Prevalent winds is a term in climatology which describes the overall direction of the wind in a certain area, regardless of any irregularities that might confuse a momentary spectator. For example, an easterly prevalent wind might blow for hours over a barren mesa but if you stood on a certain point in that plateau, you’d feel breezes blowing every which way. If only you had the perspective of time and an elevated location, you might be able to ignore those momentary shifts and discern the overall eastern direction of the wind. This term is an especially accurate metaphor for the careers of certain artists; each album might seem different or the general pacing of their progression helter skelter, but underneath it all pulses a vision that propels the discography steadily into the future. Variations are important but mistaking them for errant forces cut loose from a unifying order would be a mistake.
Ihsahn is a great example of this. If you randomly sampled this man’s career, especially if you took into account his long years with Emperor and his countless guest spots on other musicians’ music, you’d have no way of knowing what your sample would sound like. He has dealt with black metal, avant-garde, nordic prog, and many, many more genres. However, it is without a doubt that he is an artist rather than a random dabbler, possessing of an artistic direction that leaves a distinct mark on everything he records. His newest offering, Arktis, is no different; if you think you know what this album sounds like, even based on the few singles already released, you’re probably mistaken. Arktis is a further exploration of the classic Ihsahn sound, yes, but it also infuses his music with influences that range from classic progressive death metal to the pop music of the 80’s.
It would be too simplistic to place these two influences into a yin and yang dichotomy, imagining disparate tracks which feed from these two sources. Certainly, such tracks exist. For example, opener “Disassembled” is a perfect example. It begins with a riff that would not be out of place on an Opeth album. While Ihsahn’s signature, raspy vocals are a departure from that style, the countless synth lines present in this track are not. They are heavy with 70’s influence and their style, ducking in and out of the guitar riffs, is classic prog death. The following track, “Mass Darkness”, seems to continue along this track, heavily backed by choirs and Matt Heafy (Trivium) on a guest spot.
However, things start to become much more complicated on “South Winds”. This track, which also has insightful and gripping lyrics, opens with a line so heavily electronic that it might be a part of a The Black Queen track. This line is far from gimmick, as the entire track features almost nothing but it, with Ihsahn’s vocals laid on top of it. The chorus departs from it but not in the direction you might expect; instead of the decidedly heavy chorus other musicians might have placed here, Ihsahn instead allows the music to open up. Melodic chords are the companions to his clean vocals this time time, soaring and poppy in the best ways possible. One is reminded of the deep vocals of Dag Swanö on the latest Nightingale album, dark, deep and sweet.
The 80’s influence shines bright and clear. From here, the album will focus on taking that influence and blending it with the progressive death elements of the first tracks with these influences and other, varied ideas. “Until I Too Dissolve” for example features the sweet synths alongside an impressive solo, a catchy main riff and the grandeur of a prog death track. Here, the influences expertly dance with each other, different, momentary winds which nonetheless coalesce into a clear overall direction. While similar, “Frail” presents this mixing with the scales tipped in the other direction: while the death influences are present here as well, the synths take the leading role, tinting the elixir with a darker tinge. This only serves to strengthen our metaphor. Even when several directions are different, the prevalent idea of this album still shines through.
As excellent as these tracks are, we would be remiss of we didn’t single out “Celestial Violence”. This closing track (apart from the bonus track, “Til Tor Ulven”, a disturbingly recited piece), is one of the finest moments not only of this album but also of Ihsahn’s career. It features old time collaborator Einar Solberg and utilizes his distinct vocals expertly. They are their best when starting low, slowly stoking the embers of a track with their emotional delivery, only to later reach immense heights as the track explodes. Such is the case here; Solberg begins as the synths and guitars whisper behind him. Quickly, resounding chords add to the tension until finally, Ihsahn arrives with apocalyptic effect. The track simply continues harping on this tension, as Solberg, Ihsahn and the instruments chase other into greater and greater heights of expression and musical grandeur, ending the album on the highest notes imaginable.
What summary words would do this album justice? All that’s left is to point at the parts we hadn’t delved into: the brilliant saxophone on “Crooked Red Line”, courtesy of one Jørgen Munkeby (Shining). The unbelievable progression of “Pressure”. The moving honesty of “My Heart is of the North”. The very fact that this album defies any attempt to narrow it down, being a wild, dynamic, high energy release which delivers so much to the listener. This is an album for the ages, one of the shining jewels of an already illustrious career. Ihsahn shows here that experience coupled with an intense desire to keep exploring oneself as musician is often the tried and true recipe for artistic excellence.