“If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Everyone knows that Nietzsche quote. The man is featured on the cover of Ihsahn’s fourth solo album – inverted, but there nonetheless – but I’m not going to choose that overused and pithy bit to describe the darkness contained within. Too obvious.

Instead, how about: “the overman… has organized the chaos of his passions, given style to his character, and become creative. Aware of life’s terrors, he affirms life without resentment.” Or “You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.” And then there’s “The future influences the present just as much as the past.”

Interpret as you wish, but I’m easily able to link each piece of wisdom to Ihsahn’s remarkable career. Particularly that last one – four albums after Emperor, and the Wagnerian fury of his years in that timeless band is still there, but now it’s slashed across a carefully accrued post-black palette that blends stark atmosphere, lush clean vocals and lately, Jørgen Munkeby’s writhing, honking saxophone.

For the first two tracks on Eremita (Latin for ‘hermit,’ though you can also think of the album as After After), that collision of future, present and past is as triumphant as anything on any of his releases since Prometheus. “Arrival” is all blackened locomotive chug, with a minor classical melody cresting into a soulful clean chorus, courtesy of Leprous’ Einar Solberg. The track is bombastic and thoughtful, jagged and sleek, but it’s only the herald for the frenzied battering ram of “The Paranoid,” the latest hypercharged model of “Thorns on My Grave” or “A Grave Inversed.” Love the anthemic chorus – “and the shame feeds the anger feeds the shame feeds the anger” – as well as the saxophone that comes in at the end, disguised as a blatting warhorn (and if only we could send it back in time, Terminator-style, to kill its tootling ancestors on “Al Svartr.”)

After that, you may be caught off-guard by the slower, sensuous and well, introspective “Introspection,” which features guest vocals by Devin Townsend, but instead sounds to me like a chuggy mix of Ihsahn and Mastodon, most notably like something off of Crack the Skye. (Note to Troy Sanders, get us a Scott Kelly/Ihsahn duet on the next album). That’s a fun surprise, and a great track, but then the album gets a lot darker, more dour and experimental, and thus it’s not recommended for casual listening sessions.

“The Eagle and the Snake” is Ihsahn’s doomy skullcrusher, and here, the hook is that it’s the sax that provides the plodding percussion and melodic momentum. In fact, in a neat bit of metallic onomatopoeia, the sax takes on both of the titular roles – wild, jazzy screeches for the soaring eagle, and miserable honks and brays for the crawling snake. (A former raven makes an appearance as well; Jeff Loomis, with a blistering guitar solo). Then, two tracks later, “Something Out There” layers shrill, Anthems-era symphonics beneath a breakneck rumble, then smoothes out and glides into a crooned chorus. The “something borrowed, something blue” refrain made me think of a wedding rather than the rest of the album’s funeral mood, but it’s still a fast and melodic track, which is what I enjoy most from Ihsahn.

That’s in direct opposition to three of the other tracks, which you’ll either find daringly brilliant or momentum-shattering, depending on your mood. I’m still torn. I felt that “Catharsis,” an aimless tone-poem of warbling sax, mystical guitars and bass, trance-like drums and rasped exhortations, was sonically impressive, but aside from its lovely clean chorus, hardly earned its name. And then there’s “Grief/The Grave,” the album’s epic and monstrous climax. It’s Ihsahn’s most psychotic composition yet, all clattering, chaotic drums and manic-depressive sax, like the funeral-noir combo of Barry Adamson, Penderecki and ambient Leviathan. The lyric “He hammers,” chanted over and over, only makes it all the more disturbing. Like I said, if you’re in the right frame of mind and environment (buried alive would be my guess), you’ll find it overwhelming and spectacular, but it’s not going to be a frequent play for me.

I much preferred “Departure,” which struggles and spasms violently before setting off of the album’s most progressive and varied 7 minutes, from bizarre, chilled-out lounge to an ethereal and foreign aria of female vocals (courtesy of Ihsahn’s wife, formerly known as Ihriel when she sang with him in Peccatum). I can only hope that this variance of texture and mood will continue onto album number 5, as it felt to me like the most liberated and loosest of the album’s cuts (even compared to the aforementioned structure-light explorations).

Despite its less visceral, speedy or satisfying moments, Eremita is still a challenging work of art whereas other metal releases this year are merely entertainment. For me, Ihsahn’s most thrilling moments have been when new elements and alien influences batter and smash against the rigid black metal framework, so much so that I don’t even know if you can even describe his work as post-black anymore. As a longtime Emperor fan, the radical progression of his output means that I may never get the purely symphonic sequel to Anthems that I’ve always wanted, but, to return to our friend Friedrich, “extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones, but by contrary extreme positions.”

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
July 9th, 2012


  1. Commented by: Nick Taxidermy

    shit, Grief/The Grave sounds like a winner. i just hate how his records have been produced since Prometheus. He works so well with this insane blur surrounding him. Emperor remain my favourite metal band ever, but I just hate that clean, laser-precise production that’s followed him for over a decade.

  2. Commented by: Deepsend Records

    The shitty saxophone renders nearly half of this album unlistenable to these ears.

  3. Commented by: drowningincorn

    Every time Ishahn puts out an album I REALLY WANT to like it. I never really do though. They’re all brains and no brawn. Without the heavier grouning influence of Samoth, his songs become very tedious, and see to dance around ever giving you real content.

  4. Commented by: Nick Taxidermy

    Dissing Munkeby’s sax is lame, the dude RIPS on that thing.

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