It has been a decade since Emperor main man Ihsahn released his first solo record, ‘The Adversary’, and since then over the course of a further four idiosyncratic and challenging albums he has proved himself to be an artist of genuine depth and imagination. With each release Ihsahn has pushed the musical envelope; with ‘Arktis’ he has not only continued this progression, he has produced his most finely honed and crafted work to date.
This is groundbreaking music, make no mistake, but then much of the Norwegian’s catalogue can be labelled as such, from Emperor through Peccatum and onto his solo career. His latest release is a broad, genre-hopping, collection that captures the diversity of metal within it’s hour long running time. There are elements of black metal, natch, but also symphonic metal, ambient metal, stadium rock, alt-metal; it’s a veritable smorgasbord of the music we all love, superbly produced and executed. What raises ‘Arktis’ to the level of genuine masterpiece is the songwriting; vitally, each fabulously unique track is instantly accessible; everything has a hook, whether it be a nagging, insidious guitar line or an angelic chorus. One play and you’ll want to hit that button again. Two plays and you’ll be humming lines from it all day. Three plays, four… it never gets over-indulgent or dull, the sign of a truly impressive collection of songs.
Opener ‘Disassembled’ begins with a prog riff, jazzy drumming and growled vocals, and the quality of the mix, courtesy of Opeth / Katatonia producer Jens Bogren, is apparent from the start. This is a big sounding record, where the tunes are allowed to breathe, despite the intensity of the playing. The furious opening verses give way to a chorus full of angelic harmonies and strings, highlighting the light and shade which permeate throughout, and the whole thing comes together brilliantly well.
‘Mass Darkness’ maintains the high standard of the opener, kicking off like a 90s euro-metal tune with Priest-approved metallic twin guitar harmonies, before descending into a sinister rumbling groove.
In the hands of a lesser talent, third track ’My Heart is Of the North’ could have been one idea too many. Opening with a gnarly riff, and a rolling, nagging drum beat, it takes traditional black metal, jazzy chord work, Blackmore-esque lead runs, and a Floyd-like mid section, and fuses them into a wonderfully heavy, trippy meisterwork. ‘South Winds’ dwells in Rammstein territory with an insidious synth riff and sinister whispered vocal, and more of those jazz chords crashing around the harmonious chorus. Wonderfully produced, you’ll be hearing the riff snaking around your ear drum for days.
‘In the Vaults’ is thrillingly atmospheric, featuring another huge guitar riff; I got chills down my spine as the song delicately unfolded, revealing layer upon layer of melody, a true highlight in an album full of highlights. Ihsahn channels George Lynch on ‘Until I too Dissolve’ a slab of (im)pure 80s metal remoulded for the here and now, with thrilling guitar work full of pinched harmonics, furious fret runs and beautifully executed arpeggios.
‘Pressure’ induces just a feeling of that; it’s a manic, claustrophobic blast, featuring psychotic jazzy riffing, a tormented guttural vocal, and an Emperor-like mid section with strings and manic tempo. Full of Devin Townsend-like whirling dervish menace, Frail is almost a companion track to ‘Pressure’, the musical equivalent of a trip to the asylum, yet Ihsahn manages to squeeze in an aching, melodic solo amongst the inspired lunacy; and magically, it all fits.
The penultimate track ‘Crooked Red Line’ has a Queensryche like vibe, opening with saxophone, Ihsahn showing the melodic side of his voice, before those guttural grunts return for the violently explosive mid-section. Album closer proper ‘Celestial Violence’ is just enormous and a fitting finale. Beginning with soft piano, and a plaintive vocal, the lilting verse melts away and massive, massive chords and a screamed mantra of ‘celestial violence’ drives the song towards its apocalyptic end. It’s breathtaking stuff, and proof again, that this is the work of a special, singular talent.
Vinyl and deluxe versions of the album feature an extra track, the sparse and unforgiving nine minute chill that is ’Til Tor Ulven’, featuring a spoken word contribution from renowned Norwegian author Hans Herbjornsrud. A cursory look at the aforementioned artwork for ’Arktis’ suggests a bleak, demanding, colourless journey lies ahead. Far from it, this record is less like a trek to the frozen North and more akin to winning a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Once you’ve removed the monochrome packaging and realised you’re one of the lucky few, then you’re thrown headlong into a fantastical, colourful, beautifully constructed world of every conceivable taste and texture, upon which you should most definitely gorge yourself. Just beware the sinister undercurrent…
Ihsahn has a deserved reputation as an extreme metal guru; yet ’Arktis’ is not an extreme metal record. It’s just extremely fucking brilliant.