(Andy Synn reviews the new album by Ihsahn.)
A certain friend of mine (who will remain nameless) has an almost pathological obsession with pointing out the various points of intersection and cross-pollination between Metal and Pop music, to the extent where it sometimes feels he’s seeing what he wants to see, and not necessarily what’s actually there. Still, he must be having a field day with Ihsahn’s new album Arktis., as it’s easily the most gleamingly melodic, intimately accessible… and, yes, poppy, album that the ever-adversarial artiste has put his name to thus far.
Despite this distinction, however, it’s also possible to see this album as something of a return to form following the somewhat uneven nature of both Eremita and Das Seelenbrechen, both albums which the man himself characterised as being more of a musical diversion than a continuation of the main creative thrust of his solo work.
Though both albums definitely had their charms (and, in hindsight, Eremita quite clearly served as a testing-ground for some of the more overtly poppy ideas and influences which permeate this release – you only need to look at Prog-Pop anthem “Frail” for evidence of that) it’s clear in a number of ways – from the structuring of the songs to the return to the established naming convention (The Adversary, Angl, After, Artkis.) – that album number six is a step back onto the right path.
What’s really interesting, of course, is that, although it’s undeniably more boldly melodic, more immediately hooky, more pop-friendly in tone, it’s still very much a Progressive album underneath the glitz and glamour… And why shouldn’t it be? After all, there’s a long history of Prog artists infiltrating the Pop world, simultaneously embracing and subverting their conventions, if only to show off the fact that “anything you can do, we can do better!”
Plus, it’s not as if Ihsahn has sold out on us. When we talk about the almost radio-friendly possibilities of “Mass Darkness” and its massive, shamelessly infectious chorus, or the layered vocal melodies and air-guitar-worthy riffery that make “Until I Too Dissolve” such an absolute joy to listen to, we’re not talking in terms of today’s hyper-artificial, conveyor-belt pop nuggets. We’re referring instead to an almost bygone age when real artists could infiltrate the charts and still keep their integrity intact, an age when songs like “Money” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart” showed that mass-appeal and artistic depth weren’t mutually exclusive ideas.
So in that sense it’s also almost a throwback record, though Ihsahn’s ever-restless, forward-motion ensures that it’s never a mere nostalgia trip, such that songs like the ominous, organ-drenched “My Heart is of the North” and the subtly bleak and blackened proggery of “Pressure” feel very much like a natural hop, skip, and a (six-year) jump down the creative road from After.
Multiple listening sessions suggest that one or two tracks don’t make quite as strong an impression as the others, it’s true, but the overall hit rate – from electrifying opener “Disassembled”, via the sombre and somnolent harmonies of “In The Vaults”, all the way to phenomenal closer “Celestial Violence” – is quite simply outstanding.
In summation, Arktis. is yet another feather in the cap of Ihsahn as a solo artist, containing some of the biggest hooks, boldest riffs, and best songs he’s ever crafted, and proving once again that the man also known as Vegard Sverre Tveitan is one of modern Metal’s true alchemists, capable of turning (almost) everything he touches into gold.
Candlelight Records will release Arktis. on April 8. It features guest appearances by Einar Solberg (Leprous), Matt Heafy (Trivium), Jorgen Munkeby (Shining), Tobias Ornes Andersen (Shining, ex-Leprous), and Norwegian author Hans Herbjornsrud.