Das Seelenbrechen

“Art of the ugly soul. One is limiting art much too severely when one demands that only the composed soul, suspended in moral balance, may express itself there. As in the plastic arts, there is in music and poetry an art of the ugly soul, as well as an art of the beautiful soul; and in achieving art’s mightiest effects – breaking souls, moving stones, and humanizing animals – perhaps that very art has been most successful.”

Ihsahn’s fifth offering, Das Seelenbrechen, takes its title from this passage, which comes from Nietzche’s 1878 publishing Human, All Too Human. It translates to “soul breaking,” which here, refers to the transformative process which leads to both beautiful and ugly art, and the right for each to exist. It is unclear, however, which way this transformation is meant to progress. Stones are moved to create structure, and animals are humanized to instill obedience, but when a soul is broken, is it then built up stronger than before? Or is this an act of dissolution meant to leave the soul in a darker and shattered state?

Given Das Seelenbrechen’s disparate musical identities and emphasis on chaos over composition, I have to assume it’s the latter. This is clearly meant as the expression of an ugly soul, and its filthiest and most formless moments are an intentional distancing from the aesthetic and polished apex that Ihsahn has been cresting towards.

That peak is nowhere more evident on this release than “NaCl.” It’s part muscular prog and part soaring ballad, Ihsahn channelling both Opeth and Porcupine Tree. Smoothly harmonized croons trade off with driving guitars and moody atmospherics, all backed by roiling and martial percussion. The track is both moody and playful, balanced and unpredictable, and it’s easily my favorite track on the album. Its follow-up, “Pulse,” is my second favorite – a lovely and melancholy Ulver-like ballad. Its main role on the album seems to be to lull you into reverie before Das Seelenbrechen hurls itself onto the rocks below.

There, that beautiful soul is broken and shattered in the shapeless roar of “Tacit 2.” Much like the thematic climax of Eremita, “The Grave,” this is an ambient and improvised drone-storm of spastic drums and gravel-throated wails. It’s also about as far from Ihsahn’s normally meticulous compositional style as you can get.

Its follow-up, “Tacit,” is more structured and measured. The spastic drums have more purpose, and the formless murk and ambience congeals and crests towards a huge orchestral peak. The piece seems to hint at both tragedy and triumph, at the slow reconstruction of that shattered soul. However, then Jorgen Munkeby’s saxophone screams in out of nowhere, honking and braying and generally ruining the emotional crescendo. I enjoyed its voice on After, but here the sax comes off more comical than cathartic.

There’s a similar moment on the second track, “Regen,” which begins as strongly as “NaCl” and “Pulse.” At first a delicate lullaby (with Ihsahn’s vocals a distant and vulnerable sigh), it crests to a massive and emotional crescendo – its heart shredded by rough, cawing vocals and heaving strings. Then those strings become overwrought, and then further overpowered by grandiose choirs. By the time a raucous guitar solo climbs atop the heap, the whole thing is buckling and showing its seams.

And while other moments of contrast and surprise are more successful (the gorgeous, Floydian solo in “M,” or the Jekyll and Hyde battle between Danny Elfman and Depeche Mode in “Rec”), they’re just glimmers through the murk. By the end of Das Seelenbrechen, I find myself wishing that these adventurous elements had been put in the service of more clarified and composed tracks like “NaCl.”

Perhaps that was sort of the point, if I’ve interpreted (or over-interpreted) the title correctly. Chaos over composition, the validity of ugliness as a pure musical expression. That still doesn’t make for an experience I’ll return to often. Maybe you uglier souls out there will find more solace and enjoyment here.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
October 28th, 2013


  1. Commented by: bast

    The point Nietzche was trying to make here, is that art of the “ugly soul” is the one that has a transcendental impact.
    Pretty “metal” statement if you want to see it that way.

    Good album, it´s clear he needed this experiment to evolve.

  2. Commented by: Luke_22

    Not my favorite album of his but an interesting adventure nonetheless which is gradually growing on me. It will be nice if the metal quotient of his solo work returns next time.

  3. Commented by: Guilliame

    First off, “Ugly Art” breaking souls is not talking about breaking actual souls. He clearly says effect, “art’s mightiest effect.” Art doesn’t move actual stones.

    Frankly, i might disagree that those are Art’s mightiest effects. Bringing beauty and pleasure is art’ greatest accomplishment.

    Yes, there is plenty of room for the ugly in art.

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