Art moves, or it dies. While never fully escaping the shadow of history, while always subject to what Harold Bloom called the withering ‘anxiety of influence’, art is an ellipsis, not a period. Art cannot rest at speaking the words “There we are”; it must ask “Now what?” Under the pressure of such canonical strictures, following up a nearly universally adored work is often precisely the sort of trial by fire that pitilessly lays bare an artist’s potential, her potency, his promise.
To put it pithily: Whence Ihsahn’s solo career, after After?
After putting Emperor to rest and laying thorns on its grave, and after finally losing Peccatum (the avant-garde project in which he teamed up with his wife Ihriel) to reverie, the man born Vegard Tveitan issued a trilogy of solo albums along an enviable upward trajectory of excellence. While neither 2006’s The Adversary nor 2008’s angL was anything less than inspired, compelling heavy metal, 2010’s After represented a frankly stunning nonlinear forward move for Ihsahn. In the wake of such a grand artistic success, Eremita could hardly have hoped to replicate a similar leap forward, so to its credit, it doesn’t seem to try. Despite its textural similarity to the stately, austere After, Eremita exults in a looser sensibility, and by intensifying the progressive tendencies already so prominent in Ihsahn’s music, creates a pristine mental space for the blossoming of compositional diversity.
Highlighting what will be Eremita’s principal thematic unity, the album opens with the sound of a shovel digging, turning over malleable earth, before “Arrival” opens with a bouncy, energetic riff and an understated organ swell. The song wends its way through bravado and reticence, before completely opening up into a classically ass-kicking solo section that transitions back into the clean-voiced chorus courtesy of the soaring guest vocals of Leprous’s Einar Solberg. If you’ve doubted Ihsahn’s continued ability to captivate post-After, kindly listen to that sky-rupturing climax around 4:35 and then tell me we are not in the presence of one of the most brilliant musical minds of our time.
In a nice little turn of irony, despite having a title that translates to ‘hermit’, Eremita is by far the most collaborative Ihsahn album yet, with Shining’s saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby contributing throughout the album, guest vocals from Devin Townsend on “Introspection” (likely returning the favor of Ihsahn’s appearance on Deconstruction), a solo from Jeff Loomis, and vocals from Ihriel (currently of Starofash), with drums throughout the album performed by Leprous’s Tobias Ørnes Andersen. Eremita also sees the inclusion of brass instruments for accent in several notable places, their presence equal parts ominous and regal. Still, despite this plurality of voices, the album speaks with a singular momentum, driving ever forward even as it pulls you sideways.
One of the most impressive things about Ihsahn’s compositional skill, constantly on display throughout Eremita, is the tremendous strength of his songwriting transitions. “The Paranoid” weaves seamlessly between chunky riffing, twisting melodic licks, tremolo-flecked blasting, and that ridiculously catchy recursive chorus: “The shame feeds the anger, feeds the shame, feeds the…” Every point on Eremita feels natural, as if there was never any other place you were supposed to be. “Introspection” unspools itself from acoustic midsection to lovely solo to Devin’s chorus to Ihsahn’s agonized rasping without so much as showing the stitches.
Early album highlight “The Eagle and the Snake” reintroduces Munkeby’s saxophone work, and throughout much of its lengthy duration works as a slow, grinding pummel, a prog-edged anvil strike. The song features some of Ihsahn’s most evocatively mysterious guitarwork, and breaks into a midsection where Munkeby’s hard-edged playing tails the keyboard work much as it did on After. Loomis’s solo is every bit as fantastically fiery and spindly as expected, but leads gracefully back into the chorus’s curious determination. Munkeby’s free honking is the bridge into mid-album hinge “Catharsis,” a mostly sedated piece propelled by minimal, restrained drumming and highlighted by a pensive but deeply emotive guitar solo.
While the album’s first half features some of the most distinctive individual songs, the back half is where the unity of the album is revealed despite its surface diversity. “Something Out There” surges out of the gates sounding a damn sight like Prometheus-era Emperor before pulling back into its driving chorus with a deeply satisfying single guitar chord chopping cross-tempo against blastbeats and Ihsahn’s silky croon. The song’s tone is achingly searching, and almost goddamn hopeful. After paranoia, introspection, and catharsis, not only the song titles but the intensely affecting composition reveals the first tentative, halting steps at the album’s protagonist opening to new possibilities. If none of that means anything, as well as it may not, then at least you can raise your head up and revel in the glorious proggishness of the knotty riff and timing that close the song out over jerky double-bass.
Eremita is that most curious of things: an album that is most certainly a journey, but doesn’t reveal itself as such until the listener is deeply in the thick of it. The first lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy (in Mark Musa’s translation) seem more than a little apt: “Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / for I had wandered off from the straight path.” The lush, orchestrated interlude of “Grief” is then, maybe, a representation of that dark wood, with its overblown string synths and live brass not unlike some of Penderecki’s less apocalyptic moments.
The crux of the journey, however, is the crucial late-album dialogue formed by the album’s closing pair of songs. “The Grave” is Eremita’s darkest moment, and the one in which the introductory theme is reintroduced forcefully, repeatedly, mercilessly: “He hammers the earth with a shovel,” Ihsahn howls over Munkeby’s skronkiest bleating. Ihsahn’s vocals are at their most disconsolate, expressive, and freeform throughout the song, while the instrumentation pounds away in an attempt to represent in sound the solitary, manual dredging of hard soil to some fell end. The song loses none of its weight, and actually gains significantly in menace, once it retreats to a spacious atmospheric section, with excellent freefill drumming from Andersen and distant improvising from Munkeby over a morose guitar figure. The album’s most crucial moment, however, comes as the song whips itself into a slow burn frenzy that reaches a massive stomping crescendo around the 5:30 mark (and, incidentally, forms an inversely emotional climax to that clean vocal triumph of “Arrival”).
For an album closer, “Departure” works its way through a surprising number of extremely polarized moods, jumping from the almost aquatic opening immediately into the album’s most chest-punching riffing and drum hammering, and on into a light-touch solo before Ihsahn’s fingers will into being their thickest, most snakelike riff. Ihriel enters around 4:30 with a brief, wraithlike verse whose first words are difficult to make out, but which concludes “You dig in the dark, you dig in the dark.” Her words and their gentle delivery seem to offer solace to the protagonist, and I can’t help but think that it’s no stretch at all to imagine Ihriel as the Beatrice to Ihsahn’s Dante the Pilgrim. Her words hang in the air as stately brass gives way to patient snare rolls, and when Ihsahn reenters the narrative with that same fat serpentine riff, he addresses her intervention directly: “She spoke to me like hope was real, / that this was something I could feel.” As the ascending brass leads that thick, growling riff, the song explodes into a cacophony of madness, a raging, high-intensity conclusion that refuses to reveal whether the hermit reaches out, embraces whatever faint glimmer of hope the world has mustered, or retreats, returns, relapses, becomes, truly, a shade.
Art dies, or it moves. This art doesn’t have to tell you exactly what it is doing, but you may still find yourself emerging from Eremita’s sway with an incipient question pre-formed in your oral musculature. The autonomous imperative asks “Now what?” in such a way as to feel the heart beating as one, peeling back a solitary shroud, that obscuring gauze, even if only at the corners and the vaguest interstices. It’s okay to say ‘there we are’, but it’s the ‘we’ that matters. To speak like hope is real is almost as good as speaking “Hope is real.” Put down the shovel.