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Review: Ihsahn’s Das Seelenbrechen Lacks Das Coherence

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Conclusions matter, and Ihsahn knows it. This is the reason After was such a powerful conclusion to the Adversary-angL trilogy, and why Emperor’s final release Prometheus is arguably as important as In The Nightside Eclipse. But similarly, a bad ending can sour an entire album. Releases that begin in a disorganized manner but which collect themselves by the end are be much more appreciable than albums which start well but can’t maintain the quality throughout. Unfortunately, Ihsahn’s had trouble with consistency since After: Eremita’s individually good tracks didn’t flow from one to the other, and 2013’s Das Seleenbrechen finds Ihsahn having trouble reconciling his beginnings with his endings. Despite a strong first half, the album dissolves into confused, disorganized experimentation by its conclusion, finishing without much resolution at all.

At first, Das Seelenbrechen appears to continue where Eremita left off: the majority of the blackness has faded from Ihsahn’s music, replaced by driving, technical prog. Ihsahn’s sonic boundaries have never been blurrier, transitioning back and forth between juddering heaviness on “Hilber” and soft clean vocalizations and glorious symphonic climax on “Regen.” Ihsahn’s beautifully sibilant whisper lingers at the end of “Pulse,” and immediately withers away in the chaotic shadow of howls and rhythmic static at the beginning of “Tacit.” It’s remarkably cohesive for such volatile music – transitions are hard enough to articulate well between relatively similar sounding songs, but creating transitions that are abrupt and unpredictable without disrupting the flow of the album is even more praiseworthy.

However, along with the music, the tight-knit transitions start unraveling towards the middle of the album, changing from functional but unorthodox to merely awkward. Though “Tacit” initially sounds like a re-assembled version of its predecessor “Tacit 2”, it soon loses that resemblance and dissolves into a busy procession of horns and synths. At this point, the sonic textures begin to dissolve – heavy guitars and conventional beats are replaced by sporadic rhythms, digital static, and reverb-laden whispers. Song structures entirely collapse. “Rec” builds for an anxious minute but doesn’t ever hit a true climax, its ascent totally cut off when it dives into the moody, nostalgic “M,” a track composed of two minutes of sparse whisper and two minutes of psychedelic guitar swells. Both of the two final tracks suffer from the same unfulfilled climaxes. Closer “See” blends more unpredictable rhythms with quivering, limbo-hanging static, but the track doesn’t really go anywhere, and seems a particularly strange choice for a closer; I had to double check to make sure there weren’t any more tracks after the first listen. Ihsahn has stated that certain tracks on the album were improvised, but the problem is that it’s extremely easy to tell which parts are improvised and which parts have undergone a bit more editing. If Ihsahn is simply using Das Seelenbrechen as a way to express some half-formed ideas, that’s fine, but it seems strange that he would juxtapose those ideas with the more refined ones.

The song and album structure prevent Das Seelenbrechen from attaining coherence, but it’s still an excellent example of Ihsahn’s mastery of atmosphere. Curiously, though Eremita’s theme was paranoia, Das Seelenbrechen is a far more paranoid album – anxious and self-aware, it teeters between uncomfortable, beautiful moments of fear and jagged, swirling apprehension. The sax wailing of previous albums has melted into uneasy static and subdued keyboards, which create a recursive, melancholy, and strained current throughout. On a song-by-song basis, the atmospheres are by far the strongest point. Ihsahn should score films – tracks like “Pulse” wouldn’t be out of place in something like The Matrix.

Ihsahn is an incredible musician, and his music is wholly unique. But to put it frankly, excluding the strong start, Das Seelenbrechen is all over the place. It’s entirely possible that it was Ihsahn’s intent to create such a chaotic and unresolved collection of pieces, but that’s the thing about this kind of sonic experimentation – it doesn’t always work. Given the inconsistency of the album, and given that it’s only been a year since Eremita, I’m inclined to view this album more critically. Even though the album continues to validate Ihsahn’s skill in crafting dense, evocative atmospheres, it feels immature. The title Das Seelenbrechen is taken from a Nietzschean aphorism about how art in its purest form is neither good nor bad. Das Seelenbrechen may be neither good nor bad, but Ihsahn can certainly do better.

Isahn’s Das Seelenbrechen is out October 22 on Candlelight. Listen to the track “NaCl” here and pre-order the album here.

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