Ihsahn records used to get a breathless introduction about how incredible the former Emperor frontman’s solo career was. While this might still be true for some less disillusioned fans, I seem to have caught my breath. While I am still a huge fan of The Adversary and angL, both Eremita and its predecessor After left me cold. The reasons for this should be fairly evident, actually. The first two records were groovefest heavy metal records with dead on riffing, great song-writing, and tight production. The performances were sickly tight and impressive. While they broke from Emperor tradition and were progressive, they threaded the needle of accessible, interesting, and progressive. Ihsahn‘s second act, as it were, started on the back half of After, where the music began to get slower and more abstract and amelodic. Eremita continued that direction and I haven’t been back to it since I heard it the first 10 times.
Das Seelenbrechen, then, was far less ‘woo! party in my inbox!’ and a lot more ‘welp… here we go again.’ Ihsahn‘s artistic vision and my taste seem to have moved in different directions and, while I have the utmost respect for the man, he hasn’t produced a thoroughly good record since 2008 in my book. And Das Seelenbrechen is definitely not angL 2.0. Instead, it’s a lot less metal and a lot more moody. In a sense, Das Seelenbrechen is the first Ihsahn record that’s a lot more about the feel than it is about the songwriting. While on the previous two albums especially there were moments that were abstract and built tension, Das Seelenbrechen is an album made almost entirely on the feel and tension. In some cases that works well, and in others… well, that works less well.
The record is really split in two. The first four tracks, “Hiber,” “Regen,” “NaCl,” and “Pulse” make up part one and everything following “Tacit 2” is the second part. The front half of the album starts with keyboard and riffing; progressive and interesting, with a groovy pulse that pushes the music along; but it soon hits a cacophonous moment that kills the momentum. Still, “Regen” starts out with a beautiful piano part1, and Ihsahn’s cleans make for a melancholy and haunting sound. This reminds the listener of Peccatum and maybe even “Unhealer” from angL. “NaCl” is probably my favorite song on the record, and it has a bit of a ’70s prog feel to it, while “Pulse” sounds like a Katatonia track with Ihsahn doing vocals. While this isn’t all brilliant material, the feel works, the flow is good and it’s enjoyable.
The second half of the record is simply a loss for me. From “Tacit 2” onwards, the album devolves into an abstract modern art project. The songs lack form, and often don’t really go anywhere. While things are non-linear, there’s nothing surprising or entrancing. Nor is it creepy like Portal or Dodecahedron, which always leave the listener feeling deeply unsettled but impressed. Instead, it’s just boring. “Tacit 2” starts out as a cacophony of drums and guitar, and while its following track “Tacit” introduces a genuinely inspired breakdown with horns and Leprous-like riffing, it is simply a high point in a sea of formless noise. While “Rec,” “M,” and “Sub Ater” all have interesting moments—”M” including a power rock guitar solo that is also inspired and cool—these are simply high points in a muddle. “See” finishes the record up on a “black metal” note, with a lot of white noise and screaming. But even though the record is only 48 minutes long, the second half is just a slog to get through.
Somewhere along the way, Ihsahn and I stopped seeing eye-to-eye about what the guy is good at. He’s the artist, I’m the fan, he writes and I consume. But I can’t help feel disappointed again. I don’t need a groovy riff fest à la angL to be happy; a whole album like the first four tracks of Das Seelenbrechen would work for me, as well. But the total package here is just not so great; it’s directionless and mind-numbing. The man’s production is brilliant, his best points are always so good that it almost hurts to listen to these records. This is a great four track EP. Let’s leave it there…