” which rips with big, swaggering ’80s riffs like something off of Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tears. Other tracks like “Mass Darkness” (featuring guitar from Matt Heafy of Trivium) and “Pressure” are constructed from busy progressive death or discordant sludge, but are then shot through with flourishes of neoclassical heavy metal. (In fact, the only thing I don’t hear much of at all on Arktis is traditional black metal.)

One of the most noticeable new additions to Ihsahn’s palette is a much heavier use of electronics and textural studio wizardry. “South Winds” exemplifies this with its Skinny Puppy whispers and industrial lurch, which are then followed by a swoony clean chorus. It’s the same juxtaposing approach as has been heard in previous work, but now Ihsahn is working with a palette that’s unlike anything he’s employed before. It’s inspired and wonderful, and reminds me of when Trent Reznor started playing with a brighter sonic palette and unexpected melody on The Fragile (still my favorite nine inch nails release). “Frail” is another strange industrial/electronic stomp, built from loops of rumbling piano and UFO death-ray sound effects. It’s the type of song that seems less composed than it was assembled, through experimentation and layering and bursts of inspiration.

It’s the increased use of clean vocals throughout the rest of the album – with increasing degrees of warmth and vulnerability – that really wow. “Disassembled” crests to a chorus that’s reminiscent of the sunny sweetness of The Beatles, and then in the bridge, guest vocalist Einar Solberg (of Leprous) croons like David Gilmour atop a Pink Floyd daydream of tremulous strings and bass. That breezy British psychedelia makes a return again on “My Heart is of the North” – this time with Ihsahn affecting a David Bowie-like croon. The passage stands out in stark contrast to the rest of the song, which is undulating and bluesy and punctured by stabs of jazzy organ.

“In the Vaults” is meditative and intense, with a minimalist palette that lets his clean vocals take center stage. The highlight on this track is the duet he performs with his own rasps – harsh and scraping pitted against impassioned and soulful. Noir ballad “Crooked Red Line” offers yet another battle of vocal personas: one sultry and low, another roaring and vengeful. This is also the first time I’ve truly enjoyed the appearance of Jørgen Munkeby’s sax – perhaps it’s the genre, where this sort of instrument is typically heard.

In the crushingly emotional closer, “Celestial Violence,” Ihsahn rasps and roars against a monstrous, tragic melody in the choruses, while Einar Solberg returns to handle the clean vocals in the verses. Given how polished and beautiful Ihsahn’s vocals have become, it’s a bit surprising that he gave Solberg the album’s climax – though maybe it’s ‘cause the guy absolutely kills it. If this were on a Broadway stage, it would bring the house down.

Arktis is Ihsahn’s most listenable and richest album to date, and certainly will be one of the year’s finest. While the songs are, on the whole, more conventional than the ugliest and most amorphous experiments on Das Seelenbrechen and Emerita, this is still not something you’ll just throw on in the background. Arktis is an album to savor and marvel at. Each song invites you to lean closer and consider each choice he made, even as you just want to let its power sweep you away. Bravo.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
April 11th, 2016

Comments

  1. Commented by: Jesuschrist

    You’re not die hard enough then,by definition, if Das was too much for you,lol.


  2. Commented by: gabaghoul
  3. Commented by: Dimaension X

    Ihsahn just keeps getting better and better.


  4. Commented by: Nick Taxidermy

    This record is something special.


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