The Fascination Street Sessions EP is the most immediately satisfying material Ihsahn’s nailed his name to since 2016’s Arktis. That’s the tweet. That’s the status update. That’s the myspace post. That’s the friendster request. If that’s all you need, there are complimentary gluten free deconstructed cronuts and beanie-weenies located in the hallway to your left. May the Lord or the Gods or the Goddesses or that Chair over there bless you and keep you.
If, however, you prefer more chin-wagging, please consider the following…
Let’s quickly drag the negative out into the open so we can flog it into submission. The biggest issue with the Fascination Street Sessions is rooted in the fact that it only offers a little under 10 minutes of fresh Ihsahn material, plus one very nice cover from (a largely unfamiliar to the U.S. market) Swedish alt-rock band Kent: “Dom andra,” from their fifth full-length Vapen & ammunition (2002). This downward trend in overall minutes of new Ihsahn material experienced over the last 5 years and 3 EPs is a little concerning (18 minutes of fresh material from Feb 2020’s Telemark EP, plus two covers; 14 minutes of fresh material from Sep 2020’s Pharos, plus two covers.) However, if the Fascination Street Sessions EP proves one thing, it proves that this constantly reshaping / fine-tuning artist still understands the impact a beautifully crafted song can have on listeners, even if Ihsahn’s attention seems to be drifting further and further into the production realm, which is the true impetus of this release.
A detailed video intended to illustrate the unabridged production process will eventually accompany the FSS EP, and it will be available as part of an online classroom lesson—an effort Jens Bogren was involved with pretty much from top to bottom, including pre-production support as Ihsahn chiseled away at demo material. Once the actual studio work began, the full venture required “10 intense days at Fascination Street Studios” and “14-16 hour workdays” for all parties involved, including longtime Ihsahn attendant Tobias Ørnes Andersen (drums) and new recruit Øystein Aaland (keyboards and clean vocals on “The Observer.” Side note: Be on the lookout for Aaland’s work on the upcoming debut from progressive rock / metal project AVKRVST, as it sounds quite promising.)
The second way the production benefits the EP is mostly conjecture, but I can’t help but wonder if the stated objective of the release encouraged a different mindset for Ihsahn when it came to songwriting. Instead of thinking about the work as it relates to “Ihsahn the band,” where the ultimate goal largely involves challenging boundaries through a delightfully arrogant sense of progression / evolution, here it’s to… you know… provide compelling material to help showcase production technique in a classroom setting. It’s still unequivocally Ihsahn, of course, but the songs are a little more straightforward and free to rock, and they punctuate the perfect melding of melody, hook and an abundance of rich texture. The longer of the two originals, “The Observer,” has this beautiful sway, almost like a waltz, dipping and swinging through lightness and heft / daylight and dusk. And as already mentioned, the contrast between Ihsahn and Aaland’s vocals very much augments that splendid balance.
By contrast, “Contorted Monuments” is the scorcher, charging from the gate with a totally triumphant, galloping riff and that deep Hammond hanging just behind it in the backdrop. A quick and bright solo launches the listener forward, then the listener riiiiiiiides the storm until a seamless transition around the 1-minute mark suddenly conjures a beautifully warm and soft tone that’s an inch away from the big sweaterisms of classic Tears For Fears. From there, the song swings back and forth between a crescendoing sinister vibe that’s repeatedly crashed by that same big opening riff, and of course there’s an abundance of bright melody to splash the corners. It’s a fucking banger, basically, and it’s the sort of song that feels like it does more inside 4 minutes than most other bands do in double the time.
The closing cover song doesn’t stray much from the original, but if you’re like me and find yourself walking into the affair with little-to-no previous KENT experience, you will be treated to a wonderfully catchy dark-pop closer whose crux is built on a ridiculously infectious whistled melody that will by-God stick to the brain matter for days on end. And of course it doesn’t hurt to have Jonas Renske (Katatonia)—one of the finest voices in metal today—provide a guest spot that shoots the quality level through the rafters.
It’s been a long five years since we last welcomed a full-length from Ihsahn, and while I’d say wandering into that “enough with the EPs already” camp might be a fairly natural reaction at this point, I would also point out that expecting things from the artists we value mostly leads to a very slippery and all too often unsavory slope. Plus, the guy continues to leave these pleasant little audible breadcrumbs along the trail to make sure listeners still know where to find him. That’s nice. I wish more artists / bands that spreeeeaaaaad the full-lengths would do similarly.
As of right now, it appears that only a digital form of the Fascination Street Studios EP will be available through Candlelight Records, and maybe that’s all that’s necessary, given the overall objective of the endeavor. I personally think it’s pretty cool to see Ihsahn firing up his creative engines in ways that fall outside of songwriting—that’s precisely the sort of innovation that helps keep enduring artists interested in moving forward. And as long as the results end up as high-grade as the Fascination Street Sessions, I’m guessing that will in turn lead to more music in the not-too-distant future. That sounds pretty great to me, literally and figuratively.