8th April 2016 - Candlelight Records
02. Mass Darkness
03. My Heart Is Of The North
04. South Winds
05. In The Vaults
06. Until I Too Dissolve
09. Crooked Red Line
10. Celestial Violence
11. Til Tor Ulven (Søppelsolen)
After two albums of not entirely welcomed experimentation, Norwegian black metal giant Ihsahn has returned to the scene with his latest endeavor Arktis; an album that showcases a scattered, screwball, and exhilaratingly fresh Ihsahn. The album is being deemed a “return to form” by the metal press, partly and hilariously because the album once again starts with the letter A, and more importantly because it doesn’t sound like the last two records.
Eremita and Das Seelenbrechen: two albums that are almost unanimously viewed as musical diversions for Ihsahn – by the press, the fan base, and the man himself. However, while those albums were scattered in their own right, they were experimental in a predictable way. Of course he became harsher; of course the music focused on darkness and isolation. Heavy themes of nihilism? Yeah, okay. That’s not a derogatory statement; they both feature strong performances and a lot of great tracks. But, as individual pieces of music, they don’t hold much water.
So where does that leave Arktis, the so called return to form? Well, in one sense it is indeed a return to form, in that it supplies the listener with another proggy black metal experiment that pushes the founder and frontman further away from his traditional second wave work and into another new realm of musical expression. However, the sonic mannerism and styles used to accomplish this task are far from what any fan would expect.
There are elements on display here that evoke the same style and feeling of angL or After, yet neither of those albums were as focused on riffage as this one finds itself. Songs like “Mass Darkness“, “My Heart Is Of The North“, and “Until I Dissolve” feature some of the most ear-wormy black’n’roll riffs you could picture. Crunchy and fuzzy, with an undertone of thrashy goodness: throwbacks to classic prog bands littering the lead guitar work: airy vocal harmonies and melodies – it all ends up feeling like a poppy approach to Ihsahn. It’s almost dangerously accessible given the nature of the music’s creation and its creator.
Ihsahn has always loved to play with structure in his various projects, breaking up traditional approaches to how a song flows, or what the foundation of what a song usually is. So how does he make that stylistic signature fresh again? By doing the complete opposite and adopting more traditional rock-and-roll structures. Once again, riffs are the name of the game. Even on the electronic infused “South Winds“, or “Frail“, the most ‘out there’ of all the songs on the album. Still, they feel right at home amongst the weird conglomeration of sounds on this album, especially when the focus is not actually on the electronic dabblings and weird vocal effects, but rather the throwback riffs and airy acoustics. If that turns anyone away from the album, just be patient with it; there is still plenty of bleak and heavy hitting distortion and frenzied lead guitar work to help scrape the scum out of your ears.
Arktis straddles so many ideas and sonic elements that it would be easy for it to all fall apart around the listener into a mess of disjointed experimentation, yet it never really succumbs to that fate; instead barreling ahead with its odd resolve. A frenzied and scattered blend of 70’s prog, 80’s thrash, weirdo electronic music, and of course modern black metal all adorn this album. Almost every song stands as an excellent piece of music, and from the guest vocal stylings of Einar Solberg - of former bandmates Leprous – to the haunting saxophone work of Jørgen Munkeby, the album compacts so much information that it constantly keeps you guessing. Yet the true highlight is the album closer, “Celestial Violence“. A slow dirge of a song that capitalizes on all of the above and ends up being one of the strongest tracks Ihsahn has presented during his tenure as a solo artist. It’s a staggering monolith of a song that has brutality, dissonance, and an airy beauty that binds all the disjointed elements of the album into one clear vision, elevating this already impressive album into a work that feels classic and fresh all at the same time.
Whether you’ve stepped off the Ihsahn train after his last few releases or you’ve been chugging along with the maestro this whole time, fans and new listeners alike owe it to themselves to pick this one up. Not only is Arktis a work of intense metal, but a remarkable proof of concept in blending poppy elements of classic guitar music into modern black metal, as well as showcasing that so-called ‘experimentation’ and modern prog don’t have to be so contradictorily boring and predictable. Arktis may not be what people anticipated, but it’s a hell of a lot better for it.