Given that he’s put out three EPs since 2020 (Telemark, Pharos, and Fascination Street Sessions) it’d be unfair to think that Ihsahn’s solo career has lain dormant. That said, it’s been nearly six whole years since the Emperor frontman’s last LP—2018’s Ámr—so his return to full-length creations has been highly anticipated (to say the least). Fortunately, he’s finally back with his superb self-titled eighth record.
In a nutshell, the collection retains everything that’s made his entire solo catalog distinctive and extraordinary while emphasizing symphonic accompaniments and gentler/catchier melodies. As a result, he’s likely crafted his most accessible album to date, making Ihsahn both a tremendously enjoyable experience for returning listeners and a clear starting point for newcomers.
When the conceptual LP was announced late in 2023, Ihsahn stated that he approached it by asking himself how he can push himself further than ever before. He explained:
“I thought, ‘Okay, how can I do what I do best, but also raise the bar tenfold?’ At the heart of what I do is black metal, extreme distorted guitars and screaming, but since the earliest Emperor recordings, you’ll hear the keyboard parts influenced by classic soundtracks by the likes of Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Bernard Herrmann, John Carpenter and so on. So, I approached the writing with the intent to present the material in its full-blown metal expression, but also to arrange the orchestral parts in such a way that they would work independently. Somehow, an attempt to write a soundtrack within the structures of the full production, allowing me to explore different, and sometimes contrasting, variations of essentially the same music. In the end, I wrote all the music as a piano short-score and arranged it for a typical band ensemble and orchestra, accordingly, making sure everything interlocked.
From beginning to end, the album is a sufficiently harsh and macabre—yet exquisitely melodic and classy—combination of those interests and intentions.
Take its three classical instrumentals (opener “Cervus Venator,” interlude “Anima Extraneae,” and closer “Sonata Profana”) for example. Lasting around 90 seconds each, their sublime simplicity and lusciousness adds cinematic beauty and cohesion to the entire experience. In other words, they work well as independently gorgeous passages, yet their greatest power comes from allowing Ihsahn to flow like a musically and thematically connected journey.
To varying degrees, every other track is enhanced by strings, horns, and other orchestral timbres. Plus, a few of them (namely, “The Promethean Spark,” “Pilgrimage to Oblivion,” “Blood Trails to Love,” and “At the Heart of All Things Broken”) venture into especially engaging and emotional harmonies and pure vocals. Granted, there’s never really been any doubt that Ihsahn is as adept at clean singing as he is at growling, but these pieces are sure to silence any remaining naysayers.
Of course, none of this is to say that the LP isn’t packed with plenty of brutality and idiosyncratic strangeness, too. Specifically, “Twice Born” erupts with characteristically guttural verses alongside the sort of Halloween-esque peculiarity and liveliness that’d easily put a smile on Danny Elfman’s face. Later, “A Taste of the Ambrosia” is even more straightforwardly hellish, and despite also incorporating some sing-along segments, the waltz rhythm and frenetic changeups of “Hubris and Blue Devils” make it feel like the audio equivalent of a nightmarish funhouse ride.
In addition to the metal (studio) version of the record, there’s also a companion orchestral version that reimagines those songs amidst conveying a “secondary story” that “bleed[s] into the main story.” Obviously, the three instrumental compositions are the same, and the rest of the different versions generally maintain the same symphonic highlights of their counterparts while filling in the gaps with classical modifications. Thus, it does precisely what you’d expect by offering a worthwhile alternative to the primary collection.
Ihsahn absolutely earns its eponymous title by illustrating the best of what its creator can do. True, fans who prefer Ihsahn’s diabolical side may find it a tad too relaxed in spots, but there should still be enough maliciousness strewn throughout to satisfy them. (Put another way, it’s more akin to Opeth’s Deliverance than it is Damnation.) Beyond that, his increased attraction to—and aptitude for—calmer hooks, strings, horns, and the like sees him successfully evolving artistically without abandoning any trademarks. Consequently, Ihsahn is another benchmark in Ihsahn’s already pristine discography.
Ihsahn’s self-titled LP drops Friday, February 16 via Candlelight Records. Preorder your copy today.
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