Ihsahn is always in motion. Following a storied career in one of the premier black metal bands of all time, he’s released five full-length albums. Nearly all of those records have been critically acclaimed, but only one has been critically acclaimed by me. While I enjoyed The Adversary, Ihsahn‘s post-Emperor zenith was angL. Starting with After, however, Ihsahn started to lose me. What made his earlier material so good—riffs, riffs, more riffs, and slick composition (also riffs)—began to be replaced by increasingly abstract compositions. And when songs like “Scarab” started getting replaced with tracks like “M,” I stopped enjoying new Ihsahn albums. Yet Arktis. marks the next phase for Ihsahn, having finally left the Nihilists behind him.1
Arktis. is both visually and audibly distinct from its predecessors. “Disassembled,” “Mass Darkness” and “My Heart Is of the North” start the album off and work well to demonstrate this difference. All three tracks lead with their riffs. “Disassembled” kicks the album off with hooky riff reminiscent of angL, but the sound is distinct with its bassier tone and guitars defined more by fuzz than overdrive. “Mass Darkness,” kicks off with an epic harmonized guitar lead and powers out bass heavy thrash with a gripping chorus that makes the listener want to take the suggestion to “give in to darkness!” “My Heart of the North” shows off ’70s Hammond-drenched prog feel and some deep shred, showing off Ihsahn’s chops and with a classic metal feel.
But despite the riffing and thrashy undertones with which it leads, Arktis. is a record that that will be remembered for its progressive edge. While the riffs are all here, there’s also a sense of the late ’90s/early ’00s Norwegian scene’s steps away from black metal. While “South Winds” and “Frail” break out electronica—the former with a Mortiis feel, while the latter evokes ’80s prog—”Crooked Red Line” reminds me of a metalfied Perdition City, with Shining‘s Jørgen Munkeby giving it that noir feel. The album’s crunchy production frames the progressive feel of Arktis. perfectly. It’s warm and fat, and hearkens back to the ’80s more than anything Ihsahn has done since The Adversary. “Until I Too Dissolve” starts with a riff that belonged on rock radio circa 1986, while “Disassembled” features a chorus that wouldn’t be out of place if it were sung by Bruce Dickinson.
But while these throwbacks are fun, I think Arktis. is at its best when it’s being fragile and moody. “My Heart Is of the North” features a clean lull before the organ soaked close to the song that stands out. Einar Solberg from Leprous makes a guest appearance on “Disassembled” and “Celestial Violence,” and both of these songs shine with his excellent performances. Similarly, “Frail” starts out with supple acoustics, but the height of the softer material, though, is “In the Vaults,” which features heart-wrenching vocal melodies and lyrics. Thinking of the long dark of Norwegian winters, these moments feel appropriate; a yin to the yang that is the synth-drenched blasts of “Pressure” or the throbbing screams of the second half of “Celestial Violence.”
Arktis. is filled with interesting songs which oscillate between morose and jagged, but there’s always something interesting going on. True to form, Arktis. is an album that seems to have been constructed as a whole. The record flows well, and its 48 minute run-time is perfect, ending with one of the album’s best tracks in “Celestial Violence,” a song which drops the curtain with a solemn and dramatic flare.2 This latest incarnation of Ihsahn‘s sound draws on a lot of different influences and melds them together into something dynamic and engaging. All of these different impressions feel artistically appropriate for an album named after the far north; lands which are quite extreme and varied. While some might long for something more hooky and metal, Arktis. is a record that I’ll be coming back to for its progressive vision.
- Praise Zarathustra! ↩
- I initially thought that the bonus track “Till Tor Ulven (Søppelsolen)” was part of the official release, which markedly changed my opinion of the album. In my initial review I wrote: “Of all the low moments, this concluding track is the worst. The record label did not include any explanation as to what this song is or what this old man is saying—though he clearly does say “angst” during the part when the background sounds start getting noisier. I’m sure it’s very deep and fascinating, but no context means that it’s hard to appreciate. “Till Tor Ulven” is tough to enjoy—and intentionally so, I suspect. At 9:13, and entirely in Norwegian, this spoken word track is a reminder that Ihsahn is always in motion.” Though, that doesn’t always mean you have to like it. ↩