Easily one of the most anticipated records of 2010 for me has been Ihsahn‘s new offering. While I was a passing Emperor fan, really just a fan of In the Nightside Eclipse and Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk-era, I was taken by Ihsahn‘s solo stuff. The Adversary felt fresh, progressive enough, a step away from the later Emperor material of which I wasn’t a fan, and it captured the sonic styles and textures that he was never quite allowed to explore while in Emperor. The record didn’t stick with me as I had hoped, while I listened to it occasionally it didn’t hold a steadfast position in my discography. On the other hand, angL blew me away. Probably the finest record of 2008, angL has maintained a steady place in the rotation and is a record that I’ve showed to dozens of people. Perfectly produced, perfectly composed and smartly written, angL contained everything that I wanted out of a new progressive metal record. So, of course, when I heard that Ihsahn would be releasing a new record in 2010, I became justifiably excited.
After, the third album in Ihsahn‘s initial trilogy, has once again separated itself from the pack and from Ihsahn‘s earlier work, something that the man seems compelled to do with every release. The first album composed primarily for his new 8 string guitars, After possesses a more organic sound than the earlier two albums. While the style hasn’t changed dramatically, if you’ve heard the first two albums, you certainly would recognize it as Ihsahn, the composition feels less tightly contained and controlled. The addition of saxophone to certain tracks also offers a more natural dimension to the music, similar to that of the excellent Solefald, and the saxophone is also relatively unconstrained, unpredictable and has the sound of being highly improvised.
That Ihsahn is a fantastic writer is undisputed, but how well this record plays with you probably depends on your personal tastes. The first half of After plays very similarly to his earlier material; black metal influenced progressive metal with excellent riffing, smart transitions and some acoustic parts. This culminates with track “Frozen Lakes on Mars,” which might be the best on the album, before continuing into the second part of the album. The track “Undercurrent” marks the halfway point (trackwise, as it’s track 5) and where this album started to transform to a slower, more progressive album. The riffing and writing loses some of its crispness on the second half of this album, particularly on “Undercurrent” and “Austere” which are both quite slowâ€”and, instead relies on atmosphere, texture and feel. By the time one makes it to “Heaven’s Black Shore,” after the 16 minutes of down time, the record seems to have lost a little bit of its punch. The last two tracks are great, though again a little bit more plodding than the earlier material and the whole album comes to a major epic close that is worth the wait. How this will play definitely depends on what you like about the earlier Ihsahn material, I think. If you’re a fan of more atmospheric black metal, bands like Shining, Solefald, or even something like Wardruna (or from a totally different angle, if you’re a big fan of 70s prog and neo-prog like Opeth, Porcupine Tree, etc.) you’ll probably appreciate these things musically. If you’re more of a fan of the technical, fast, groovy, structured Ihsahn stuff, well, then this might take some time to grow on you if it ever grows at all.
There is always a danger in re-inventing your sound, and while this record is good, it just doesn’t live up to standard of what I was expecting after angL. That said, I would still recommend this album to others because it’s still heads and shoulders above a lot of the stuff that’s being released today. The musical performances are amazing: the rhythm section (Asgeir Mickelson & Lars Noberg from Spiral Architect) is tight and tremendously talented. The saxophonist (from the Norwegian Shining) offers a stellar performance and production and mix is also tight, clean and clear without feeling sterile. Musically, the record is still epic and compelling for the most part and it shows just how multi-dimensional Ihsahn is as a writer and performer. The question for fans is, of course, what comes after After?