Whether we care to admit it or not, we are all subject to re-invention at some point or another. Ihsahn, a man made legend for his contributions to the legacy of black metal, has never shied away from re-calibrating his musical character, and his discography is the hard proof. Having blazed a trail with the mighty Emperor, his solo career has been no exception, never afraid to reflect its creator’s inherently eclectic tastes. Seventh in line, Àmr (“loathsome” in Old Norse), once again sees the multi-instrumentalist pushing new boundaries, combining his manifold musical identities into one distinct whole, perhaps with more cogency than ever before.
Considering the man’s undeniable musical ability, you’d be hard pressed to pretend that even the most avante-garde of his output is “bad.” Although After is a personal favorite of mine, I struggled with the overtly experimental nature of the proceeding albums. Fortunately, Arktis. served as a return to relative form, and although it never attained the heights of some of its older siblings, it did re-ignite my somewhat diminished interest. While songs like “Lend Me the Eyes of Millenia” and “Wake” hurtle forward with some of the most blackened vitriol to grace Ihsahn‘s solo work since The Adversary, they’re structured around omnipresent waves of synth that shimmer and pulse alongside drummer, Tobias Ørnes Andersen’s (ex-Leprous), immaculate footwork. The militaristic pacing of “One Less Enemy” marches with an almost metrenomic rhythm but never fails to swathe itself in tenebrous chords and ominous mood, deconstructing black metal’s more blunt tendencies and rearranging them into something, frankly, infinitely more interesting.
Building on Arktis.’ use of ’80s synth, Àmr is one of Ihsahn‘s darkest albums in recent memory, but often not typically so, relying increasingly on those insistent electronics to emphasize emotion. In fact, the inclusion of three pseudo-ballads are very much where the heart of the songwriting lies. “Sàmr” and “Where You are Lost and I Belong” deal in electro-enhanced balladry and uneasy atmosphere respectively, the former responsible for a colossal chorus. The classic rhythms of the album’s predecessor have been further melted down and re-forged into a distinctly radio-friendly compound – as such, “Twin Black Angels” is as retro as they come with a chorus riff and guitar tone that absolutely belongs on a Night Flight Orchestra record. While these inclusions may serve to be divisive – an issue I suspect Ihsahn is entirely ambivalent about – they only cement his skill as a songwriter.
Characteristically tight riffing maneuvers over the heavier tracks, coupled with Ihsahn‘s signature textured vocal lacerations, but it’s his clean range that shows the most improvement, particularly on “Sàmr,” matching his smooth delivery with the synths that make up the bulk of the track. The synthesizer’s presence is key to the album, oscillating between brooding and cinematic, but is occasionally excessive, and even a little trite. Still, the album flows incredibly well, punctuated with the gentler songs so as to pace the denser material. One slight drawback, however, is that a couple of the more robust prog metal tracks that exist within his usual oeuvre are somewhat overshadowed by their more clement counterparts, which have clearly been lavished with attention during the writing process. Acting as angelic focal points, the dichotomy of the more immediate material does sometimes work as intended, enhancing a song like “In Rites of Passage,” whose nature thrives on an ever-mutating rhythm, enhanced by its placement in the album.
Progressive by nature and very much by design, Àmr, albeit subtly, acts as something of a career retrospective, conspiring to both unite and progress Ihsahn‘s ever-changing body of work whilst maintaining his lofty compositional standards. The album’s shifting genre-play reflects its author’s approach to music, never backing down from a challenge to broaden any and all horizons yet still tempted with that petulant urge to set them alight. Undoubtedly, Àmr is one of the strongest entries in Ihsahn‘s solo discography for quite some time, and while not perfect, the material’s burgeoning creativity and lack of any apology for it, is just about the best example of black metal’s malcontent this side of the nightside eclipse. Recommended for the black wizards with the cosmic keys to an open mind.