Ihsahn – Ihsahn Review

[Note: Ihsahn is releasing two versions of his upcoming self-titled record, one metal and one purely orchestral. This review only discusses the metal album.]

At this point in his legendary career, listeners can have a pretty good idea of what to expect from a new Ihsahn album. That’s not to say that he doesn’t shift moods and styles ‒ he’s shown quite the range from his early Emperor days to now ‒ but his aura as a musician and bandleader provides such an identifiable throughline no matter how far he’s veering from Norwegian black metal. That aura, that presence, is rather regal and more than a little arrogant, but any arrogance feels earned through the always stately quality of his music, his very obvious vision, and his overall legacy, no matter whether he’s setting a new bar for progressive black metal on After, getting extra experimental on Das Seelenbrechen, or reminding everyone how much he loves Van Halen riffs on Arktis.

Release date: February 16, 2024. Label: Candlelight Records.
Why mention this throughline now, eight full lengths and nearly 20 years into his solo career? Because Ihsahn’s recent output ‒ a trio of EPs showing nice range in the original material and a fun, widely varied selection of covers ‒ gave the impression that the man was perhaps reflecting and searching a little, an impression strengthened by the nearly 6-year wait for a new full length. And of course, going the eponymous route this far into a career is another reason for reflection. Bands and artists do this for a reason, often as a kind of soft reset or if they really, really want you to believe they’re back on track after long periods of mediocrity (thankfully that’s not what’s happening here).

In Ihsahn’s case, it’s clear from this album that it was a personal decision. Ihsahn the album feels as much a statement of who he is as a person as anything since his solo debut The Adversary, and both self-referential lyrical moments and a stylistic breadth that crosses the decades hammer this point home. This is a somewhat distilled Ihsahn: progressive, symphonic, misanthropic, and delightfully brash, yes, but also more self-aware and focused than he’s seemed for a good while.

It’s also one of the strongest sets of songs of his solo career, despite being one of the few albums where he’s not overtly expanding his toolkit. Ihsahn has conditioned us to usually expect some level of experimentation or exploration, but the success here is perhaps partly due to the fact that instead of making obvious forays into new territory he’s merely making some refined nudges to his existing edges and letting the songs do the talking. The biggest nudge is in the symphonic realm, with an expanded use of violin and other strings and horns (or at least simulated strings and horns; they definitely sound real). An intro (and interlude and outro) of nothing but these instruments instantly emphasizes this approach, not to mention that elegant and theatrical vibe as well.

Beyond that, Ihsahn is really just about bringing a really great, cohesive set of songs that each bring something a little different to the overall party, be it an extra bit of majesty, blackened furor, heavy metal thunder, or everything at once. “The Promethean Spark” shows a somewhat restrained Ihsahn, at least at first, despite the obvious technical prowess on display, providing a lot of space for both his still-tip-top harsh vocals and gorgeous singing to shine as it slowly builds its complexity and orchestral theatricality to a dramatic finish. Stylistically it’s a bit of a down-the-middle Ihsahn song in this way ‒ not too far down the black or prog paths ‒ and a great way to introduce the very chamber metal feel of the album.

On the far more blackened, near-Emperor side of things is “Pilgrimage to Oblivion,” which thrills with all its fiery tremolo riffs, blasts, and rageful screams, but it hits another level of drama when the percussion (in part provided by Ihsahn’s son Angell) does a real “drums of war” kind of pounding with fluttering strings flying overhead. Compare that song to “Blood Trails to Love,” which itself is a contrast of eerie, creepy verses and an irresistibly melodic and near-pop chorus. It works in the way jokesters like to say Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” works, as if some evil ritual is interrupted by intruders so the enchanters act like nothing is going on and get all sweet and pretty. Except it’s really good and not, you know, Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.”

Elsewhere, “A Taste of the Ambrosia” shows how much emotional depth Ihsahn can display using his harsh vocals over gorgeous, less intense music; “Twice Born” rocks with a really fist-pumping, straightforward drive while featuring one of the album’s great vocal moments; “Hubris and Blue Devils” goes extra proggy with the rhythms while offering more true blackened blasting, some serious orchestral bombast, and another supremely catchy chorus; and big finish “At the Heart of All Things Broken” takes its time setting a truly epic scale with as much beauty as intensity, calling to mind past closers like “The Pain is Still Mine” and “On the Shores.” It should also go without saying that it all sounds impeccable, with a killer mix that emphasizes a warm and rather analog sounds, particularly in the rhythm guitars, drums, and sneakily active bass.

It’s a wicked good set of songs that flows just about perfectly and tells a story both musically and lyrically, the latter in a way that feels both fantastical and rather autobiographical. To put it another way, the album seems to both expand the mythology of Ihsahn the figure/character and speak to the life of Vegard Tveitan the human. More obvious signs like mentioning the figure Prometheus in a song title or saying he has “The sweet taste of wine” on his lips in “Pilgrimage to Oblivion” (perhaps referencing the gloriously arrogant first line of AngL’s “Misanthrope”) seem like direct callbacks, while other lyrical passages seem to hint at everything from coming of age (“Blood Trails to Love” and “Twice Born”) to his relationship with the wider Norwegian black metal scene and all that entails.

If the latter impression is correct, this theme shows up most notably in “Hubris and Blue Devils” (which is not, it turns out, about Duke basketball fans). Here Ihsahn directly refers to himself again as “The Adversary,” but the “hubris” in the title hints at a deeper, more reflective and mature theme underneath the brashness. He states that he always wanted a “worthy opponent,” but asks if such a desire makes him his worst enemy and speaks of “A spiral of convulsion” in which “The anger fed the shame” (a direct reference to Eremita’s “The Paranoid”). It all seems pretty personal and introspective until you examine how some lines hint at dangerous relationships and perhaps even some more infamous figures:

Perfumed discourse
Hollow convictions
Moderation and humility
Cloak and dagger
The ambiguous nature of loyalty
In ennui I turned my head
To confide in the dead

That could be about anyone learning to unstick themselves from toxic situations, but it’s hard not to imagine Ihsahn’s relationship to and emergence from the early Norwegian black metal scene when hearing it out of his mouth.

Interviews will likely reveal if such interpretations of these songs are correct or if I’m way off base and he’s simply building upon that mythology for a good story, but what can’t be denied are all the self-referential moments. Some listeners might be turned off by such things, especially for an artist that typically has his eyes set directly forward, but if you’ve stuck through Ihsahn’s oft-self-aggrandizing lyrical moments for the past 30 years (“I AM THE EMPEROR!!!”), then you probably won’t have a bit of an issue with anything here. This is particularly likely given that he adds as much reflection as he ever has in the past (and even bits of humility) and delivers his words with what is still one of the best voices in the business.

In the end, Ihsahn isn’t going to necessarily surprise you stylistically or in terms of personality, but if you’ve hung around for part or most of his career, it’s going to make you extremely happy. Ihsahn shows Ihsahn being really, really good at being Ihsahn, which is probably the biggest reason why it’s called Ihsahn. Absolutely no part of me thinks the man is done innovating or flying his freak flag, but this record shows how supremely kickass he is at simply being an excellent version of himself. This is a minor triumph for him at this stage of his career (even though he isn’t yet even 50 years old…) and a no-brainer for all fans of progressive and symphonic extreme metal, theatricality and drama, or simply indulging the whims of one of metal’s all-time great visionaries.

[deal with it]

Posted by Zach Duvall

Last Rites Co-Owner; Senior Editor; Obnoxious overuser of baseball metaphors.

  1. Awesome review, man.


    1. Smoochies duder.


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