Friday, November 8, 2013

Ihsahn - Das Seelenbrechen (2013)

We all know his pedigree: former vocalist in the now legendary band Emperor. But that was then. Over the last seven years, Ihsahn has forged his own identity, well beyond anything that pertains to his earlier years. He's pushed the boundaries of metal in many ways, incorporating both his fervor for high speed guitar work and his penchant for all things avant. In fact, he has made the saxophone such an integral part of his last three solo albums, that he could practically take ownership of its use in extreme music. Even more to his credit, though, is his ability to make it all work. Anyone can put the pieces together; he has made them fit. At the release of his last album, we surmised that he could do no wrong; that wasn't an opinion as much as it was an observation. When another album pops up on our radar, we must always wonder if we would have to eat those words. Yet, somehow, there is little doubt. And with the release of "Das Seelenbrechen," Ihsahn continues his dominance.

Within the first two minutes of the opening track, "Hilber," any reservations are quickly removed. To say that Ihsahn has added further depth to his sound would seem ludicrous, yet here he does exactly that. The melodies, when present, are more infectious than before; though it is the straightforward chord work that resonates most. As his signature voice rises and falls over distortion and keyboard intricacies, the flow may be hard to follow initially. But in time - a few minutes at most - you feel right at home in it's avant delivery. By adding in clean piano keys, something rarely utilized in his back catalog, he turns "Regen" into an expansive foray into the progressive side of extreme music. His talents and versatility seem custom made for music like this, music as eclectic and unpredictable as his persona. An epic orchestral interjection comes in the second half, complete with chanting vocals and a piece of guitar work that pulls you in, even as it brings the track to a close. What it does, more than anything, is open doors, windows, and ceiling ducts for a growing expanse of musical styles. "NaCl," for example, is built off of a brilliant lead riff, one that fester and spreads in your mind like a field of weeds. You would struggle to rid yourself of it, nor would you really want to. But the way the entire track functions is wildly innovative and impressively conceived.

Much like the spirals of the nautilus shell, the music radiates outward from that median point, with tracks like "Pulse" moving farther from the center we've known as Ihsahn music of the past. The light electronic element is important, albeit obscured by wonderfully constructed clean vocal melodies. It is hard to verbalize the evolution here, but the final minute becomes a summary for the entire track. And as is so often the case, contrast becomes a crucial part, with 'Tacit 2" abandoning all of that subtlety and melody in favor of chaos and deafening screams. The drums go wild, as if the kit has begun to roll down the mountain side, as Ihsahn wails over the top. There would seem to be no rhyme nor reason to the track on the whole, but one thought of it being performed live with a stage full of smoke and lights, and it becomes an obsession. It's partner, "Tacit," may share a name and a simlar drum beat, but that is where it ends. The brass sounds that cover it are majestic in scope, and broaden the ever growing horizon of the album. It seamlessly combines the old and new into something all together different. On the other hand, "Rec" is a short track, falling short of three minutes, that may be able to change your perspective in significant ways. It's a track that must be heard to understand.

The mind bending nature of Ihsahn's work has never been lost on his audience, but he continues to take it to new levels. On "M," he spokes softly over little more than ambient noise, before a wailing guitar riff bursts onto the scene. That it works is amazing in it's own right; how well it works is just staggering. You feel as though you've stumbled into a blues jam and poetry reading gone awry. And the final howl of the guitar is the closing of the curtain. By the time you've reached "Sub Alter," nothing should be a surprise, yet it is impossible not to be slightly shocked at each twist and turn. Now far from the center point, the spiral outward has yielded incredibly difference results. It is a melodic turn you take this time, like others before, only sweeping in its delivery. It leaves the seven plus minute "See" as the last remaining twist in what is an album of subtle changes and smooth transitions. From quiet whispers to booming drum interludes, the song goes nowhere and everywhere all at once; a terrifying and haunting ride through sound and fury, where feedback and reverb speak volumes alongside pained screams.  

If you're interested in hearing an artists do the same thing, album after album, then you probably wouldn't be interested in what Ihsahn has to offer. He has managed to push and bend his own boundaries, while experimenting with sounds, structures, and themes. Merely aspiring to it wouldn't be enough for a man with admittedly "abstract " goals. Making it come to life right in front of you is the victory here. By adding new wrinkles to his arsenal and minimizing some of the old, he finds new ground to stand on, and new ground to then conquer. Saxophones don't have the same place here as before, replaced by orchestral elements and horns. And while those were some of the highlights on earlier releases, you won't find yourself missing them in the arc of this project. Sure, this album won't appeal to everyone; it isn't exactly a "conventional" extreme metal release (though I would be hard pressed to define what, exactly, that means. But the only prerequisite to enjoying "Das Seelenbrechen" is to have an open mind.


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