IHSAHN – Ihsahn (Album Review)

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For more than three decades, Ihsahn has made himself known as black metal’s indomitable maverick, a creative force so powerful that he has single-handedly reshaped the genre as we know it more than once. From the bombastic, epic black metal heights of Emperor’s legendary discography, to the saxophone-drenched avant-garde exploits of his solo project, Ihsahn has challenged the boundaries of extreme metal time and again.  At this point in his storied career, the name “Ihsahn” itself has become a promise. It’s a seal of quality, an assurance of excellence, and a commitment to the highest caliber of sonic achievement. Ihsahn does not merely set the standard for brilliance in metal: he is the unequivocal standard. 

With that outstanding reputation in mind, it’s even more fitting that his latest release, a momentous orchestral double-album, is simply titled “Ihsahn.” Almost twenty years as a solo artist have passed before Ihsahn found it fitting to adorn his work solely with his name. And while this would be a bold statement for any artist preparing to release their eighth album, Ihsahn has proven once again that he is unmatched in this field, and that “Ihsahn” is instantly worthy to join the annals of metal history alongside his other timeless accomplishments. This is a summation of his career as an artist, and it is also a love letter to everything that makes extreme metal so enduring, and so incessantly riveting.

One would be remiss to say that this album exceeds expectations. There can never truly be any expectations when diving into Ihsahn’s rich catalog, much less predicting what his creative genius will offer the world next. “Ihsahn” has been more than five years coming, with the last full-length album, “Amr,” released in 2018. In the interim Ihsahn has released three spectacular EPs, each with a unique musical proposition. First came “Telemark,” a black metal EP featuring Ihsahn’s classic blackened desolation alongside Norwegian lyrics, a delightful homage to his home. “Pharos” followed shortly thereafter, a pop-rock driven EP that stretched the famed metaller deep into uncharted waters with the delightfully delicate “Spectre at the Feast” and spellbinding Portishead cover, “Roads.” 2023 was again graced by Ihsahn’s presence, this time in a bite-sized three-song EP to accompany Jens Bogren’s URM Academy course, How It’s Done. And while these EPs were all stupendous in their own right, particularly when witnessing the complimentary duo contrast against one another on the live stage, they also left dedicated listeners craving something more robust. 

Ihsahn” more than satisfies that craving with over 90 minutes of new material, a story artistically cleaved across two complimentary albums. The premise here is as unique as it is exciting. First, Ihsahn presents a metal album that is rich with orchestral elements and fiery rage, following a classic hero’s journey in an almost nightmarish sheen of metallic extremity. The second album offers a strictly instrumental epic, opening an abyss of orchestral arrangements that form the score to an unseen horror film, all while telling a tale that runs parallel to that of the first album. It is a fully-developed tale rife with motif and symbolism that reaches not just across and between the two halves of the record, but is imbued within the album’s artwork, music videos, and other material. “Ihsahn” is a challenge to the modern era of music consumption, a challenge to short attention spans and the endless demand that questions are answered upfront. Instead, the album requires the listener to sit with the music, surrender themselves to the storyline, and voraciously dive into the unyielding depths of aural wonder. Within minutes of opening track “Cervus Venator,” the listener themselves becomes a character in this chilling story.

“Ihsahn” Album Artwork

As with much of his work, Ihsahn has again challenged the boundaries of extreme metal with this exquisite work of art. Not only has he challenged the genre: but he has once more challenged himself as an artist, and he elevated his craft beyond the wildest imagination. The clean vocal technique that was so beautifully developed on “Pharos” has again appeared and added an irrevocable finesse to “Ihsahn,” their lustre shining brightly on the enticing chorus of “The Promethean Spark.” While his well-beloved harshes allow him to continue his reign as one of metal’s most distinguished vocalists, they have also gained a sense of refinement, particularly apparent on the crushing first single “Pilgrimage to Oblivion.” There are few harsh vocalists that achieve such a delightful and unique enunciation as Ihsahn has. This is an achievement to relish in, and one that continues through the threnody of “At the Heart of All Things Broken.”

As for the orchestral side of the album, it is a haunting complement to its metallic counterpart. The rich symphonic elements that elevated Emperor’s discography have been reshaped and matured into their own cinematic score. While the metal disc was blissfully familiar alongside its more adventurous elements, this orchestral version demonstrates Ihsahn’s commitment to create a cinematic score beyond compare. The arrangements are hauntingly familiar, as though one is viewing the first album through a shattered mirror. This delightful mastery of the craft can be observed at the beginning of “Pilgrimage to Oblivion,” which on the metal version opens with crushingly loud instrumentation, but with soft and gradual build of strings on the orchestral version. There is also the hidden powerhouse buried within “A Taste of the Ambrosia.” Orchestrally, “A Taste of the Ambrosia” is a Grimm fairytale brought to life beneath a midnight sky, and it gives the listener the sensation of wandering directionless through a shadowed and unfamiliar woodland. Yet when paired with oppressive percussion and gritty vocals, this same song evolves into a tangible yearning that morphs into a visceral sense of desperation. They are intertwined, indisseverable, but unique all the same. This sentiment rings true for each track that makes “Ihsan” such a fortress of adept creation.

The atmosphere crafted on “Ihsahn” is unparalleled. There is no missing the horror cinema inspiration, as merely listening to this album causes discomfort to crawl beneath the skin alongside aural pleasure, as though it wants the listener to succumb to unease. Songs such as “The Distance Between Us” disturb feelings of safety and security as their higher notes linger at an unsettling pitch. Along with its orchestral version, “The Distance Between Us” is the abstraction of a recurring nightmare that one can never fully remember. This same vision is captured perfectly in the accompanying music video, a haunted fever dream that leaves the viewer wondering if their own senses are to be trusted. The thoughtfulness that went into every component of this release is breathtakingly sincere.

While the chilling atmosphere may remain constant throughout, “Ihsahn” is also a display of masterful dynamics. “Blood Trails to Love” has light, flitting moments that brighten the soundscape, while “Twice Born” acts as a suffocating force of total darkness with its furious pace. There are also traditional instrumental interludes, including opening and closing tracks, something that Ihsahn has not before explored in his work. These three brief instrumental pieces – solely instrumental on the metal version as well – truly shape “Ihsahn” as a wholly-developed story that is well worth sinking into. From its musicianship to its songwriting piques, the album is incredibly dense, thick with decadent layering, and numerous instrumental elements to explore. This density is not overwhelming, aside from when it is intentionally so, and “Ihsahn” has plenty of room to breathe amongst its struggle for survival. But between the story itself, the motifs, the sonic themes, and the virtuosic songwriting skills, this is an album worth sitting with and absorbing in full. This means no distractions. Just the listener, the music, and the transcendence that awaits.

There is also nostalgia replete within “Ihsahn” and its welcome embrace. This is most readily apparent on “Hubris and Blue Devils,” a track which features lyrical callbacks to Ihsahn’s debut album “The Adversary” as well as the iconic chorus on “The Paranoid,” among others. These easter eggs – both lyrical and musical – make listening to “Ihsahn” an utter delight for longtime fans. Such carefully constructed elements make this album worth listening to again, and again, and again, and again. Hunting for Ihsahn’s personal influence while also deciphering the underlying story is a satisfying endeavor that gives the album an increasingly personal connection to each listener. 

Perhaps most enticing of all is how intimately this music speaks to its audience. There’s an air of personal sensibility to it, a familiarity that feels like an old friend greeting the listener, their smile just ever-so-slightly contorted into a grimace. It is a musically rejuvenated concept that comes with the comfort of Ihsahn‘s well-known artistic signature. As overwhelming and awe-struck as one may be on their first listen, they are also greeted with the solace of a homecoming. The story and its characters are painted in the music and the lyrics, but the journey the listener takes is one of solitude, a dutiful peregrine they must make on their own.

Ihsahn” is a genuinely masterful work of art that wholeheartedly transcends both metal as a genre and cinema score as a mere inspiration. The songwriting and compositional skill are bar none, and the ambition that drove this album’s vision has paid off in full. These two albums are nothing less than absolutely beautiful, enticing, and enchanting. No words can do justice to the artistry, to the rich world Ihsahn has created for listeners to explore. The growth and maturity Ihsahn shows as both a songwriter and musician are boundless, and “Ihsahn” cements him as a paragon of excellence not just in metal, but in music and storytelling. It is simply impossible to imagine what this maestro of our time might concoct next.

Released By: Candlelight Records
Release Date: February 16th, 2023
Genre: Blackened Progressive Metal

Band Members:

  • Ihsahn / Vocals, Guitars
  • Tobias Ørnes Andersen / Drums
  • Tobias Øymo Solbakk / Percussion

“Ihsahn” track listing:

1. Cervus Venator
2. The Promethean Spark
3. Pilgrimage to Oblivion
4. Twice Born
5. A Taste of the Ambrosia
6. Anima Extraneae
7. Blood Trails to Love
8. Hubris and Blue Devils
9. The Distance Between Us
10. At the Heart of All Things Broken
11. Sonata Profana

“Ihsahn (Orchestral Version)” track listing:

  1. Cervus Venator (Orchestral Version)
  2. The Promethean Spark (Orchestral Version)
  3. Pilgrimage to Oblivion (Orchestral Version)
  4. Twice Born (Orchestral Version)
  5. A Taste of the Ambrosia (Orchestral Version)
  6. Anima Extraneae (Orchestral Version)
  7. Blood Trails to Love (Orchestral Version)
  8. Hubris and Blue Devils (Orchestral Version)
  9. The Distance Between Us (Orchestral Version)
  10. At the Heart of All Things Broken (Orchestral Version)
  11. Sonata Profana (Orchestral Version)
9.5 Excellent

Ihsahn once again transcends all expectations with his breathtaking self-titled double-album "Ihsahn." Part extreme metal tribute, part horror movie cinema score, this is almost two hours of music that will haunt its listener long after the closing notes.

  • Songwriting 9.5
  • Musicianship 9.5
  • Originality 9.5
  • Production 9.5
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