IHSAHN NO LONGER THE BLACK WIZARD ON AFTER
Upon listening to Emperor for the first time in a little while when prepping for an interview with Ihsahn (coming soon!), I found it remarkable how the Emperor of In the Nightside Eclipse is a completely different band from that on their ridiculously dense blackened death prog swan song, Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire and Demise. Though one could argue that some of this had to do with the band’s multiple line-up changes, the band’s core – Ihsahn and guitarist Samoth – were present throughout. Using “evolution” in terms of the lifespan of a band was pretty much coined for groups like Emperor, seeing as they progressed from a scrappy True Norwegian black metal upstart to something beyond that altogether, becoming so different from their origin that they had to split up to pursue different avenues (Samoth with blackened death kingpins Zyklon and Ihsahn with his more expansive, prog-minded solo material). Emperor bucked the trend of picking a sound and sticking to it (and the genre’s general hypocrisy of staunchly preaching individuality while decrying any band that deviates from a certain set of rules as to what a black metal band is supposed to sound like) by being the band they needed to be, and though their reliance on keyboards and operatic singing may sound silly at first, Ihsahn’s compositional prowess (he composed all of Prometheus himself on top of working with Samoth for the rest of the band’s albums) would be a shame to ignore.
Which was what I always found disappointing about his solo work: while always quite enjoyable, it never really emerged from the shadow of Emperor. For every great, kinda-interesting-on-its-own moment, there’s been a riff that could have wound up on one of Emperor’s late-period works. The sense of constant evolution that drove the band has been sadly missing from Ihsahn’s solo material. Fortunately, on After, his latest, he emerges bravely with nothing reminiscent of his past. And while this will bring a tear to the eye of the dudes who shelled out a few hundred dollars to see Emperor play stateside a few years ago, the album is often exciting and brilliantly complex while being almost completely devoid of black metal. Closing out a trilogy of albums recorded under his own moniker, Ihsahn has made what is, at the very least, his most interesting album of solo material to date, if not (very easily) his best. Scoff at its lack of true-ness if you must, but After is an excellent album. Almost a decade after the dissolution of Emperor, the man has finally come into his own.
Right from opener “The Barren Lands,” it’s immediately apparent that this isn’t the Ihsahn of old. On the surface, it’s a solid-enough melodic death metal song, steeped in Carcass and At the Flames with a nice Meshuggah backbone. But beneath it all are Ihsahn’s compositional flourishes: dense, layered guitar parts and bouts of classical melody. “The Barren Lands” couldn’t have been on angL or The Adversary, and certainly not on any of Emperor’s albums. But even though it’s got a lot of the ubiquitous Swede-isms that dominated the last decade and a half, it still sounds fresh and intriguing, fucking with one’s expectations of what would assume an Ihsahn album would sound like by now and providing the sort of opening curve ball an album like After requires.
Of course, “The Barren Lands” sounds tame compared to “A Grave Inversed,” a technical death metal bruiser featuring Ihsahn at his most nimble fingered and brutal. But the real surprise is that his guitar lines aren’t augmented by keyboards, but a saxophone. While this hints at a “WTF” moment of the highest degree, the most impressive thing about After‘s use of sax (played by Jorden Munkeby) is that it works well. It provides counterpoint to the atonal guitar noodling, textures to the more expansive moments, and a broadening of the melodic palette when a big-ass chorus comes in. Whereas Nachtmystium used it to create some “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” atmosphere on Assassins‘ “Seasick,” Ihsahn uses it as a full-fledged part of his music, a necessary instrument instead of an interesting bit of ornamentation. The sax’s sharp timbre is one surprisingly (well, not THAT surprisingly) overlooked in the world of extreme metal, and After provides a great example of the potential we’ve been ignoring.
Some of the sax’s most inspired wailing comes courtesy of “Undercurrent,” the jumping off point of After’s epic, Pink Floyd-ian second half and the album’s centerpiece. Featuring somewhat impressive clean singing and some of the record’s strongest melodies, the song unfolds masterfully over the span of ten minutes, paying close attention to dynamics, the interplay between building tension and being heavy, and adhering to structure and repetition enough to remain enticing while not seeming like stuff’s being plugged into a formula; it’s a wonderful reminder of Ihsahn’s growth as a musician in the last two decades. But the rest of the album before and after it illustrates that he still has quite a bit ahead of him, and in some ways, is just getting started. Indeed, the element that held Emperor back – a reliance on cheesy synths – are eschewed here in favor if a more organic sound, which in turn highlights his songwriting strengths. Like with Funeral Mist’s Maranatha, many will cry foul at After‘s complete deviance from what Ihsahn has been previously known for. But also like Maranatha, those decrying will be missing a great, forward thinking metal album. Whether loved or loathed, After doesn’t sound like a lot of other metal right now. And after several decades of it – a few of which Ihsahn was a significant part – that’s a pretty impressive feat.
(4 out of 5 horns)