For Ihsahn, 2020 was a year of two musical halves. In February he reconnected with his black metal roots on Telemark, before Pharos, which arrived seven months later, saw the musician experimenting with a poppy art rock sound, a daylight dappled counterpoint and companion EP alongside the abrasive darkness of its older brother. It seems fitting then for Easter Sunday to be the day these two sonic personalities unite, chronicling a then and now perspective of just how far the musician has come since the first Emperor album in 1994. In short, it feels Ihsahn is a man reborn.
Streaming what he confessed to be the most dynamic show he's ever done from his hometown of Notodden, the lights lifted to reveal a seated Ihsahn and band roll into the darkly pensive Losing Altitude. Marked by brooding overdriven guitars, purring vocals and dramatic-yet-colourful strings, while it was peculiar to not see the band performing stood up, going at it all guns blazing, it worked in putting the focus firmly on a precise and faithful representation of Pharos’ cinematic progressive pop.
Pharos is an EP that often leaves you hanging. It’s a record full of spacious, suspenseful songwriting crawls towards its crescendo and this seated run through those songs heightened that experience. Spectre At The Feast was irridescent with bright harmonies, huge hooks and tight, dynamic interplay between the Norwegian and drummer Tobias Ørnes Andersen.
Pharos juxtaposed genteel soundscapes with towering, apocalyptic moments while their lamenting version of Portishead’s Roads showed just how much Ihsahn can do with such a minimalist song, his voice gorgeously vulnerable for its refrain. The nature of their performance demanded a focussed listening experience and it really sucked you in. But, by the time Leprous vocalist Einar Solberg entered the stage for a cover of A-Ha’s Manhattan Skyline and the chairs were finally ditched, the extra burst of energy and vigour it provided was well needed.
It started with Solberg’s signature weeping vocals gracefully playing off ruminative jazz piano, the vocalist out of sight until a seamless segue into the song, when he very much became centre stage. Solberg has been a big part of Ihsahn’s solo work over the years but few songs have pushed the boundaries and capabilities of both musicians and here their handling of one of A-Ha’s stranger songs was nothing short of stunning.
From there, the stream was completely different and as Ihsahn dipped into a selection of songs from his highly experimental album Das Seelenbrechen, you couldn’t keep your eyes off them. Lurching from off of an evil King Crimson-esque keyboard motif, Hilber ramped up the intensity Pulse unfurled with gripping, heavy emotions before the stream descended into monochrome for a venomous journey through Telemark. Here, the dynamism of the show properly unfolded. The vicious, brass backed extreme metal of Stridig, the Emperor-meets-Opeth rumblings of Nord and the EP’s grinding, visceral title track which closed the set were a world apart from the night’s quiet and quaint beginnings. Pensiveness and tender musicianship had mutated into abrasive virility and it was a joy to watch both sides of Ihsahn’s explorative musical personality dazzle on the stage.