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Ihsahn - "After" (CD)

Ihsahn - "After" CD cover image

"After" track listing:

1. The Barren Lands (5:12)
2. A Grave Inversed (4:25)
3. After (4:47)
4. Frozen Lakes on Mars (5:54)
5. Undercurrent (10:00)
6. Austere (6:16)
7. Heavens Black Sea (6:15)
8. On the Shores (10:12)

Reviewed by on December 27, 2009

"The album’s title track may have Ihsahn’s trademark growling, but the disc has officially left black metal behind. As the song states, 'This is the After.'"

A powerhouse in the extreme metal world, Ihsahn has been involved with bands as legendary as Emperor and as unknown as the short side project Thou Shalt Suffer. His solo work over the past two albums combined the black metal sounds of his earliest releases with the unpredictable nature of his lesser known projects. The third album in Ihsahn’s initial solo trilogy, “After,” isn’t a musical culmination so much as a statement of transition. The latest album is a parting farewell to the music of Ihsahn’s youth and a declaration of the sonic explorations to come.

Each song title and the various lyrical themes seem to support the idea that the album is an expression of evolution from old to new. The disc starts off with “The Barren Lands,” which is more toned down and restrained than would be expected after the fury present on the last album “AngL.” The song structure remains familiar to anyone who has enjoyed the last two releases, but the addition of eight string guitar gives the music another layer of complexity.

“The Barren Lands” is an altogether solid track, but the disc really gets going with “A Grave Inversed.” It would be safe to say that Ihsahn has crafted the sort of song that will define his career and likely be the inspiration for many bands in the future. The last album had an interesting effect created in the track “Elevator,” which gave a feeling of falling through clever guitar work. “A Grave Inversed” takes the idea to a completely new level, making the sensation of motion in multiple directions at once. The effect is magnified when Jorgen Munkeby jumps in with his saxophone to match and even surpass the guitars. The song brings to mind the best Emperor ever had to offer, but with a greater amount of experimentation and more maturity. Several heavy bands have utilized saxophones in the past as a symphonic backing tool, but here the instrument is an integral part of the music that is just as responsible for the metal vibe as anything else.

There is a gamble taken by having two massive ten minute tracks at the middle and end of the disc, but they pay off incredibly well. Both “Undercurrent” and closer “On The Shores” are colossal songs that feature enough style changes and background sounds to remain engaging for their entire duration. “Undercurrent” also sees the return of the saxophone, but in a completely different capacity than its earlier appearance. Showcasing the diversity of the instrument, it leaves the heavy tones behind and instead provides a more gloomy and downbeat feel. “On The Shores” brings the theme of transition to a close, arriving at the shores of whatever is to come next. The song is one long sonic journey that brings feelings of inevitability for the future, but also deep nostalgia for the past.

One of the most interesting aspects of the album is the general rock and roll vibe found throughout the tracks. It’s an atmosphere completely different from anything heard on an Ihsahn release in the past, but it adds another dimension that takes the music to new heights. The songs themselves don’t actually fall out of metal and into rock, but there are guitar riffs and keyboard passages that periodically provide an overall feel of ‘70s prog rock, if that genre had ever included hellish screams.

There is only a single flaw present in “After,” and that is its one single throwback to the early black metal style. As has been the custom in the genre for decades, the bass remains consistently overshadowed by the other instruments. It isn’t particularly detrimental to the music in any way, but it’s unfortunate that a bassist like Lars Koppang Norberg was employed to be so frequently overlooked.

The album’s title track may have Ihsahn’s trademark growling, but the disc has officially left black metal behind. As the song states, “This is the After.” The days of the solo musician being mired solely in the second wave of black metal are long behind, and a time of experimentation in completely new directions has arrived. The album has the avant-garde feel of his earlier project Peccatum, but keeps the elements more tightly wound and has a stronger sense of unity. “After” is what happens when one of the original Norwegian black metal masterminds decides to take his music to a new level, as black metal was just the beginning.

Highs: Startingly progressive while still remaining in the realm of metal, and the use of saxophone throughout the album is simply stunning.

Lows: The only low point is the way the bass gets neglected, but it doesn't drag the album down far.

Bottom line: Black metal has been left behind as Ihsahn shows the musical world what comes "After."

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)