21 October 2013
by Rob McAuslan
Whilst the metal press at large was seemingly entranced by Ihsahn’s fourth solo album Eremita, gushing flowery adjectives all over the show and proclaiming it “Album Of The Year” and such, it left some of us a bit cold. Sure, it had some nice songs with some good riffs and all that sort of stuff, but it lacked a certain something, something that’s taken until this latest release to properly place.
That ‘something’ turned out to be unfettered, balls-out adventurous spirit. Ihsahn was never really about limits – both with Emperor and Peccatum, and onwards to his more recent solo work. He’s always carved a unique path through genre boundaries, and with 2010’s After he arrived at a point where he could very much set his own borders to go on and smash through. To follow that with Eremita felt like a curiously safe, almost predictable side-step into far more obvious prog-metal than he’s concerned himself with previously. But the man himself recognises the danger of falling too easily into a routine, and leading up to Das Seelenbrechen Ihsahn has been claiming far more of an improvisational approach to its writing – that’s a claim more than borne out across this 48-minute trip.
Where his previous trilogy of ‘A’ records and Eremita dabbled in atonality and attention-stretching progressive arrangements, there was always a solid metal base to work from and return to. Das Seelenbrechen doesn’t lack for heaviness, but it’s an occasional familiar waypoint on a careening journey through his wider influences, rather than the relative safety-net in his earlier work. You’ll be hard-pressed to think of anyone else that’s covered a similar amount of musical ground on just a single record lately, in fact – the John Williams pomp versus John Carpenter chromaticism that underpins the huge riffing in ‘Hiber’ gives way to the bruised intro melody of ‘Regen’, a Damnation-era Opeth castoff that blooms into terrible, crushing darkness. ‘NaCl’ simply glides past, and then there’s the disarming, almost-pop electronica of ‘Pulse’, which feels like Depeche Mode taking on Massive Attack and not quite winning, and showcases Ihsahn’s vastly-improved clean vocals.
Watch the lyric video (urgh) to ‘NaCl’ by Ihsahn:
The freedom to just write and play is already palpable. ‘Tacit 2’ feels like the point where Das Seelenbrechen rolls up its sleeves: five minutes of dissonant squall and shriek driven by obtuse unstructured drumming – as a purely atmospheric piece it’s effect is wholly unsettling, but the main effect it has is to divide the record. The first four tracks above were an entrée to a far darker, more challenging Ihsahn than we’ve seen before. You want Sikth’s Mikee Goodman voicing a Danny Elfman improv? ‘Rec’. Spoken-word poetry into a full-flight Gilmour worshipping pentatonic workout? ‘M’. Drunk Åkerfeldt acoustic noodles over a Goblin soundcheck? ‘Sub Ater’. Even the closing seven minutes of feedback and whispering that builds to a staggering, howling shudder of spiralling noise (‘See’) serves not to annoy but to reset, as if preparing you for the exit.
It’ll divide opinion, but Das Seelenbrechen is the most open and interesting thing Ihsahn has put his name to in a long time – possibly his entire career. Welcome back to being truly progressive and genuinely extreme, Vegard Teitan – we’ve missed you, and most of us didn’t even know it.
Sounds Like: Scott Walker if he could play heavy metal guitar
Standout Tracks: Pulse, Tacit, M