Ihsahn – After
I never did listen to Emperor much really, so I came into this album with no expectations, no sacred cows that might be slaughtered, no preconceived notions to be derailed or upheld. In fact, I doubt this would have made it onto my list except for the inclusion of the song Undercurrent on a Metal Hammer CD. That song blew me away, so I was waiting at Zia for them to open up at 10am on 26 January when the album was released.
I wasn’t disappointed at what I got for my $13.
From the sweet opening riff of the first track, The Barren Lands, the album takes hold of your ears and doesn’t let go until 53 minutes later. Each song is a curious and powerful blend of death metal, arena rock and free jazz. Yes, you read that correctly: free jazz.
Ihsahn has dabbled in a number of post-Emperor projects, including Peccatum, a weird sort of avante-garde industrial gothic classical musical group mostly consisting of Ihsahn, his wife Star of Ash’s Ihriel and her brother Lord PZ. On those albums it was clear that Ihsahn had seen the limitations of black metal as a genre, and he was exploring new territory. In a sense, he was finding what he could do to make the admirable aspects of other genres he liked more palatable to the black metal community and this seems to have laid the groundwork for his solo albums of the past decade.
For this album, Ihsahn once again plays damn near every instrument, with the stunning exception of the saxophone parts, played with verve by Jørgen Munkeby (of the black metal-jazz fusion group Shining). Now, I’m not talking about pleasant, clear, melodic Spyro Gyra type saxophone. I’m talking about mean, loud, dirty, squealing-full-of-sex type of saxophone. Not so much Sonny Rollins as Steve Mackay, ya know what I’m sayin’? Although it’s not the focus of the album, or even of any of the 8 songs in particular, the addition of this voicing really stands out when it’s present, and helps to set this album apart from almost anything else in metal today. The choatic wailing really contrasts and complements the tightly controlled guitar and drums, bringing a badly needed bit of pandemonium to an otherwise rigid soundscape.
Not that the songs themselves are sparse or sterile; in fact, each song seems to be a small symphony of sorts, pacing through from acoustic guitar riffs, furious double-kick drumming, chunky rhythms parts, and soulful vocals that then become black metal growling ( I swear sometimes I can hear that he was writhing on the floor of the studio while he was singing, to get it just right).
In a departure of sorts for me, one of my favorite tracks on the album is also arguably the slowest, most ballad-like: Frozen Lakes On Mars, a sort of mournful ditty that starts with a searing guitar riff, quickly moves into heavy chunkness with near-CMVs and blistering guitar solos, but eventually settles into a terrific mid-tempo groove which grinds the chorus into your head. Most of the songs are like that to one degree or another, but this one just has such solid hooks in the chorus that it stands way out; it should be released as a single for more adventurous radio station airplay (do they even still do that anymore?).
One way for me to describe this album is that most of it sounds kind of like Opeth if they trimmed the fat from some of their songs and condensed them down to just their core elements. All but 2 of the songs are a mere 4-6 minutes long, and the 2 longer tracks are so fluid in their movements that you won’t even notice that 10 minutes have passed.
The songs as a whole are so tight and so incredibly well-performed, it’s hard to believe that this is (in the truest sense of the word) a solo album. Ihsahn not only wrote all the songs and played nearly every instrument, he also engineered the recording and produced it all himself. It’s a truly devastating effort, a real masterpiece and solid evidence in favor of the notion that music is complex enough that the auteur title can and should be applied to musicians.
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