17 September 2010

CD REVIEW: Ihsahn - After (2010, Candlelight Records)

Welcome back to Extreme/Prog Metal Day, which continues with a look at Ihsahn’s newest release, After.

I think that Ihsahn isn’t all that well known outside of two circles of fans. One, obviously, is the throng of black and death metal listeners, familiar with him through his work with Emperor, one of the major bands in progressive black metal. The other would be guitarists familiar with his column for Guitar World magazine, 'Left Hand Path.' Sadly, this is but one side of what he can do.

Ihsahn is one of the closest things that extreme metal has to a renaissance man (please note I said ‘one of the closest,’ since limiting it to just him would exclude people like Thomas Gabriel Fischer, Kristoffer Rygg of Ulver, and a few others). While Ihsahn has released more than his share of influential and major black/progressive/symphonic metal albums, he’s also done work with his wife, Ihriel, in Peccatum, which covered the gamut from black metal to progressive metal, industrial to European classical music. He’s done a folk project, Hardingrock, with emphasis on the Harding fiddle. He helps run Mnemosyne Records with his wife. And sometimes he releases solo records.

After is the final installment in Ihsahn’s first trilogy of solo releases, and serves as a wrapping up point of the themes and styles he’d been visiting since departing Emperor. While previous releases were all but fully solo outings, After sees him joined by a bassist (Lars K. Norberg), a drummer (Asgeir Mickelson), and a sax player (Jørgen Munkeby).

Yes, you read that right,

Go back and look again if you need to.

Sax. On an extreme metal album.

Want to say progressive? Cos I sure can.

Jørgen Munkeby’s contributions on sax (not on every track, mind), push this album far beyond what Ihsahn had done before just from an aural standpoint. Of course, there are other changes…this is his first release playing 8-string guitar exclusively. There’s a different sound as a result, but the songs, the singing, the screaming, it’s all Ihsahn as you know him best. I think he’s one of the finest vocalists in extreme metal; his clean voice is beautiful, while his screams are blood curdling. And if you’re not at all familiar with black and death metal vocals, and think they’re all the same, here’s the difference in a nutshell: death metal vocals tend to be more guttural and deep, where black metal vocals tend toward the higher pitched, throatier, raspier scream. Lots of people can’t handle either, and while I can understand, I think it a shame because it precludes enjoying some amazing music.

Things kick off immediately with album opener ‘The Barren Lands.’ A nice balance of clean and screamed vocals, some impressive drumming, and a huge riff pin this piece together. Ihsahn rips off some very tasty solos, while Asgeir Mickelson’s drumming is fluid and powerful. Some people would say that they don’t understand why he has to scream, others will hear this song and wonder why he has to sing and doesn’t scream it all. Me, I love both…the song wouldn’t be half as powerful as it is if it just featured one side of his vocal capabilities. People who want nothing more than the screaming, harsh side of Ihsahn can wait till the next track, ‘A Grave Inversed,’ a four and a half minute burst of blast beats, jackhammer riffing, and skronking sax all over the place.

Oh yeah, the sax. We mentioned that.

Jørgen Munkeby makes his first appearance on this track, and he’s all over the place. Some of his playing feels like it’s verging on bedlam and anarchy, while other moments seem tight and pre-composed. If you’ve never imagined sax in black metal, I’d urge you to find a place to legally check this track out…it makes all the sense in the world once you hear it. Ihsahn offers up a tasty harmonised solo over a slightly slower beat, and if anything, the song feels longer and bigger than it really is. There’s a lot packed into the tight borders here.

The album’s title track follows, and it’s a gorgeous piece that actually feels to me like two songs carefully and skillfully knitted together. The opening section is a metal ballad of the best sort, slow beats, a mix of clean and fuzzed guitars, and plaintive, fragile clean vocals from Ihsahn. I love the chorus…

And this is the after
The ending of ends
This is the after

Where nothing transcends

A final iteration of this chorus leads into the heavier second half, which features the same clean guitar lines over a pounding beat. Here Ihsahn rasps and screams like his life depends on it, a preacher in a wilderness of man’s own making. It’s a brilliant balance.

‘Frozen Lakes on Mars’ feels like a European metal song as it opens, with a harmony melody over crunching, crushing chords. At times I almost get a bit of a King Diamond/Mercyful Fate feel to the opening. Again we get a nice mix of heavy and light vocals over a huge riff. Solos are faster and more furious, and while the song isn’t as blasty and brutal as ‘A Grave Inversed,’ it may actually be heavier on several counts. It’s followed by one of 2 10-minute tracks, ‘Undercurrent.’ This is Ihsahn at his more expansive, slowly developing the song in an almost organic manner. His clean playing is precise and chiming, the fretless bass playing by Lars K. Norberg really adds to the mood over the opening sections of the piece. When the song shifts into heavier territories, the contrast is night and day. I think this is a song loads fo prog fans would go seriously nuts over if they could accept the use of harsh vocals; between the shifting moods, the changes in tempo and style, and the fantastic synth and sax playing, this song has prog written all over it in big black block letters.

‘On the Shores’ is the second 10-minute piece on After, and it closes the album out. Much of this track’s opening will sound familiar, as it reprises sax themes from ‘Undercurrent.’ The two songs, from title at least, seem interconnected and related, and the musical similarities certainly add to that (if the booklet features lyrics I might even be able to determine more how much these two are inter-related). I love Munkeby’s sax playing throughout this piece, nicely wrapping around Ihsahn’s sparsely interspersed vocals. Again, given the chance, I think this is a song that would really go over a storm with prog listeners, but there seems such a fear or unwillingness to accept harsh vocals, and a great dislike of anything even verging on metal at times. Again, it’s a shame.

Is After an easy listen? Maybe not. But I think it’s a brilliant album, truly progressive in so many ways...and while the album's opening lyrics may state 'These are barren lands,' the music is anything but! Open your ears to something new and different from the usual…this is one of the places truly progressive music is being made.

Track Listing
1. "The Barren Lands" – 5:12
2. "A Grave Inversed" – 4:25
3. "After" – 4:47
4. "Frozen Lakes on Mars" – 5:54
5. "Undercurrent" – 10:00
6. "Austere" – 6:16
7. "Heaven's Black Sea" – 6:15
8. "On the Shores" – 10:12

Band Members:
Ihsahn – vocals, guitar, keyboard, piano
Lars K. Norberg – fretless bass
Jørgen Munkeby – saxophone
Asgeir Mickelson – drums

1 comment:

Assaf Vestin said...

A great album, I love all his solo output so far (as well as Emperor's music).
About the sax, I don't think including it makes the music progressive. Ihsahn's music is progressive with or without it, but the inclusion of a sax on a metal album (though done before, by Pan Thy Monium, Maudlin of the Well, Sigh, Nachtmystium for example, all progressive music making bands!) is done to achieve something not usually done in this form of music (did I just contradict myself? :-) )