There’s a long history of a front man striking out on his own, with results both equal (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, Morrissey, King Diamond, etc.) and horribly inferior (hey, didn’t Bruce Dickinson make some solo albums?) to their original band’s output. So in theory, Ihsahn – the former/current front man of Emperor, one of the essential jewels in the True Norwegian Black Metal crown – had the odds against him: his post-Emperor output had varied from an aborted project with Rob Halford to being in a goth-metal band with his wife to giving guitar lessons in his hometown. His decision to wait 5 years before releasing a solo album was seemingly odd, and results were mixed. But with this year’s angL, Ihsahn’s second solo effort, do we finally get an idea of what that dude from Emperor has been up to as opposed to what that guy Vegard from Norway has been doing in between shoveling his driveway and helping Bjorn learn his minor scales. With enough blackened majesty to remind us why we loved him in the first place alongside new influences to keep the record from being a rehash of his former glory, angL is a layered, intense album that unfolds with repeated listens while still managing to impress from the get-go.

A common “problem” in black metal is that it isn’t brutal, per se. While there are certainly moments of blistering intensity and entire discographies of bands that do nothing but summon unfathomable hate, black metal has always been more about evoking a mood or atmosphere (granted, that mood or atmosphere is usually misanthropic and/or generally apocalyptic) than being as brutal as possible. That honor is usually bestowed upon death metal, which is much more inclined to throw a savage riff in your face and boil your blood in a much more upfront manner. So when black metal throws a vicious riff at you (see: Cobalt’s Eater of Birds, Skeletonwitch, and, er, Venom‘s Black Metal), it pleases both ends of the heavy spectrum and immediately elevates the album on your stereo. “Misanthrope,” the first song off of angL, is built around a few brilliant riffs, managing to evoke both the same classically-inspired sadness that Emperor called upon for the better part of the 90s and tickling the part of the human consciousness that responds to rock and metal to begin with. Truth be told, “Misanthrope” recalls the Emperor of IX Equilibrium, arguably the band’s finest hour, but has enough of it’s own personality to stand on it’s own. It’s a fitting start to angL and a good indicator of things to come.

And while nods to our blackened neighbors to the North are prevalent throughout angL, even more prevalent are a smattering of other styles, making for both an accessible and enjoyable album. The record is awash in prog metal, with shifting time signatures and melodic, non-metal bridges in every song to spice up Ihsahn’s attack. And while his singing is certainly an acquired taste (or at least something to ignore), it’s used effectively all over the record, providing stark contrast to make the heavy parts heavier and, dare I say, classier. There’s even an appearance by Opeth’s golden-throated Mikael Akerfeldt on “Unhealer,” trading verses with Ihsahn for what could easily be extreme metal’s “Ebony and Ivory,” or at least its “The Boy is Mine.”

Of course, if you don’t dig Emperor, there’s a good chance you won’t like angL, as many of Emperor’s divisive trademarks are there: super-processed guitars, raspy shouting and nasal singing, those fucking keyboards, etc. But that being said, there is still plenty to like if you’re a fan of black metal, metal, or just music in general. Ihsahn’s brilliance lies in his ability to subtly work different styles of music together: most of Emperor’s riffs are more reminiscent of Wagner than Bathory, and it’s just as apparent on this album. With the sheer ridiculousness that surrounds black metal (hell, Emperor‘s guitar player did burn churches and their original drummer did stab a gay guy to death), it’s easy to forget how truly gifted a composer and performer Ihsahn is. angL shows that his compositional brilliance didn’t end when his former band dissolved. It’ll be really interesting to see where he goes from here, and Ihsahn’s latest illustrates that there’s good cause for optimism on that front.

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(3 ½ out of 4 horns)


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