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Ihsahn - "Arktis" (CD)

Ihsahn - "Arktis" CD cover image

"Arktis" track listing:

1. Disassembled
2. Mass Darkness
3. My Heart is of the North
4. South Winds
5. In the Vaul
6. Until I too Dissolve
7. Pressure
8. Frail
9. Crooked Red Line
10. Celestial Violence
11. Til Tor Ulven (Søppelsolen)

Reviewed by on April 5, 2016

"It's been a long wait for new material filled with trepidation and uncertainty, but the result was worth it: this is some of Ihsahn's most fascinating material to date."

I was a very nervous fan coming into this album. “The Adversary,” “AngL,” “After:” these are some of my favorite albums of all time. While “Eremita” was an overall great release, the formula was becoming worn there and it seemed like Ihsahn needed to shake things up. Unfortunately, I got my wish on next album “Das Seelenbrechen,” which went so far into avant-garde insanity that it became just actively un-listenable noise. Here we are three years later with a new album from a recharged Ihsahn, and “Arktis” sees the Norwegian metal icon exploring new territory while staying true to the earlier roots of his solo career, for an satisfying overall balance.

“Arktis” is an absolute roller coaster ride of genre influences, from classic heavy metal to black metal to industrial and electronic. The basic framework of the music is based around what was heard in the “A” trilogy of albums, but the specific direction and execution have changed, and in some cases drastically. The best part is that the courageous experimentation of “Das Seelenbrechen” is absolutely here in force, but it doesn't go so overboard that its ceases to be music. Its really the best of both worlds.

“Mass Darkness” is a great example of this blending, starting off in a way you'd expect from classic Ihsahn but eventually mixing clean and harsh vocals together with some very non-standard (and non-black metal) riffage. “My Heart Is Of The North” throws in crazy '70s-style pipe organs near the end when you least expect them, and “Until I Too Dissolve” also goes back in time by kicking off with a spectacular traditional metal guitar solo straight from the '80s.

“Southwinds” is absolutely going to blow some minds on the first listen, as I never expected to hear Ihsahn go a similar route to his former Emperor band mate Mortiis. The track exudes a dark industrial feel, but presented in a distinctly Norwegian black metal way. The whispered segment at the end also strongly brings to mind the “Nevermind” track from Leonard Cohen (now famous from the True Detective season 2 intro).

You'll get another shock with “Frail,” kicking off with an acoustic opening and then jumping into an electronic / piano mashup segment with harsh vocals layered over top. The melody on this one will get it stuck in your head, despite being so experimental. For those wondering, you don't need to worry – Ihsahn didn't forget about the sax, which makes an appearance on the noir track “Crooked Red Line.” The basic version of the album ends on a high note with “Celestial Violence,” which utilizes piano and clean singing from Leprous vocalist Einar, and then has one of the best transitions I've heard in recent memory as it shifts gears into extreme black metal.

The limited edition version features an extra bonus track that's a curious offering and isn't going to work for everyone. Much of the song is extremely low key and atmospheric, utilizing spoken word voiceovers that bring to mind Ihsahn's single album Hardingrock project. It's incredibly dark and strongly paints a visual picture – the song would fit right in on the soundtrack to a horror game like Silent Hill or Layers Of Fear – although its probably too minimalist for its own good. You have to really be willing to put in the time on this one, but if you have the patience to work through 9 ½ minutes of very quiet and brooding material, the dreamlike experience does have an excellent payoff.

The whole package of “Arktis” is incredibly interesting and varied from beginning to end, and it's great to see Ihsahn pushing boundaries without abandoning the framework of metal altogether, like in the previous album. It's been a long wait for new material filled with trepidation and uncertainty, but the result was worth it: this is some of Ihsahn's most fascinating material to date.

Highs: The entire roller coaster ride: you'll hear just about everything on this album, and its all done well.

Lows: Not many, although its conceivable some fans aren't going to dig the industrial or spoken word tracks.

Bottom line: Ihsahn returns after some recharging down time with an experimental and endlessly interesting black metal album.

Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls
4.5 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)