Being the best at your craft is an honor that few can list on their resume. When it comes to the world of extreme metal, no one has a more valid claim to that position than Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Ihsahn. Through his time with Emperor, and on into his successful solo career, he has managed to redefine the boundaries of progressive metal. On “Eremita,” his fourth solo album, Ihsahn picks up where his last effort, “After,“ left off. He continues to fuse styles into one massive entity, one that is sure to keep the most finicky metal fan happy.
The opening track, “Arrival,” is exactly that, a landing spot. Darting guitars and the pounding of drums greet you, followed shortly after by the hugely abrasive voice of Ihsahn himself. His voice embodies all of the grit and rage of black metal, but with a finesse that makes it all the more accessible. To offset he heavier passages, he enlisted Einar Solberg to provide the more sullen, clean vocals. What you find is the ability to move back and forth across that thin line between grace and grime, beauty and beast. As always, the musicianship here is excellent, switching seamlessly between pulsing blast beats and blistering guitar work. And, as if the hammer hadn’t been dropped already, “The Paranoid” takes things to a new level of heavy. The drums are unrestrained, filling every miniscule gap with thunderous kicks and snares. The touches of melody scattered throughout are perfect, both in instrumental and vocal form. And despite getting so little credit for his songwriting ability, Ihsahn brings some well written lyrics to the party here, laying down the cyclical “The shame feeds the anger, feeds the shame, feeds the anger, feeds the shame.” Slight electronic influences in the outro bring the track to a fitting close.
Without missing a beat, he rolls directly into “Introspection,” a fitting title for a track that embodies all of his melodic sensibilities in one six minute opus. The tone of his clean vocals carries the weight of sadness, while his harsh vocals bring a more emotional edge. With an assist from Devin Townsend on vocal duties, they blaze through verse and chorus over and over, all the while sitting atop a bed of double kicks and ripping guitar work. Every guitar riff manages to be powerful and consistent, without ever being overbearing or overdone. Even the most simple chord change is aptly delivered. The first true appearance of that signature jazz fusion comes in “The Eagle And The Snake,” with saxophonist Jorgen Munkeby flexing his muscle in lead and rhythm form. The winding guitars twist and turn, becoming tangled in the web of sax and percussion. Anyone familiar with the previous Ihsahn efforts can sense what comes next, as Munkeby’s sax squeals and wails over a foundation of drums, bass, and guitars. Don’t think for a second that you won’t be bombarded with the guitar work you know and love. Rather you get a dual lead, woodwind and string, playing off of one another. There is something overtly dark and epic about this track, something that plays out perfectly in its nearly nine minute frame.
The way the saxophone initiates the melody on “Catharsis” is proof positive that this particular fusion is well worth the attention to detail. Ihsahn has a voice that works in the most raucous of musical settings, but also commands the more laidback and subdued areas. A silky smooth bass line accompanies light guitar picking, with only a light patter of drums beneath it all. The soul in the vocal carries the track from start to finish, with bursts of distorted guitar padding things out in the second half. Without warning, “Something Out There” roars into action, with a devastating bit of drumming smashing the walls. The black metal influence shines through, but with a more melodic, progressive format. In tracks like this one, the common misconception of coarse vocals being unintelligible is shattered, with each screaming lyrics coming through with crystal clarity. Airy keyboards add an additional layer to the guitar melody, adding a richness to the mix. And with a style that is both unique and impressive, Ihsahn delivers a dueling guitar solo that sends things into a roaring fire. The aforementioned keys return in force in the interlude track, “Grief.” With the synthesizers joining the low chords of a piano and some horns, you have a track that is both ominous and emotional.
With relative ease, you transition into “The Grave,” boasting a screaming saxophone intro that quickly hands the baton to a harsh vocal. Each crashing cymbal draws you farther into the darkness, while every kick knocks you back. Somehow, there is a balance of sound, one that stays consistent throughout, not wavering or faltering with the passing of time. The opening minutes are so simplistic in their delivery, minus the virtuosic saxophone performance of course, but not at all wasted. What you experience is a controlled chaos at times, one that seems to find its way back to civilization before too long, with the aid of some chanting and wildly imaginative drum patterns. For a finale, “Departure” works on so many levels. The cinematic feel of the opening seems to be the proper way to begin to tie the story together. As the pounding of drums enter, you start to sense something bigger coming your way. And, without fail, that something comes in the form of a massive explosion of distortion and percussion. But when you think you are destined for one, long slaughterhouse of metal, things are dialed back, and you are treated to a subtly beautiful interlude of sorts, one that could be compared to the crooning styles of Las Vegas. Everything you love about this music, and this musician, is all present here, giving you every reason to stand, cheer, pump your fist, and hang your head.
It would seem that, after four solo albums, Ihsahn can do no wrong. Everything the man touches turns to gold. And the beauty of it all is that he continues to evolve his sound, expanding on the ideas of one album, and turning it into an entirely new piece of work. Yes, you can easily tell that the man you hear on these nine songs is the same man that wrote “Adversary,” “Angl” and “After.” He didn’t abandon those concepts and become something altogether new. But it would be impossible to confuse any of those efforts with this one. “Eremita” is heavier, grittier, and more refined. There are key differences to hear and celebrate. After all, this album doesn’t even begin with the letter “a”.
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