IHSAHN – Fascination Street Sessions (EP Review)

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How can an artist create a transformative experience of the highest order with three songs alone? If anyone were capable of this feat, it would be metal’s most impressive maverick: Ihsahn. At only fourteen minutes long, “Fascination Street Sessions” may feel like fleeting euphoria, but it proves an inimitable gem that will forever shine upon the crown of Ihsahn’s discography. This latest sample of Ihsahn’s creative genius is absolutely worth an in-depth dissection, but for those who would rather pass over a review that reads more like an essay, take “Fascination Street Sessions” and go forth with jubilee. This is Ihsahn at his very best.

Ihsahn has produced a veritable feast of music for listeners to gorge themselves upon. From Emperor’s timeless black metal epics to his ever-evolving solo project, Ihsahn has spent the last thirty years in a state of ceaseless creation. In fact, between 1994 and 2018, Ihsahn went no longer than approximately two years without releasing a full-length album. So for fans accustomed to an endless aural feast, the last five years have been a relative famine.

The welcome darkness of Ihsahn’s last studio album, “Amr,” greeted the world in early 2018. Two more years would pass before the arrival of two distinct EPs, titled “Telemark” and “Pharos,” each containing three original tracks and two covers. And before one can truly pull apart the decadent and bite-sized EP “Fascination Street Sessions,” it is essential to glance at these two preceding EPs, as well as the creative activities that have kept Ihsahn busy in the interim years.

Telemark” was released on Valentine’s Day, 2020. This date is particularly appropriate, as “Telemark” serves as a love letter to Ihsahn’s early career. Raw black metal is peppered with earth-splitting screams on the fierce “Stridig,” and then this darkness is further infused with the familiar keening of Jørgen Munkeby’s saxophone. The addition of sax to metal may no longer be viewed as a novelty, but as the 2000s bled into the 2010s, it was Ihsahn who pioneered this brand of brass-textured extremity with his album “After.” A frenetic touch of jazz became something of a signature for Ihsahn, and this iconic style has reappeared as a staple throughout his solo project’s discography. As for the expansive soundscapes on title track “Telemark,” one instantly finds themselves whisked away to Norway in the 1990s, where black metal began to blossom and Emperor laid its roots. Ihsahn has consistently expanded his skillset along with his creative inspiration, and although he has traversed genres from avant-garde to spoken word poetry, he has always been seen as one of black metal’s most essential founders. “Telemark” steps into this familiar realm and embraces the image that has come to define Ihsahn’s career. This is the core of who Ihsahn was in his youth, who he still may be at his heart, and how the world may always see him.

Pharos,” however, proved to be a far cry from the biting chill of snow-covered Norwegian forests. Replete with soft melancholy, “Pharos” has the spacious and delicate appeal of pop-driven progressive rock. There are no screams, the harshness traded out for Ihsahn’s melodic clean vocals, and guitars reverberate gently rather than distort. The ominous atmosphere that drapes itself over most of Ihsahn’s work is surprisingly subdued. “Losing Altitude” builds itself on furls of low-hanging smoke, while title track “Pharos” breathes with the beautiful indifference of a violent summer rain. Some were surprised by the choice of covers on the album, namely A-Ha’s hit “Manhattan Skyline,” which featured Einar Solberg on vocals. For those that have followed Ihsahn and his work for some time, this should be an obvious choice to join the collection of cover tracks. Ihsahn has not concealed the fact that pop rock artists have been an important part of his musical journey, and given that A-Ha is a Norwegian-based pop-rock icon, there’s little surprise that this song has been carried with Ihsahn for some time. While Ihsahn had taken incremental steps across styles between prior albums, “Pharos” took a bold dive headfirst into uncharted territory, and in doing so revealed a sorrow-tinged tenderness that had not been known to Ihsahn’s mainstream image. To hold “Pharos” in one’s hands is to be entrusted with a precious gift, granted a glimpse at a brand-new chapter of life.

A love letter to all that has been, and a declaration that reveals a new dimension to a well-beloved icon. These EPs are two halves of one whole, and their physical separation speaks their story almost as loudly as the music itself. Almost three years later, where does that leave “Fascination Street Sessions?” As it turns out, this is the natural next chapter for an artist who has not just made himself through ongoing stylistic evolution, but as an artist who has had a longstanding interest in music production. Ihsahn teamed up with Trivium’s Matt Heafy in 2022 as the producer for Heafy’s solo project. Ibaraki’s black metal debut, “Rashomon,” was met with an overwhelmingly positive reception, and Ihsahn was noted as an immutable key to its success. So when Ihsahn entered Fascination Street Studios, he did so with the purpose of creating content for URM Academy’s online educational program for music production. Joining him was Fascination Street Studio’s acclaimed engineer/producer Jens Bogren (Opeth, Dimmu Borgir, Arch Enemy, Powerwolf), as well as Ihsahn’s long-time drummer Tobias Ørnes Andersen. Keyboard player Øystein Aadland was a new addition that joined in on this endeavor.

Ihsahn has worked with Bogren for the better part of a decade, and this time the pair worked together to create a thorough course in music production, the content spanning from pre-production through final master. Not only did Fascination Street Studios gather the best talent in the business, this talent was able to work with high-quality instruments and top-tier equipment. The demos used to create this course were eventually compiled into “Fascination Street Sessions.” And while the course itself will later be released through URM Academy, this EP is a first glimpse of the fruits of their labor.

One must wonder how much this fundamental difference in purpose influenced the course of songwriting and the creative process. Not only was there an exceptionally diligent focus on production, but “Fascination Street Sessions” is essentially the textbook made to accompany a classroom lecture series. Granted, it’s a more inspiring textbook than most academics will ever produce, but it is a learning tool nonetheless. The primary benefit from this unique approach is apparent in the unparalleled production quality across the EP. In fact, the production is as close to perfect as one could ever conceive for a piece of music. “Fascination Street Sessions” captures an immense amount of detail in a beautiful sonic balance, each unique element integrated flawlessly, and its vibrancy matched by masterfully diverse songwriting. There is no shortage of appreciation for the pure technical foundation that makes this EP come together so comprehensively.

The Observer” is the focal point of the EP, and it rightfully leads the charge as one of Ihsahn’s most immediately captivating tracks since “Arktis.” Some of this magic comes from the newest weapon in Ihsahn’s arsenal: the seductive tone of Aadland’s euphonic crooning. These clean vocals are as rich as honey, and each word drips with dripping with temptation and emotion at every word. Once Ihsahn’s growls join the fray, his abrasiveness is met with the amorous intonation of Aadland’s hushed poetry. The disparate duet washes over the listener in a pleasant wave of fire and ice. This contrasting interplay is present in all elements of the track, including guitars that dance fluidly between distortion and acoustics, and a rhythm section that uses progressive tendencies to keep an ongoing momentum.

Adding to the warmth of both “The Observer” and all of “Fascination Street Sessions” is the presence of a lustrous organ weaving its way into the heart of the EP. This additional layer of depth is supplied by a vintage Hammond in Fascination Street Studios, and similar effects are achieved with a combination of digital and analog techniques. When it comes to the depth of the instrumentals, it’s crucial to note that Andersen is also at the absolute top of his game. It feels as though Andersen and Ihsahn have become extensions of each other, their roles intertwined with inseparable chemistry, a union so sincere that they match one another with every step. From the gentle rolling percussion that urges “The Observer” forward to the demanding punishment of “Contorted Monuments,” this EP proves to be a tremendous highlight of Andersen’s ever-maturing skills.

While “The Observer” may lean into the darkened rock atmosphere that sculpted much of “Pharos,” lead single “Contorted Monuments” brings back the familiar flames of blackened intensity. Its opening riff is an infectious hook that will echo as a welcoming motif, and this passage is shortly followed by a blistering solo that even further ensnares its prey. The rest of the track drags the listener between two extremes, dragging them underwater before allowing them to claw to the surface, just a few precious moments to gasp for air. This austere atmosphere is accomplished by Ihsahn’s biting screams building with fervent zeal, the tension rising as he dials up the intensity with a punishing chorus, touching upon a scorching summit of fury before it comes crashing down into a soft rock refrain. Although he has long used clean vocals in his solo work, it is clear that Ihsahn’s vocal capabilities have expanded in their breadth, with both “Pharos” and “Fascination Street Sessions” as prime examples of just how mellifluous they have grown to be. An already varied body of work and talent is made even more diverse by the ability to switch seamlessly between scorching rasps and melodic verses.

In both “The Observer” and “Contorted Monuments,” attention is owed to the sheer skill and complexity of the lead guitar. Ihsahn’s expertise with the instrument has been long recognized as a cornerstone of his work, but the atmospheric intensity of “Fascination Street Sessions” makes it easy to get lost in the profound feelings that the EP invokes, rather than appreciating the musical skill Ihsahn brings to the table. “Fascination Street Sessions” is chock full of solos, riffs, and melodies that vary from distortion-ravaged to clean acoustics. Some of these solos are short,  merely a few moments of tantalizing excellence, while others sink in their teeth and refuse to let go. The listener is absolutely at the whim of Ihsahn’s skills as he crafts opulent stories with his instruments.

The final track of “Fascination Street Sessions” is a cover of the song “Dom Andra,” originally by the Swedish pop-rock band Kent. Although the band never quite rose to popularity in the United States, they were a mainstay in Sweden and the other Nordic countries, so much so that “Dom Andra” won Sweden’s Song of the Year award in 2002. The execution of “Dom Andra” is reminiscent of Ihsahn’s take on Portishead’s “Road,” the closing track of “Pharos.” But what brings “Dom Andra” to the next level is Jonas Renske of Katatonia on vocal duty. This modern and slightly-blackened rendition is largely true to its original, capturing the dark synths that were popular at the time, as well as the saturating despondency that unwinds as the track progresses. Renske’s voice is so imbued with emotion that it is effortless to sink into the story that unfolds, regardless of one’s ability to understand the language. Ihsahn has shown once again that no genre can confine him, and that no matter what ambitious endeavor he undertakes, he will excel in its execution. Whether this is using additional talent, like Renske and Aadland, or wading into the mellower tides that pop and rock have to offer, Ihsahn will create something incredible.

Fascination Street Sessions” is a beautiful display of talented production, virtuoso musicianship, and Ihsahn’s wholehearted embrace of pop-rock influences. Does this mean that Ihsahn is abandoning his extreme metal roots? That doesn’t seem likely. There’s little question that Ihsahn’s heart still belongs to extreme metal, that blackened kingdom in which he has long been crowned as one of its princes. “Fascination Street Sessions” stands out as much as it makes an important statement as to his skills, continuing interests, and ever-evolving abilities. Yes, Ihsahn is a black metal artist, and perhaps that is all some people will see in him. But he is so much more. He is an innovator, an educator, a talented producer, just to name a few. At only 47 years old, his career is still relatively young. We would only be so lucky if he continues to share the results of his ongoing evolution and passions for years to come.

Release Date: March 24th, 2023
Record Label: Candlelight Records
Genre: Progressive Metal /Progressive Rock

Musicians:

  • Ihsahn / Vocals, Guitar, Bass
  • Øystein Aadland / Keyboard
  • Tobias Ørnes Andersen / Drums

“Fascination Street Sessions” Track-list:

    1. The Observer
    2. Contorted Monuments
    3. Dom Andra (Kent cover) (feat. Jonas Renske)

9.5 Excellent

In less than fourteen minutes, Ihsahn has again proven that he is an absolute master of his craft, and in a league of his own when compared to any contemporaries. Long hailed as one of metal's foremost mavericks, "Fascination Street Sessions" is a mere glimpse into Ihsahn's seemingly boundless musical genius.

  • Songwriting 9.5
  • Musicianship 9.5
  • Originality 9
  • Production 10
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