"A friend said this sounds like the Emperor album that was never recorded": Ihsahn is returning to his symphonic black metal roots on his new self-titled album

(Image credit: Andy Ford)

It's been five years since Ihsahn’s last album, Ámr, but the prog metal maverick is compensating for the dry spell with some of his most complex material yet. The Emperor leader’s eighth full-length solo record (handily titled Ihsahn) will be a 100-minute double album that casts him back to his symphonic black metal origins: one half heavy, and the other orchestral interpretations. 

Chatting to Hammer, the multi-instrumentalist reveals that the string-backed songs are already being called “the Emperor album that was never recorded”. 

Metal Hammer line break

Why have you made a double album of avant garde metal and orchestral music? 

“I like to experiment, find new angles to attack the album format. Sometimes it’s more basic, sometimes it’s more out there. This time, I wanted to really play to my strengths, and I’ve been blending soundtrack-like elements with extreme metal since the beginning of Emperor. My ambition, going into this album, was to utilise that – go all in on the extreme, with an orchestral layer that raises the bar tremendously.” 

Is your history with metal and symphonic music why you wanted this album to be self-titled? 

“I was very ambitious going into this and I wanted this to be the quintessential Ihsahn album. I was building on my experiences and my strengths to push the envelope. This is the hardest, most complex album I’ve ever made. I’ve always loved orchestral music and soundtracks, and I’ve always wanted to dig deeper.” 

Which part of the album came first: the metal or the orchestral stuff? 

“It was simultaneous. I wrote the entire album as a piano score, then orchestrated it for guitars and bass and everything else, then I orchestrated the same music for an orchestra.” 

Is that how you usually write? 

“I used that technique on my fourth album, [2012’s] Eremita. The biggest difference this time was the duality aspect: I put a lot of effort into the underlying layers because, most of the time, they don’t come through in a dense metal mix. If you listen to the orchestral album, there are parts that sound really intimate, whereas, in the metal version, they’re really intense.” 

Did the Emperor tours you did before the pandemic [celebrating the 20th anniversary of Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk] influence the orchestral side? 

“It’s hard to say – maybe subconsciously. It’s very different from Emperor, harmonically and structurally, but I did get some feedback when friends started hearing the album, and one of them said, ‘This sounds like the Emperor album that was never recorded.’ That’ll probably upset my bandmates in Emperor! Ha ha ha! But it has that extremity.”

Is there a lyrical theme to the album? 

“There’s a very conceptualised storyline underneath. It’s a very classic hero’s journey type of story, with an existential crisis and a slightly Ancient Greek twist. The protagonist is trying to figure out the balance between conforming to norms and culture and breaking away from them.” 

That’s very black metal. 

“It’s an archetype you see through all of metal, I think. I’m digging deeper into the core of the kind of material I’ve always made.” 

Do you have any Ihsahn tours planned for after the album’s out? 

“We’ve already started booking live shows. I really want to perform this music live.” 

With an orchestra? 

“If you can get me the resources, yeah! Ha ha ha! Ideally, it would be with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, because they’re very good at this kind of stuff, but they cost about 10 grand a day.”

Ihsahn is out Feb 6 via Candlelight

Matt Mills
Contributing Editor, Metal Hammer

Louder’s resident Gojira obsessive was still at uni when he joined the team in 2017. Since then, Matt’s become a regular in Prog and Metal Hammer, at his happiest when interviewing the most forward-thinking artists heavy music can muster. He’s got bylines in The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Guitar and many others, too. When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him skydiving, scuba diving or coasteering.