Vegard Sverre Tveitan has been a mainstay of the vast metal underground for over 15 years. At the ripe age of 17, he helped to write and record the groundbreaking self-titled EP with Emperor, a band in which he was the undisputed leader of composition and direction. He later added to the avant-garde style with the family act Peccatum, featuring the nightingale vocals of his wife. However, after years of genre-defining and expanding, the man known as Ihsahn surprisingly reined it in for his solo career. The Adversary was basically a toned-down version of later Emperor mixed with the classic metal sounds of bands like Mercyful Fate. A quality album, but eclipsed by 2008’s AngL, which found the man very comfortable in his new shoes leading a solo act. But even that album’s display of blackened prog virtuosity felt rather comfortable, as if Ihsahn’s days of widening extreme metal’s horizons were behind him.
This is why After is such a shocking (and welcome) surprise. Not only does it repeat the jump in quality that AngL made, but it is Ihsahn’s most experimental and forward-thinking work since the demise of Peccatum, and easily the most individualistic work of his entire career. From the shifting dynamics and unorthodox song structures to the holistic vision and prominent use of saxophone (that’s right, saxophone), After unveils a brave new Mr. Tveitan, one who has rediscovered his genius and reignited the creative flame under his arse.
Despite the publicized switch to 8-string guitars, many of the musical elements will be familiar to fans. There are plenty of half black/half prog riffs, harsh and clean vocals, and splashes of neo-classicism. However, Ihsahn has added to and advanced this musical palette with a superior sense of album flow and variety. The difference is instantly apparent as opener “The Barren Lands” is notably less aggressive and more atmospheric than overtures of past albums. Then he gives the listener a meat hook whiplash with the downright twisted “A Grave Inversed,” a layered stew of black metal riffs, off-kilter blast beats, and an utterly insane use of saxophone. Think La Masquerade Infernale written by a technical black metal version of Arcturus. The shifts continue through the moody title track (the one song that would have felt at home on The Adversary), and into the thrash-tinged “Frozen Lakes on Mars,” a delightfully catchy end to the album’s first act.
If Act I of After shows off Ihsahn’s heightened sense of songwriting approach and variety, the second act is where he adamantly and finally states to all of metaldom that his solo career is no mere Emperor afterthought. The largest statement comes in the form of the ten minute “Undercurrent,” which builds slowly over it’s first third until a heart-wrenching saxophone melody brings the album to a soaring emotional peak. The song soon shifts into full prog, making the most out of repetitive guitar patterns through shifts in vocals, rhythm, and the drumming subtlety of Asgeir Mickelson (who is absolutely on fire here). A return to the sax melody reveals just how essential the instrument is to the emotional heft of After. It sometimes emulates the traits of tremolo-picked guitar and is elsewhere used as a substitute for keyboards, but it is when the sax is employed as an additional, wordless vocalist that it is most effective. Jorgen Munkeby puts on an utterly tortured performance, miles away from the pretentious use of the instrument elsewhere in metal.
Most albums would lie down and rest after such a song. After does not. Following are the beautiful, understated “Austere” and the imposing, minor key “Heavens Black Sea,” the latter of which throws down the gauntlet of heaviness, intimidation, and majesty. Album finale “On the Shores” bookends a few more minutes of progressive insanity with a reprise of the saxophone wail from “Undercurrent,” a small yet expert move which glues the entire album together into much more than the sum of its parts.
Some will choose to place the same criticisms here that have been given to Ihsahn’s past solo work. Those who have had issues with his harsh vocal style will likely still have them. The bass, while higher in the mix than in the past, is still less than prominent (and the only complaint about a very stellar mixing job). But these issues are inconsequential to Ihsahn’s resounding success in achieving his vision, while simultaneously taking his solo career to brilliant new levels. Even the most jaded listener is strongly urged to give After its fair shake. It is yet another masterful achievement from a man who has made a career out of them. We’re not even in 2010 yet and the early bar for the year has already been set. The ball is in your court, everyone else.