Ihsahn’s Arktis: Adventurous Thrill-Seekers Welcome
Ihsahn’s taste is impeccable. You can disagree all you want – you’re probably just being contrary, and if you’re serious then you’re flailing about on a limb all your own. I don’t really consider myself much of a fan, and even I’ve spent time with each of his albums and made the effort to see him play live (with Leprous). It doesn’t take a zealous disciple to acknowledge that the guy’s artistic focus is laser-sharp and his compositional chops are matched only by other exemplars of the field. Listening to something new by Ihsahn now is like listening to new Enslaved or Opeth: The details here and there might not always enthrall you the way you’d like, but doubting the artist’s creative prowess or intent is fruitless at best, and outright moronic at worst.
Here we have new Ihsahn. If you’ve been paying attention, then you know what to expect, and what you should expect is awesome. There’s no ambient lead-in or thinking-man’s dicking around at the album’s opening, just a series of ripping guitar bits that never give up their supremacy to the synth- or organ-driven accents. There’s aggression and abrasiveness to spare, but it’s all coupled with heaping helpings of melody, along with busy background accompaniment that lends the whole affair exquisite depth and replay value.
We all know those records that strut in strong and finish in fine form, but whose middle sections get all gooey and sleepy and seem to lose the script. Incredibly, Arktis turns this pattern on its head and spirals to even more exciting heights as it runs. Sure, “Disassembled” holds down its Track One status admirably, and the unchained gallop of “Mass Darkness” hardly suffers at all for its Matt Heafy-assisted chorus (I don’t love it; that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t!). But after “My Heart is of the North” repels all casual listeners and musical unsophisticates by wedding a bit of light pop to an all-systems-go pounding, gateway track “South Winds” begins to reel in its audience with an evil dance pulse, and everything just gets better from there. “In the Vaults” simmers in a piano-tinged throb, then streaks all its glorious guitar power across the sky of your psyche. Then Ihsahn throws it back to some essential 80s hard rock with the outstanding “Until I Too Dissolve” – I nearly split my forehead on my desk while trying to write about it and bang out to the final chorus at the same time.
At some point it becomes difficult to keep picking points to praise, not because they peter out but because they come in waves and never fail to land. Jørgen Munkeby’s saxophone contributions on “Crooked Red Line” stick out wonderfully, as do Einar Solberg’s powerful pipes on the bombastic and cinematic closer “Celestial Violence,” which is absolutely a highlight, not just of this album but of Ihsahn’s whole catalog. If you spring for the special edition CD or double LP version of Arktis, you’ll also score the eerie bonus track “Til Tor Ulven”; it’s a haunting piece for piano and spoken word that gets shattered in its final minutes by distorted cascades of chords and Ihsahn’s throaty growl. It’s like nothing else on the record, and we’ll leave its acquisition to your discretion.
Cretins, better luck next pornogrind. Adventurous thrill-seekers, welcome. Arktis is neither too prog to slay nor too metal to shrug at. Throw another one in the win column.