Anyone expecting anything resembling a traditional black metal album from the former Emperor frontman Ihsahn at this point just hasn’t been paying attention. On Arktis. (punctuation in original), his sixth solo album to date, Ihsahn continues to perfect his vision, a stunning blend of prog and black metal, peppered throughout with hints of both rock and traditional old school metal as well.
Even back in the Emperor years, Ihsahn seemed to not be overly concerned with making the most brutal music; rather, his intent has always been to produce art that is both deeply personal and majestic, although aural savagery was certainly one tool he had at his disposal. Once he began producing solo work, Ihsahn seemed to take the opportunity to expand his sonic palette, but the spirit behind the music has remained consistent.
Album opener “Disassembled” is a fine illustration of this. Solid riffing leads straight into a verse featuring Ihsahn‘s trademark rasp, but just as quickly an organ begins to peek in around the edges of the metal guitar work. Guest musician Einar Solberg, responsible for the organ work, also contributes clean vocals as well, adding an extra depth to the composition. The song transitions back and forth from black metal-tinged moments to more prog rock segments, and this juggling of styles is a hallmark of both Arktis. as an album and Ihsahn‘s entire solo career.
The album impresses, track after track. The guitar work is always stunning, whether churning out contorted prog metal riffs or classic Iron Maiden-esque harmonies. Album highlight “Until I Too Dissolve” centers around a riff than would have fit in on an old Dokken track, but repurposes it into a more modern context.
Another highlight comes later in the album. “Crooked Red Line” spends its first half in an almost ballad-like slumber, with guest saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby from Norwegian industrial jazz metal group Shining giving the song a bit of a jazz feel. The piece climaxes in the middle as the tempo actually slows a bit, but the guitar becomes heavier and Ihsahn‘s vocals grow harsher. Munkeby follows suit with some screeching sax work. This doesn’t last long, though, and the song finishes much as it began, calmly.
As intriguing as Arktis. is as a whole, the final track, “Celestial Violence,” seems to be the most powerful. Once again, Einar Solberg provides powerful clean vocals, and the back and forth between he and Ihsahn, against some of the heaviest music on the album, is absolutely enrapturing.
Ihsahn is the rare artist who is constantly pressing forward, challenging himself to new and unexplored moments in his music, while maintaining an unmistakable identity. Not only is his voice quite recognizable and his guitar work always virtuosic and unique, but the very spirit he conveys through his material is unique and compelling. There is a straight line of feeling, running from Emperor all the way through to Arktis., and one can imagine this will only continue. Yet, we are also assured that this consistency will not ever fall into stagnation, and that makes Ihsahn‘s personal journey one which we all will be interested in taking.