Ihsahn – Telemark (EP Review)

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He sits poised, stiff posture imposing within the commanding might of a pitch black throne. His face rests impassive, the cold, sharp features even more severe in the shadows that drench him in a dark embrace. Emanating regality with every fiber of his being, this figure stares down at the viewer, not cruel, but not entirely apathetic. This was the promotional image chosen to personify one of the most influential and groundbreaking artists in black metal, a title that has rightfully persisted for decades. The impression given by such an portrait is that of an unforgiving demigod, but it is an embodiment most fitting given the stunning legacy the multi-talented instrumentalist and producer has crafted since his teenage years. Hailing from the cold clutches of Norway, Ihsahn has earned his place among the hallowed halls of black metal royalty, and has a name that conjures visions of unforgiving arctic frost that manifests in tangible anguish.

The aforementioned photograph was used to promote Ihsahn ’s 2018 full-length album “Amr”, an opus drenched in oppressively suffocating darkness. It was also one of the most personal promotions that the typically reserved artist had ever released, providing a rarely intimate look at the man who has been fracturing boundaries in the extreme metal scene since he first stood at Emperor ’s helm. In a relentless cycle of songwriting and touring that has persisted for decades, Ihsahn has been refining his craft and finding new ways to completely shatter supposed black metal conventions since his first solo album, “The Adversary,” which was released in 2006. Since then, the virtuoso of darkness has continued to break barriers with album after album, culminating in a current discography of seven full-length albums as a solo artist. 

No matter how revolutionary his work has proven to be time and time again, there was always the inevitable progression that would lead expectations to become attached to Ihsahn ’s evolution. First he brought an unexpected messiah to black metal in the form of the humble and unassuming saxophone, then later permeated dissonant static with undeniable and unashamed 80s rock influences. Even after the vivid avant-garde atmospherics that drove 2013’s “Das Seelenbrechen,” there were always underlying assumptions that some form of black metal constructs would govern Ihsahn ’s work. Of course, being the maverick he is, there was no potential for Ihsahn to be caged by such a primitive set of presumptions. Proven by inventive twists in every album he has released to date, Ihsahn has shown that he will not bow to the suggestions of any mere mortal, but will follow his own creative vision and artistic truth to its end. 

As further stepping stones in his perpetual evolution, Ihsahn announced that he would be releasing two EPs beginning in early 2020, the first governed by black metal roots running back to Emperor ’s early days, with the latter release taking a more purely progressive flavor. The name of the first EP, “Telemark,” is that of the county in Norway in which Ihsahn was raised, the very place he still has residence. It is a homage to not just his homeland’s history, but to his own musical roots. An EP that drives for one of the most personal exposures from the musician to date, “Telemark” relies on the open fields of ice and brutality that Ihsahn calls home to send a unfiltered message on both introspection and the exemplification of personal truth. 

“Telemark” EP Artwork

Where “Amr”’s image was colored by hints of bloody crimson steeped in impenetrable blackness, Ihsahn’s promotion of “Telemark” has relied on an icy grey monochrome tending towards a bleak, solitary white. Though certainly distinct from his prior visual presentations, the thematic and stylistic elements draw most strongly from an earlier album of similar musical flavor,  2016’s stunner “Arktis.” But one would be remiss to compare the sincerity of “Telemark” with Ihsahn ’s prior discography beyond atmospheric sensation alone: just as with each new piece of music that Ihsahn releases, “Telemark” is a work of art unique unto itself, and one that stands to be best judged independently. 

The EP has five tracks, comprised of three original songs and two covers, each revealing a new chapter in a story of musical wisdom and personal sincerity. First track “ Stridig” opens with  the harshest and most unforgiving offering on all of “Telemark.” Its edges are jagged, and Ihsahn ’s screams cry out like the howling wind of a tempestuous blizzard. Tentative in working up to such unrestrained extremity, the track begins with echoing resonance, a distant drum and tender strings used to gradually mount tension. This is the sound of desolation, of being stranded by oneself in a vast expanse of nothingness, the stark reality of a forced introspection. Increasingly the speed mounts, the bite of the guitar akin to the sensation of snowflakes prickling across exposed flesh, but still the listener braces for the coming release of arctic violence. Finally, Ihsahn begins to scream with the signature rasping howls that have made his voice one of the most definitive in the genre. In “ Stridig,” it somehow manages to sound more raw and unfiltered than ever before, dripping with passion and anger in the same breath, a swelling wave of emotion that crashes without remorse. 

“Stridig” is as brutal as it is cautious, pushing a relentless series of riffs across wavering static, crisp notes racing alone above the ragged fray of noise. In a calculated hesitance, the heart of the song is defined by a slow, echoing interlude in which Ihsahn ’s guitar is the near solitary guide. This is the quiet of a blossoming fury, a rage repressed beneath a pristine surface, darkness bubbling up from beneath an un-fractured field of white. With his distant screams, Ihsahn truly crafts the impression of being abandoned in the middle of a Nordic winter, complete with its crushing solitude and remorseless apathy. To reach the speed and ferocity that had dominated the song’s first half, anticipation once again begins to build in a nearly identical pattern to the song’s opening. Not for the first time in “Telemark” does Ihsahn rely on a similar structure multiple times throughout a single track, but as the song progresses, the atmosphere regarding the same piece of music continues to change. The very notes that once seemed passive morph into hostility, and then into a pleading lament.

Where “Stridig” is brutal, second track “Nord ” is much more mournful, a grieving threnody reminiscent of old school black metal. As demonstrated throughout “Telemark,” the opening to “Nord ” is beautiful evidence that the proper execution of stereo sound can be a pure sonic delight: there could have been no intro more fitting for the hot, burning embers that carry the song’s smoldering soul. Any aggression is carefully measured, his screams calculating and somewhat withdrawn, seemingly muted as the instrumental layers take a more idyllic course. Backing vocals carry a pleasant melody in time with a thoughtful drum, filling out a soaring body that soothes the rough gravel of Ihsahn ’s screams. The iconic saxophone that has become a hallmark of Ihsahn ’s creative genius is an essential part of the song’s backbone, an enlightened approach to aggression that would have made his former peers balk in surprise. There is no crushing brutality as would normally be advertised within Ihsahn ’s works, but it serves as a moment to breathe beneath bleak grey skies, crushingly bright, cloud cover reflecting back nothing but silence. 

There is no slow burn more tantalizing than the album’s title track, the crowning jewel that rises above the increasingly impressive Nordic mantle of “Telemark.” At almost eight minutes long, “Telemark” is a song that slowly works its way into the listener’s blood, leaving them unable to resist as the repetitive riffs begin to infect their very heartbeat, imbuing its irresistible power until every exhalation is thick with frost. For more than two full minutes the song mounts and fades in a series of feints, digging deep into a riff inspired by a traditional Norse folk instrument, the Harding fiddle. Both speed and intensity are held in a state of constant flux throughout the opening passages, anticipation lingering thick in the air. 

After an opening that is almost sensuous in nature, listeners could find themselves no more vulnerable by the time Ihsahn finally demonstrates his utter vocal dominion. In these opening words his accent shows stronger than ever before, consonants rolling in the back of his throat, hovering between intensely seductive and outright beastly. Their fervor grows as the song strives towards its seemingly inevitable climax, harnessing a daring union between the dissonance of Emperor ’s early darkness and the progressive textures that Ihsahn effortlessly manipulates. Saxophone hovers in a rich warmth just out of reach, drums thundering in a false promise of comfort, and Ihsahn continues to pour his very soul into his delivery on both vocals and guitar alike. At times he seems anguished, at other times furious, culminating in fiery passion wrapped in the embrace of a cacophonous musical backdrop.  By the time Ihsahn is shouting the song’s title at the top of his lungs, the listener is held in utter rapture, having fallen victim to the song’s inescapable, all-enveloping presence. 

Once “Telemark” has reached the conclusion of its original pieces, Ihsahn launches headfirst into two bombastic cover selections, each with a sharp attitude that blossoms from the same anger that has always carried Ihsahn’s work in black metal. First is a Lenny Kravitz cover, the iconic “Rock and Roll is Dead ” carrying all the tenets of pure rock ‘n’ roll. Ihsahn both sings and growls his way through the chart-topping lyrics, somehow balancing both grit and attitude in perfect measure as the saxophone works its magic. More casual than any of his prior works, “Rock and Roll is Dead” pays homage to the hard rock scene that was flourishing in parallel to the rise of Norwegian black metal. Though it is instantly recognizable from the very opening notes, Ihsahn has also transformed this song into an arrangement that is entirely his own, imbuing static and growls into a rich layer of jazz textures. 

Where “Rock and Roll is Dead ” carries the jam-inspired soul of rock, the cover of Iron Maiden ’s “Wrathchild ” is the biting attitude of early heavy metal. Still vibrant in bright guitars that remain true-to-form of the original, Ihsahn’s grating vocals add a new and unexpected dimension to a longtime classic. Breathing new life into these new songs in a way that only a seasoned black metal artist could, Ihsahn shows once and for all that there are no rules for what black metal should be in these two unparalleled surprises. And, daresay, it is proof that the usually stoic artist can have an incredible amount of fun. 

“Telemark” feels as though the towering walls around Ihsahn are finally beginning to fall, and that listeners are granted a closer, more personal look at this fabled artist’s personal story. There is creation here, but there is also brutal honesty to both the audience and himself. Undoubtedly, Ihsahn has always produced music in the direction that his heart has desired, but there is something different in this EP. Something inviting, something personal, something that leaves the listener feeling as though maybe, just maybe they heard something that wasn’t meant for their ears. The work can be perceived in two very different facets: the first as listening to the artist’s journey alone, and the second in listening as an individual willing to face the reality of looking inwards at themselves, drinking in solitude without hesitation. 

This is also the album where Ihsahn seems most comfortable in his own skin. Known for the stunningly poetic quality of his lyrics, there is a beauty in hearing him sing in Norwegian, the organic warmth exceedingly natural. Though much of his audience may be unable to find meaning in a direct translation, the phonetic variation and verse structure are constantly shifting, falling into a diverse set of patterns that prove compelling even in a foreign tongue. The music has also shifted to accommodate this difference in vocal delivery, fitting with the textual differences in enunciation, particularly with the effusive touches of saxophone working themselves into “Telemark” heartbeat. Where vocal variation reigns, much of  this EP relies on repetitive riffs and musical motifs, still distinct each time they are highlighted, showcasing with beautiful clarity  how Ihsahn’s careful composition can give a multitude of dimensions to a single theme. 

Production is similarly calculated, generous use of stereo sound effects carrying both words and instruments into a simulated three-dimensional landscape, an effect which sometimes creates a claustrophobic chaos, and at other times a yawning, empty expanse. Every component of the mix is painstakingly intentional, with the sharp riffs created by Ihsahn ’s own hands often rising above the fray, but also falling secondary to the warmer touches of bass and steady thunder of drums. Though it spans only five songs, two of them being covers, “Telemark” feels remarkably complete. It is exactly the album that it was meant to be, and it delivers a plain and succinct message to listeners, one which embodies the cold that “Arktis” first explored. What “Arktis” said in words, “Telemark” proves in musical spirit: Ihsahn’s heart is indeed of the north.  Most importantly of all, “Telemark” leaves the door wide open for inventive surprises on the next EP, and proves that listeners truly have no way of predicting what Ihsahn will do next. 

Released By: Candlelight Records
Release Date: February 14th, 2020
Genre: Black Metal

Musicians:

  • Ihsahn / Vocals, Guitar

“Telemark” Track-listing:

  1. Stridig
  2. Nord
  3. Telemark
  4. Rock and Roll is Dead
  5. Wrathchild

9.3 Excellent

In an inventive EP that proves to be breathtakingly cold, Ihsahn continues to refute assertions of what belongs in black metal while giving a more personal look at his musical and cultural roots. Filled to the brim with the dissonant solitude of black metal, “Telemark” is the pure expression of an indomitable creative spirit, one whose vision has carried Ihsahn to one of his most diverse works to date.

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