Earlier this year Ihsahn, the immortal, ever-evolving genius of Norwegian prog, released Telemark. That EP saw Ihsahn dialing back the clock and bringing the raw fury that made people love his solo records such as angL and Eremita. For that one, you can read more in my review here. Pharos is the inverse of that album. Rather than bringing the harsh vocals and bone crunching guitar riffs of old, Ihsahn brings a softer, more gentle, emotionally raw style of what is most definitely power rock.
Let’s begin with the good: There are three very good original tracks here. “Spectre at the Feast” could be as comfortable on your home stereo as on some Sirius XM station called International HitFest 6000. In fact, if I was Norway, I would enter this track in the upcoming Eurovision contest because it’s probably worlds better than whatever they’ve got planned (although it might not touch Little Big’s “Go Bananas” GO RUSSIA).
That stellar track presents a perfect apex to the slower, more saccharine tunes that surround it. The opener is loaded with touches of desert ambience and ambient country guitar playing (something Ihsahn has employed before). The vocals are pillow soft, building into their bluesy groove with patience. Drum machines predominate, as Ihsahn’s thin voice contrasts their robust bottom end and his chunky guitar playing. On its own “Losing Altitude” might not be successful, but, when paired with what follows the track, it functions perfectly as an introduction to the absolute catchiness to follow.
Finally, the title track is another patient exercise in composition, this time loaded with acoustic flourishes and beats that slowly wash over the listener. The first two minutes are quite uneventful, until the electric guitar, bass drum, and choir vocals begin to enmesh themselves into something of a march. The composition will repeat this formula, before slowly drifting into nothingness.
And this is where the end of the “good” journey begins. Much like the first track, the title track needs something to follow. It’s unanchored, alone, floating in the ether with nothing to tie itself onto. Yet, as an experimental exercise the track could imply that Ihsahn is working on something remarkable in this direction. But…
For all the brilliant serenity that exists across Pharos, much like his last solo EP, Telemark, he has to go and ruin it with covers. Sure, the “Wrathchild” cover was cool in this way: I’d love to see Ihsahn live, and then for an encore, he comes out and rips through an Iron Maiden song, and the crowd sings along. It’s not something that an album needs to waste time on. And that goes for both the “Wrathchild” and “Roads” covers, both of which are well done and somewhat interesting.
But, like I said, the cover of Portishead’s “Roads” is actually good. Unnecessary, but good. And, in this case it’s something I would like to see from Ihsahn, maybe on an album of covers and not attached to an EP that has little to do with trip hop, although I see where some of his music from 2013 onward has been heavily influenced by it. The dusty crackles and the dull rhythms sound great with his voice softly crawling over the top. But the track is so in contrast to the three that precede it (and to the shitshow that is about to come) that it would almost work better as a standalone piece. Make this a 3-song EP, and I’m ranting about Ihsahn’s Telemark/Pharos EPs as a sort of Deliverance/Damnation package. But, sadly, we are absolutely not about to make that claim.
On the other hand, you have the inexplicable cover of Lenny Kravitz’ “Rock and Roll is Dead” on Telemark and the laughably awful take on a-ha’s “Manhattan Skyline” on Pharos. Even worse, that a-ha cover features the remarkably talented Einar Soldberg of Leprous. That’s right, folks: Two of my absolute favorite musicians collaborated to cover one of the most underrated and misunderstood bands of the 1980s (the best decade ever), and I absolutely hate it. It’s worth posting the video here and letting you take a minute to absorb it before we tear it apart.
It also might behoove us, at this point, to listen to the original. “Manhattan Skyline” was a 1986 single pushed by Warner Bros. for the band’s second album Scoundrel Days. The video was in the same style as the classic “Take On Me,” but the track was a stark contrast to the upbeat nature of their mega-hit. Yet, while it may have been a departure for the Norwegians from their tale of lost love and other dimensions, “Manhattan Skyline” maintained a romantic aura of loss, sadness, and most importantly, love.
Ihsahn chose to change the music… pretty much not at all. He did smartly team up with Soldberg (who was probably very influenced by a-ha frontman Morten Harket). At times, Einar does a stellar impression of the storied vocal range and effortless power of Harket, but, generally, the cover projects more of a “Miami-in-the-90s” vibe than the international power of a-ha’s original. Would this even be fun if Ihsahn toured with Einar handling backup vocals (as he has on so many Ihsahn albums)? The answer is “probably not.” The track chosen is largely lifeless, including Ihsahn’s solo, and while it closed the a-side of Scoundrel Days, it hardly held the power to close an entire album, EP, or a set of EPs, if we consider Telemark and Pharos linked.
It kills me to say negative things about Ihsahn (and also about Soldberg). His solo career has probably been one of the more exciting storylines of music in the last fifteen years. Thankfully, the first three tracks carry weight, and if the covers are discarded and joined with the three originals from Telemark, then you have a nice 1-2 punch of EPs showing two sides of Ihsahn. But as a connoisseur in 2020, a year where we need all the hope we can get, it would have been nice to see Ihsahn focus on one brilliant LP, rather than two somewhat concurrent EPs loaded with non-efficacious cover tracks, two of which are downright terrible.