Imagine waking up in the morning and looking in the mirror only to see the face of Vegard Sverre Tveitan looking back at you. Imagine the pressure of knowing that you were responsible for Emperor’s two masterful LPs In the Nightside Eclipse and Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. Imagine knowing that after all that you easily churned out The Adversary, angL and After as a solo artist. Imagine that you’ve provided guest spots on such acts as The Devin Townsend Project, Arcturus, Trivium, Ildjarn and Leprous. Imagine knowing that you’ve also performed live with Satyricon and provided backing vocals for Darkthrone. Imagine that you now have to make more music that will somehow live up to that legacy. It must be a pressure that can, at times, be simply crippling. Yet, like an athlete that dominates in the 4th quarter when their team needs them the most, Ihsahn slicks back his hair, ties it up in a ribbon, dons far too many layers of wool, a pocket watch and boldly strides forth to pick up one of his guitars laden with 9-gauge strings and composes music that will absolutely carry the eternally flaming torch of his unending legacy. And what does he get up to on the latest EP (aside from some unexpected covers we will discuss later)?
Ihsahn screams out of the gate using this EP to reassert his penchant for chaotic speed, dissonance, multi-instrumentation, layered guitar leads and black metal that defies rote categorization. A single guitar builds into a frantic chorus of uneven-keeled guitar work. His characteristic growls of old take center stage as Ihsahn dials the clock back forswearing (at least for this track) clean vocals and radio-friendly riffs. A peek at his more contemporary works slides to the foreground via alluring lead lines and an expansive landscape of empty drums. As always, his playing is calculated and understated—belying the endless talent that lies within him. The main body of the song returns now with screaming leads over the top as the song catapults towards its inevitable conclusion. Is the Ihsahn of old back? Will there be no return of minimalist, avant-garde black metal for him?
The title track stands in stark comparison to the first two tracks on this all-too-brief EP. Despite opening ominously, “Telemark” provides the most breathing room for Ihsahn’s more creative side. The longing sorrow of the prior two tracks, performed with such vehemence, is stripped away. The riffs sound as if they are taken from an instrument other than the guitar, and anger reigns supreme. Perhaps written on a fiddle or piano, these riffs and leads use staccato delivery and higher registers to create an unsettling atmosphere. Sandwiched together, Ihsahn brings back blast beats and chaotic drumming while sliding into more familiar territory with his characteristic compositional experimentation. Some of the early guitar lines sound downright investigative as they poke around, powered by diminished scales and lackadaisical drumming. Overall, “Telemark” as a song provides potentially the greatest look into the current state of Ihsahn’s musical mind. It appears to be a roadmap for what we can expect from his next LP.
And here comes the big surprise: after this brief three-song affair, Ihsahn has tossed in two bonus tunes. First, “Rock and Roll is Dead” by, um, Lenny Kravitz. And second, “Wrathchild” by—if you don’t know, then shame on you—Iron Maiden.
Let’s deal with that first one. Lenny Kravitz is certainly not something that anyone would have expected on an Ihsahn record. Although, Ihsahn has written some pretty rockin’ riffs in the history of his career and it’s probably that he had some influence or help. Apparently, he was cruising the airwaves for smash hits by Mr. Kravitz.
Deft fingers and slick riffs allow Ihsahn to make this a wholly enjoyable experience. By doubling up the main riff and layering the vocals into a growl / clean harmony, the tune reaches epic levels of blackened pop. In fact, it’s about 400% more enjoyable than the original; rock and roll is absolutely not dead. This might actually be a way for the classic sound of rock and roll to not only survive, but flourish in the scene of dive bars, scenes in television shows that involve biker bars and any other routine, overdone melodrama that relies all too heavily on music to carry the ambiance. Enjoy the saxophone, enjoy the repetitiveness of pop and, mostly, enjoy the brevity. Probably the most out-of-left-field moment in Ihsahn’s career.
On the other hand, the cover of “Wrathchild” presents a momentary questioning of why anyone would do this. Sure there are some horn sections and some tighter-than-a-nun’s-asshole-during-fly-season moments, but with Di’Anno back on stage doing solo tours, it’s likely that you can get a better version than a growled take on classic Maiden. Ultimately, what begins as the most obviously-going-to-be-rad moment on this EP ends up being the most questionable as it begins to lend a ska element to what was an absolutely perfect metal anthem by the Gods of pre-Dickinson Iron Maiden.
Baffling yet welcome covers aside, it’s interesting to see Ihsahn moving in a linear fashion, rather than charging forward into the great unknown attempting to master each and every style of music known to humankind. Revisiting his older styles, particularly without the use of clean vocals, allows for Ihsahn to spread his wings and melody via instrumentation. Not necessarily something he’s shied away from in the past, but certainly something he’s never done in this fashion. If Ihsahn’s future is a cholent-style (טשאָלנט) mashup of his former styles, then sign us up. Last Rites will be waiting for the gates to open and for Ihsahn to emerge with his 7-string guitar slung over his back in preparation for musical domination.