How Ihsahn is evolving metal

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“During those early teenage years we were all looking really deep, all of us in the black metal scene, to find that coldness and that so-called evil and the strength of not caring. We searched for that and that was the ideal. I had a very thorough look and, to my disappointment at the time, it wasn’t there. But there’s a different side to those ideas that I still stand by and that I find far more interesting…”

There was always something different about Ihsahn. Even at the height of the mid-90s black metal explosion, when one of the genre’s more notable failings was a collective tendency to overegg the Satanic, nihilistic pudding, the then-Emperor frontman seemed to stand apart from his peers, keeping his artistic countenance by focusing almost exclusively on the gradual but grand development of his band’s music. Emperor shared the Norwegian shadows with many other great bands, but somehow Ihsahn’s quiet, creative stoicism helped to elevate them to the highest of underground pedestals. By the time they released their final album – Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire And Demise – in 2001, Ihsahn had become Emperor’s sole composer and the music they were making was simply on a different level to everyone else’s efforts.

Ihsahn in his Emperor days with Trym (left) and Samoth (centre)

Ihsahn in his Emperor days with Trym (left) and Samoth (centre)

Returning to the present day, Ihsahn is celebrating a decade as a solo artist. Ten years ago, he released his first bona fide solo album and named it The Adversary – a title that spoke volumes about its creator’s fiercely individual approach to music. Since then, he has released a further four albums of ornate, progressive extremity, and pulled off the neat trick of expanding his audience, exploring numerous wild musical ideas and somehow retaining his credentials as one of black metal’s most respected figures. As he prepares to release Arktis., his sixth album, Ihsahn is transforming into an elder statesman of metal before our very eyes. And yet, much like black metal itself, his solo career has often seemed like a sustained act of rebellion.

“When I made The Adversary, I felt that I wanted to embrace what black metal was, this whole extreme individualism that lies at the bottom of all this,” he explains. “That idea of ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’… To me, the whole cultural policing of what you’re allowed or not allowed to do as an artistic expression, that’s contrary to the black metal ethos. This rulebook of what you’re supposed to do, or not, for it to be categorised as black metal, that is the antithesis of black metal, but that’s just in my book. I take it as my prerogative that I do whatever the hell I want and therefore, by definition, that is black metal.”

Rules? No, I do what I want, and that is black metal

There have been times over the last decade when Ihsahn has seemed hell-bent on confounding the audience he first enraptured with Emperor. In musical terms at least, he is a more obvious contemporary of Opeth and Devin Townsend than he is of Mayhem or Dimmu Borgir. The untamed atmospheres and wailing saxophones of 2010’s After album certainly bore very little resemblance to the symphonic bombast of 1994’s In The Nightside Eclipse, and 2013’s Das Seelenbrechen was even less easily digested by those with a conservative palate, with its convoluted improvisations and moments of stifling surrealism. But it is to the 40-year-old’s credit that his strong identity as a musician and songwriter has remained steadfast, enabling him to be proudly experimental but never entirely detached from heavy metal and its simple power.

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“The symbolism of heavy metal, and of black metal, is at the heart of all my creative endeavours, because I grew up with that background,” he says. “I grew up listening to The Number Of The Beast, you know? But I think my 10 years in Emperor taught me that whether you do it this way or that way, it really doesn’t matter. All I can do is do my absolute best every time, and whether that means I do a more heavy metal album like this one or, like Das Seelenbrechen, a mental trip with improvisation, I always go wholeheartedly into the process, and that’s the only way I can come out at the other end with something that’s honest and heartfelt. This whole idea of trying to please a certain part of the market or do what people expect you to, that’s not for me. In the early Emperor days we tried not to be liked. We hated the fact that people who were too straight still listened to our music, so maybe it wasn’t extreme enough! Ha ha ha!”

Emperor’s attempts to be disliked clearly went very wrong indeed, as anyone who witnessed any of the band’s ecstatically received reunion exploits over the last few years will testify. In fact, the band are arguably bigger now than they ever were, regardless of whether they formally exist at any particular point. But make no mistake: when it comes to music, Ihsahn moved on from Emperor more than a decade ago, and perhaps the greatest trick he ever pulled was to drag older fans along him for this ongoing, wild ride into territory unknown. An album that reaffirms its creator’s ability to pen face-flaying but brilliantly alien metal riffs, Arktis. is plainly the work of the same man that conjured I Am The Black Wizards and Curse You All Men!, but its depths and intricacies indicate a breadth of vision and a sense of freedom that no rigid genre definition could contain. That said, it also features several insanely catchy choruses, tons of blistering solos and, at the beginning of Until I Too Dissolve, at least one riff torn straight from the Judas Priest handbook…

“Ha ha! Yes, that’s a fair observation,” Ihsahn grins. “My musical career started in the 90s so my roots are in the 80s. I like a big, catchy chorus, a good guitar riff and a good melody as much as the next guy. In the same way I admire Scott Walker and [avant-garde composer] Diamanda Galás and these more experimental, expressive performers, there’s also admiration for the craftsmanship of writing good songs. Writing a good old hook, basically. So I challenged myself… I’ve written a lot of experimental music, but can I conform to a more standard rock/pop formula and just see what happens? So this album is my idea of making a very straightforward rock album. Obviously I failed miserably, but the intention was there! Ha ha!”

Few would disagree that making the kind of music that Ihsahn does requires a huge amount of talent. To sustain such an adventurous vocation as a steady career is surely another matter entirely, not to mention the fact that Ihsahn has now clocked up 20 years as a major figure in metal. In a lifestyle that’s a far cry from teenage days spent in the company of church-burning associates, he’s now settled with his wife Heidi and their two children in Notodden, the tiny town where he grew up, teaching guitar in between being a black metal icon. You could easily forgive him for being an arrogant dick at this point, but instead he quietly notes that he feels “hugely privileged”.

“Coming from Norway and actually having a music career, unless you’re A-ha, is a pretty far-fetched idea,” he explains. “When you’re a teenager, playing some of the most extreme music the world had heard at that time, the odds of a career happening are even less. We didn’t even try to have success. But that’s the only reason we succeeded: because we ended up doing something that the world didn’t have before. We weren’t reinventing the wheel but we created something new. It was truly heartfelt. It was 100% dedication and probably far less talent, but that’s what we communicated. Even today, it manages to connect with people who weren’t even born back then.”

I tried to make a standard rock album, and failed miserably!

When Ihsahn became a solo artist, he declined to perform live until he had amassed three albums’ worth of material, but he now admits that the combined experience of reuniting with Emperor and taking his own band out on the road with increasing frequency in recent years has sparked his own enthusiasm for getting out there and delivering the goods to a steadily expanding audience. As a result, he says that he intends to tour a lot more in future and that he relishes the opportunity to nurture the evolution of his live show in the same way that he has revelled in the liberated abandon of the studio and the sense of perpetual creative motion that it provides. Perhaps unusually for a man that proudly but humbly carries the dark and imperious black metal spirit within him, if not necessarily in a way that would please scowling purists, Ihsahn seems extremely happy and eager to discover what his third decade as a professional musician will bring.

“Yes, there’s a positive vibe on the new album. It’s the most positive record I’ve ever made!” he laughs. “And that’s because I’ve been able to do what I love for two decades and I’m still feeling inspired and this is still my passion. It contributes to your confidence and courage to be part of that, to make music that matters, rather than just being in with the right crowd. I’m very, very grateful to be 40 and to be where I am. I will be very content if the next 10 years are as varied and as exciting as the last 10 have been. That would be wonderful. I feel bad for a lot of bands and musicians who paint themselves into a corner that’s very hard to get out of. I prepare my surroundings so that anything can happen.”

The Pantheon: Ihsahn’s spent a decade building these monuments to music.

The Adversary, 2006
A brave, eclectic debut that took in old-school anthems (Called By The Fire), blackened power ballads (Astera Ton Proinon) and brooding art rock (Homecoming), The Adversary made it plain that Ihsahn’s solo career was boundary-free. From this point, anything was possible.

angL, 2008
A touch heavier and more focused than its predecessor, angL saw Ihsahn’s sound come together in a sustained flurry of ingenious riffs and moments of skewed grandeur. It also featured a guest appearance by Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt on the epic Unhealer – a meeting of mercurial modern metal minds.

When Ihsahn became a solo artist, he declined to perform live until he had amassed three albums’ worth of material, but he now admits that the combined experience of reuniting with Emperor and taking his own band out on the road with increasing frequency in recent years has sparked his own enthusiasm for getting out there and delivering the goods to a steadily expanding audience. As a result, he says that he intends to tour a lot more in future and that he relishes the opportunity to nurture the evolution of his live show in the same way that he has revelled in the liberated abandon of the studio and the sense of perpetual creative motion that it provides. Perhaps unusually for a man that proudly but humbly carries the dark and imperious black metal spirit within him, if not necessarily in a way that would please scowling purists, Ihsahn seems extremely happy and eager to discover what his third decade as a professional musician will bring.

“Yes, there’s a positive vibe on the new album. It’s the most positive record I’ve ever made!” he laughs. “And that’s because I’ve been able to do what I love for two decades and I’m still feeling inspired and this is still my passion. It contributes to your confidence and courage to be part of that, to make music that matters, rather than just being in with the right crowd. I’m very, very grateful to be 40 and to be where I am. I will be very content if the next 10 years are as varied and as exciting as the last 10 have been. That would be wonderful. I feel bad for a lot of bands and musicians who paint themselves into a corner that’s very hard to get out of. I prepare my surroundings so that anything can happen.”

After, 2010
Delighting in his ability to confound expectations, Ihsahn introduced saxophones into his sound on his third album, courtesy of Shining’s Jørgen Munkeby. The result was a proudly progressive and startlingly weird journey through frozen wastes and spiritual voids that packed a devastating emotional punch.

**Eremita, 2012
**Devin Townsend and Jeff Loomis (ex-Nevermore) were among the contributors to album number four, which plunged deeper into dark prog metal territory and signalled the start of another bold evolutionary trek. From the woozy Introspection to The Grave’s harrowing doom crawl, Eremita was a creative triumph.

Das Seelenbrechen, 2013
Eschewing rigid structures in favour of improvisation and outright weirdness, Ihsahn’s fifth solo album channelled Scott Walker and Diamanda Galás through a prism of black metal bombast. A hallucinatory trip through its creator’s deepest thoughts, it was metal at its most fearless and enthralling.

Arktis. is out on March 11 via Candlelight