It took me a while to get into the various projects of Norwegian mastermind Vegard Tveitan (better known to the world as Ihsahn) following the split of black metal legends Emperor. I remember hearing a track from The Adversary, his first album of solo output, on a compilation CD back in 2006. Sad to say, my haughty 15-year-old self didn’t think much of it, dismissing it as a diluted facsimile of Emperor’s more fearsome output. I didn’t make much effort to remedy that first impression for several years, while in the meantime, I found the short-lived side project Hardingrock (created in collaboration with Ihsahn’s wife Ihriel and fiddler Knut Buen) to be interesting enough, but it didn’t really blow me away. However, my apathy was obliterated – obliterated, I say – with the release of Ihsahn’s third solo outing After in 2010, an album which reconciled punishingly heavy and memorable riff work with a vivid vision of post-apocalyptic desolation, incorporating elements of post-rock and free jazz to express a sense of vast emptiness, of unending fields of dust and absent humanity. By my measure, it’s Ihsahn’s magnum opus and almost the best thing to emerge from metal of any stripe so far this decade.
That is to say then, Eremita has some damn big shoes to fill. After was an album that felt incredibly fully realised, a definitive stylistic statement, and any attempt to build on it or add to it would surely end up as little more than redundant bells and whistles. Sure enough, this new album is essentially an elegant lateral step, constructed from basically the same materials in roughly the same ratios but pointed in a different direction, creating an album that’s more inward looking, expressionistic and psychological as opposed to After’s grandiose, almost cinematic evocations.
I admit, Eremita’s first few tracks didn’t inspire much confidence in me that this album would match up to its immediate forebear. Beginning with the sound of chirping insects and heavy footfalls on a snowy path, some sharp metallic implement being dragged in their wake, the album’s first note is one of portent and amorphous dread in the vein of the surreal horror film suggested by the artwork. The track that follows, Arrival, doesn’t do much to earn it though; the twisting, skittish rhythm guitar line that it introduces has Ihsahn’s characteristic crunch to it, as do his immediately identifiable rasps, but the songwriting is surprisingly sparse and conservative, not throwing any curveballs or building much tension. The same is largely true of the following tracksThe Paranoid and Introspection, both of which sound like B-sides from After, exhibiting predictably unimpeachable musicianship and functional songwriting, insofar as they deliver their quota of sweet riffs, but little of the cathartic desolation that made that record such a triumph.
I was wrong to doubt Ihsahn though, and the reason why became abundantly clear with the opening of The Eagle and the Snakeand the return of the famous free jazz saxophone which appeared in After, played again by Jørgen Munkeby. The song begins with a series of disorienting syncopated stings on the sax and guitar and from there leads into nine minutes of slowly smouldering tension, mesmeric melodies and riffs laden with dread. The album only carries on getting better from there, each song accumulating in atmosphere in subtle horror. Ihsahn’s vocals take on hallucinatory, incantatory quality; the lead guitars and saxophone twist and coil together like snakes writhing through Eden; initially conventional melodies warp into darker, stranger shapes. If After was John Hillcoat’s The Road, then Eremita is David Lynch’s Inland Empire, set piece moment after set piece moment building to a sense of vague but overpowering anticipation and surrealism, a metal album as reflected in a funhouse mirror.
Also like Inland Empire, the madness eventually reaches a crescendo, which in this case is the eighth track, The Grave. This is by far the most “out there” track Ihsahn has ever been involved with; far from black metal, it sounds more like something you’d expect from an outfit like Triptykon or Neurosis, or possibly fellow unhinged saxophone-loving Norwegians Shining. A roiling, suffocating monster of a track, it lurches along in thick, sludgy strides, Ihsahn shrieking over hellish, sepulchral choirs and crushing downstrokes. Mephistopheles might have listened to this track on his iPod when he came to collect on his deal with Faust. The comparatively languid Departure is practically a necessary relief afterwards; while even it has its share of tumultuous grooves, Ihriel’s appearance as a guest vocalist provides a welcome feminine balm after the terror that’s passed.
Next time I find myself second-guessing the quality of an Ihsahn project, somebody slap me. If Eremita’s first three tracks aren’t much to shout about, it’s only because they represent a necessary component of the larger product: much like the first hour of Inland Empire,they are the normality which subsequently fragments and disintegrates. Eremita is recognisable – nay, unmistakable – as an Ihsahn album, but it adds an entirely new dimension to the artist’s repertoire simply by arranging already established elements of his signature sound in new configurations. If I still prefer After, it’s by a considerably narrower margin than I dared to hope, and then, only because this new record represents an evolution rather than a revolution. Make no mistake though; this is the product of one of the most fertile imaginations metal has ever seen working at the peak of his abilities, and I’ll be seriously surprised if it doesn’t end up as one of my albums of the year.
Written By: Andrew
Label: Candlelight / Format: CD / Cat. # CANDLE332CD
2 The Paranoid
4 The Eagle and the Snake
6 Something Out There
8 The Grave