Just picture yourself sitting at the right side of a decades-old career. Be honest with yourself: as you survey all you have achieved and consider your next steps, what kind of emotions course through you? It’s safe to say that many of us would feel contentment, a sort of deep satiation. You’ve earned the trust and respect of your peers and the adoration of several generations of fans; where do you find the fuel to move forward? Honestly, I have no idea but Ihsahn appears to have found a secret store of whatever substance keeps musicians going well past what anyone else would consider the peak of their career and into new heights.
Ámr is an interesting an album in many senses but the meta one is the one I’m most concerned with. How so? Well, Ihsahn is not well known for treading in place and yet, there’s a lot in common between this release and Arktis., his previous (and excellent) album. The vocal approach, of course, operating under the auspices of Ihsahn’s usual timbre and style, is very similar, right down to the utilization of clean vocals alongside the harsh ones. The heavy presence of synths, the guitar parts, the dynamic presence of drums, all of these bear a clear resemblance to the previous album. Has Ihsahn finally come to rest? Is this album an indication of a settled sound and a less experimental period for one of the most prolific metal artists around?
Not really. Maybe, on the surface, as the similarities between the two albums immediately wash over you. But on further listening, Ámr is an entirely different beast. First, in sound, it is much more “spacious” than Arktis. was. Instead of barraging you with rich textures and over the top parts which draw strength from a kind of melodic overload (like the incredible collaboration with Leprous‘s Einar Solberg on “Celestial Violence”) here, the production allows each instrument its own space.
Listen to “Arcana Imperii” for example and its opening riff; on Arktis., we’d probably find a whole bunch of other tracks down there, making the composition leap up at you and engulf you. Here, things are more sparse, more tart and dry, giving Ihsahn’s high pitched scream an edge that cuts deep. When the synths finally appear, right after the first chorus, they stand on their own. Even when they work with the guitars, the two tracks are more a companion to each other, existing in their own spaces but communicating, than a whole which descends upon you.
This means that Ihsahn enjoys a great deal of freedom on this album and he utilizes it. Ámr is more complex as a result, containing many more tones and technical segments than the previous album. This is the second way in which it differs from Arktis.. It’s not exactly that the album is more aggressive or that it’s more anything really, but it definitely contains a lot more twists and bends. On this album, Ihsahn is much more progressive, willing to mess around with time signatures, intricate bridges and an overall more expansive approach to his style.
The pop influences are still in there though. The aforementioned “Arcana Imperii” is a great example; there are hooks aplenty, mostly relying on Ihsahn’s excellent clean vocals, and they weave in and out of the more complex segments somehow adding to the complexity in their individualistic simplicity. These influences receive their own tracks throughout the album as well, creating such earworms as “Sámr”, a moving, mid-tempo and lyrically beautiful track. However, in most parts of the album, these more approachable influences inhibit the same spaces as the more complex parts. This is made possible by the “extra space” in the production we mentioned at the beginning of the review, making sure that everything has room to breathe and be expressed.
The end result is, once again, something wholly new but intimately the same for Ihsahn. Somehow, from somewhere, he keeps dredging up the force of influence and uses it to bring us new and exciting music. Ámr is yet another step in a career that’s become a marathon by now, spanning great distances and time periods. Like Arktis., it’s a complicated album that will take time to unravel fully. But unlike its predecessor, it manages to give the listener some breaks without sacrificing its intricate nature and that’s damn impressive.
Ihsahn’s Ámr releases on May 4th via Candlelight Records. Head on over here to grab it.