Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Ihsahn – Àmr (review by Matt Spall)

[The U.K.-based reviewer Matt Spall gives us his take on the album by Ihsahn. Remember to follow Matt on Twitter if you want to keep up with his writings. The link is the bottom of the review. --MMB]
Artist: Ihsahn
Album Title: Àmr
Label: Candlelight Records
Date Of Release: 4 May 2018
Let’s not muck around here. Everyone with even a vague knowledge of extreme metal will be fully aware of Ihsahn and his considerable impact as part of the legendary black metal band Emperor. Most will also know about his solo career that has followed and will no doubt have something to say about it. After all, we all throw opinions about with gay abandon. And so, to continue the trend, here’s mine:
I love early Emperor and, after being initially taken aback by the likes of the more progressive, challenging ‘IX Equilibrium’, I have grown to like their latter-day material too. When it came to Ihsahn as a solo artist however, I have never quite felt the same levels of affection. It is hard to pinpoint exactly why, but every new release would be greeted with cursory interest and a few spins to see what the album sounded like. More often than not, I’d rarely return to them after the initial clamour died down.
I approached the release of Ihsahn’s latest record, ‘Àmr’ with the same level of mild interest and was fully expecting to follow the same trend as before. However, something strange happened: I almost immediately fell for the considerable charms of ‘Àmr’, to the point where it has forced me to re-evaluate my whole belief system where Ihsahn is concerned. So I guess this review needs to focus on why all of a sudden, I have ‘seen the light’.
Stylistically, ‘Àmr’ (which apparently translates as ‘loathsome’ in Old Norse) is not too distantly removed from Ihsahn’s previous record, ‘Arktis’. Having gone back to that record as part of my research for this review, I can confirm that there are indeed many similarities to be heard. But equally, ‘Àmr’ feels like the natural successor, another gradual shift in Ihsahn’s ever-evolving musical journey of discovery.
As such, we are still treated to some striking, jagged and visceral compositions on ‘Àmr’. However, interspersed within the blackened prog that serves as a loose description of this music are some new ideas. Or, to be more accurate, ‘Àmr’ expands upon some pre-existing ideas, making them much more central and important to the compositions on this album.
For a start, the synths play a much more prominent role here. Many of the songs are literally bathed in keys, as evidenced right from the beginning with ‘Lend Me The Eyes of the Millennia’. It begins with a repetitive synth introduction that actually remains throughout the entire track, regardless of whatever else Ihsahn throws at the song. And in that respect, you get black metal blastbeats, cold riffing, Ihsahn’s instantly recognisable rasps and plenty of keyboard-led atmospheric orchestration to add a sense of depth and grandeur to what is arguably one of the most extreme compositions on this record. In many ways, it is a statement of intent that announces in the strongest way possible that Ihsahn has not abandoned his extreme metal roots despite a desire to explore more progressive landscapes.
The opener is not the only harsh track to be heard within ‘Àmr’, as ‘One Less Enemy’ and ‘In Rights Of Passage’ are equally powerful, albeit in slightly different ways. The former has a much more progressive feel to it, but the raspy vocals are present, alongside fast rhythmic sections and a definite dark/black metal vibe which adds bite. The latter offers a sense of groove through the bold, chunky riffs, blending this with some even bolder synth tones and textures. The drumming doesn’t veer into all-out attack mode, but it does occasionally descend into chaotic patterns that accentuate the almost oddball nature of the composition. And yet, there is still room for further delicate melodic work.
In addition, closer ‘Wake’ features a fast-paced thrash-like riff, more blastbeats and plenty of venomous intent, the perfect pairing to the opener in terms of energy and power.
As I’m sure you’re quickly learning, ‘Àmr’ is quite possibly one of the most progressive-leaning releases of Ihsahn’s solo career. However, it also contains some of the most beautiful and mellow material he has penned, thanks to a handful of songs that could be described as verging into ballad territory. There will be fans out there who will almost certainly bemoan the lack of blastbeats and other extreme elements but, for me, I find that the stark variation between the heavy material and the lighter gives each a greater overall impact. In fact, I believe that it is the very inclusion of the softer songs that has led to my increased enjoyment of ‘Àmr’.
Quite possibly my favourite track on ‘Amr’ is indeed one of the less extreme numbers, ‘Sámr’. The crunchy opening riff has a distinctly melodic edge, enhanced by more synths. The verse sees a brutal stripping back of just about everything except a very simple drum/electronic beat that slowly builds through further layers of keys before eventually releasing into a lavish chorus that demonstrates Ihsahn’s vastly improved clean vocals. We’re not talking anything to rival the likes of Mr Englund or Mr Renkse here, but the delivery is smooth and melodious, enhancing the beauty of the song. The urgent lead guitar solo that appears in the latter stages is quite marvellous, providing the proverbial cherry on the top.
I’m also a huge fan of ‘Where You Are Lost And I Belong’, which has more of a dystopian, almost uncomfortable post-black metal feel to it. The clean vocals have a vaguely Gothic edge to them when first they emerge which is interesting, as is the way in which the early monotony is cleverly replaced with softer parts where Ihsahn injects almost incongruous beauty through his voice and lighter, almost wistful-sounding keys.
‘Marble Soul’ is rather excellent too, thanks to a great central riff, a frantic rhythm and a majestic chorus that is instantly memorable, almost catchy. Likewise ‘Twin Black Angels’ that sounds distinctly anthemic when the chorus hits.
For perhaps the first time, I find myself deeply impressed by a solo Ihsahn album. It might be because my early impression has led me to listen more attentively and more thoroughly in the past. Or it might just be because it is an album that contains some of Ihsahn’s very best material. Either way, I’m now going to trawl more deeply through the back catalogue to see whether I’ve been too hasty. ‘Àmr’ is an intelligent, complex and challenging beast but strangely also very accessible at the same time. On paper, this sounds like a winning combination and happily, the reality confirms this.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9

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