Ihsahn
After

Ihsahn’s work has always been forward-thinking and progressive, but its roots have also been easily traceable to that of earlier masters. From the Wagnerian fury of Anthems-era Emperor to the baroque intricacies of Prometheus, The Adversary and angL, it’s obvious that Ihsahn has studied and absorbed classical music and theory in a way that few metal musicians have. So it’s appropriate that his third solo album is titled After, because it moves past those classical influences into something much more post-modern and unclassifiable.

At first, album opener “Barren Lands,” with its stuttering rhythms and unpredictable guitar line, seems like a familiar extension to the sound of the previous two solo albums. No big surprise, given the return of Spiral Architect’s prog-masters Lars Koppang Norberg on bass and Asgeir Mickelson on drums. Yet it’s more of a conundrum as well, simultaneously brutish and restrained, dissonant and peculiarly melodic.

Its follow-up, “A Grave Inversed,” is quite the opposite. Even on its own, it’d be the most ferocious thing Ihsahn has done since “In the Wordless Chamber” (from Prometheus), but there’s one thing that takes it completely over the edge, to levels of batshit-insanity: a saxophone.

By now, you’ve probably heard that the saxophone, courtesy of Jorgen Munkeby (of Norwegian extreme-jazz outfit Shining – and not the Swedish black metal act), has a starring role in After, and it’s such an unexpected choice that it could have easily been a gimmick. In fact, I’ve only heard the sax used well in metal a few times, the last being Czech black metal act Oblomov‘s 2005 release Mighty Cosmic Dances. There, it was only used sparingly, and only as a strange addition to their astral cacophony.

On After, the sax is much more integrated and vital, although its initial appearance, during “A Grave Inversed,” is extremely bizarre – a psychotic warble that I can only describe as the accompaniment to a clown car massacre. Yet that’s only one of Munkeby’s voices – on later tracks, his sax croons, keens, brays and wails like a duet partner, bringing a startling amount of emotion and catharsis to the entire album.

This is most apparent on the ten-minute “Undercurrent,” at the album’s midpoint. In the track’s first half, shimmering guitars, submerged bass and smooth vocals shift like veins of hidden water beneath tectonic rock and ice. Of course, all that subdued pressure comes rocketing to the surface in the track’s proggy, roiling second half. Wait for Ihsahn’s layered, triumphant vocals at the 8-minute mark, and then the gorgeous, tortured sax melody that joins in – it’s not just my favorite crescendo on the album, it’s one of the most memorable passages of all of Ihsahn’s solo work.

Same goes for the ironically-titled “Austere,” a lush ballad featuring Hammond organ, delicate acoustics and rippling post-rock/sludge dynamics. It’s Ihsahn meets Isis, and it’s utterly captivating. Its counterpart comes earlier, with the soulful title track. “After” features the same sinuous, eccentric melodies employed elsewhere, but they’re shaped and soothed by Ihsahn’s honeyed vocals, more confident than they’ve ever been. (They’re also a wonderful counterpart to the raptor-croak we all know so well.) “Frozen Lakes on Mars” and “Heaven’s Black Sea” form another linked pair – “Lakes” a straightforward, churning stomp with a clean-crooned chorus, and “Black Sea” its more majestic, martial and ambitious reprise.

Finally, monstrous album closer “On the Shores” opens with the same saxophone melody that closed out “Undercurrent,” but it’s rendered as a bleak, bluesy eulogy. But whereas the earlier track went out with a despondent cry, “Shores” ends the album with a tsunami of blackened prog – undercurrents erupting from beneath austere, frozen lakes and whipping Heaven’s black sea into a grave inversed.

After is the most holistic, thoughtful and constructed of all of Ihsahn’s solo albums, but it may not hit you at first. It may not even sink in after several listens. Spend the time with it, though, and it will unfurl and envelop you in a way that few albums even attempt to. In many ways, it reminds me of 2005’s black/prog album The Sense Apparatus, by fellow Norwegians Frantic Bleep. That release also seemed difficult and unyielding at first, but has since become one of my favorite go-to records when I want an solitary, inward sonic journey. After will be giving it some serious competition in the coming months – if not the new decade.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
January 4th, 2010

Comments

  1. Commented by: Timmy

    Sweet review, Jordan! Like the descriptions, contexts, and band comparisons which are used sparingly and effectively.


  2. Commented by: timshel

    Yeah, for sure this is another stellar piece of writing. Well done, Jordan. I want to hear this album. Ihsahn always has interesting ideas.

    Off topic– When is Frantic Bleep going to release a new one?!


  3. Commented by: gabaghoul

    thanks guys – curious to see what you all think of it too

    timshel: FB – I dunno, soon I hope, it’s been long enough


  4. Commented by: Staylow

    Wow. As always Jordan, your writing never fails to amaze me – well done.

    As for the album, I’ve only given it one focused listen thus far (and couple distracted ones), but it’s already blowing me away.


  5. Commented by: Brandon Reinhart

    Ah! I want! Unfortunately it looks like the album isn’t released in the US until January 23rd or something like that?


  6. Commented by: Biff Tannan

    your review has me intrigued, but I have to ask: are there any SONGS on this album?

    I own the previous two albums…. I enjoyed them when the came out, but I never listen to them after the initial few weeks because there is nothing memorable about them.

    Is this one any different?


  7. Commented by: dr_neo_cortex

    Good review, I’ll be checking this one out if I ever catch up with all the metal coming out! Didn’t Yakuza use a sax pretty well on a couple tracks off their last album? could be thinking of a different band but I’m pretty sure it was them


  8. Commented by: axiom

    Fine review Jordan. I can’t wait to hear this. It took me a little while to realize what a masterpiece angL is. Pretty sure I read that a tour is possible, can you imagine?


  9. Commented by: gabaghoul

    thanks axiom
    he did tour with Opeth in Europe – I wonder how big a US tour would be if it ever happened – or who Candlelight would send out w him


  10. Commented by: Cynicgods

    Really dig your reviews, Gaba. Word usage, references, and writing style are all quite spiffy. :D

    Raptor-croak actually made me laugh, had this bizarre mental picture of one fronting a metal band lopping off poser heads left and right. How metal would that be? VERY METAL, Cynny says. Anyways, keep up the good work.


  11. Commented by: gabaghoul

    thanks Uncle Cynny, I wrote it just for you


  12. Commented by: Cynicgods

    Yeah, never understood why people always did stuff for me and I’m not even a hot chick. Guess my natural animal magnetism works wonders even with men. :D


  13. Commented by: gabaghoul

    another comments section ruined


  14. Commented by: Cynicgods

    Glad to be of service, kind sir. :)


  15. Commented by: ceno

    Awesome, just awesome: both your review and the album. I like Ihsahn’s previous two releases, but I think the new one is a grandiouse piece of work. His most progressive and jazzy I would say. The sax parts are an incredibly fitting supplement to the music. As to my favourite track, it’s no doubt Grave Inversed. But the rest of them are also stunning enough to grab you stronger and stronger with every new listen. And of course, lots of new small and big surprises guaranteed.


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