Black metal royalty Ihsahn continues pushing sonic boundaries on ‘Eremita’

Becoming legendarily great at something can be a hindrance. Michael Jordan was one of the greatest basketball players of all time, inspired an entire generation of kids to take up the sport, won six championships, and still has a shoe line that’s much sought after. But when he tried baseball and team management, he was the runny shits. Same goes for Wayne Gretzky, one of hockey’s finest players of all time who just couldn’t transfer his greatness to coaching. Yet people were shocked that these incredible athletes couldn’t take one aspect of their skill set and use it in other areas of their industry. Dominance created too-lofty hopes in others.

Sometimes it does transfer. To keep with the sports theme, Mario Lemieux was a magnificent hockey player and went on to become a successful owner of the team he saved a million times, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Or to music, John Lennon was a member of perhaps the most iconic band in the history of mankind The Beatles, yet he reinvented himself as a solo artist who had just as profound an impact on society, albeit in a very different manner than the Fab Four. Something about these people sparks greatness, and they simply don’t seem to know how to fail.

I’d also pin Vegard Sverre Tveitan, better known as Ihsahn, into that latter category. At one time, he fronted one of the most effective, well-known, infamous black metal bands of all time in Emperor, a band so well regarded that their U.S. tour a few years back was a thing of legend. Not something you stumble upon very often. While he’s tried his hands at other things outside his former band, never has he come as close to equaling his younger years than he has with his solo project. Part of what made his modern music so intriguing is that Ihsahn never has been comfortable to just rest on his black metal laurels and rake in cash from an already loyal fanbase. Instead he pushed and reinvented himself as an artist whose work must be considered separate from what he did in his legendary band because he’s accomplished that much with it.

Sure, some of what you came to know about Ihsahn from Emperor is on his new album “Eremita.” There remain threads of black metal that course through his music, and his creaky growl is pretty unmistakable. But he’s gone further toward the boundaries of prog and jazz with each release, and his fourth effort is his most varied and challenging yet. Even if you’re a fan of his other albums — 2006’s “The Adversary,” 2008’s “angL” and 2010’s “After” — you may be surprised by what you hear on this album. He really goes for it musically, and by aligning himself with guest musicians such as wacko free-thinker Devin Townsend, guitar wizard Jeff Loomis, and guest singers Einar Solberg (Leprous and live keys with Emperor) and Heidi Tveitan (his wife, who also played with him in Peccatum), he’s able to branch out into unexplored terrain with abandon and ambition. it’s easily his most interesting piece of music to date.

All of this growth and excitement to try new things also make the record a little tough to get close to at first. It took me a few listens to really wrap my head around these songs and, in some cases, enjoy them because everything is spread out over so much space and has so many things going on at the same time. In the case of closer “Departure,” it is the one Ihsahn song in his whole catalog that I enjoy the least (the portion that features Heidi aside). It’s feels kind of muddy and knuckle-draggy and comes off as a sloppy stab at nu-metal. As for the rest of the songs, they’ve grown on me significantly, and I keep hearing new things in these creations each time back.

Ihsahn handles the bulk of the instruments as usual, playing keyboards, bass, and, of course, guitar, at which he’s always been astonishingly unstoppable. He’s now at about half growl, half clean singing, and he’s more than capable of both (though Townsend also helps on “Introspection”). Tobias Ørnes Andersen takes drums, and Jorgen Munkeby is back on sax, as his work in particular plays a huge role on these songs. To put it lightly, he’s everywhere, yet if you’re a fan of his regular band Shining (the Nordic one, not the Swedish suicide enthusiasts), he may seem a little in control of himself. He’s fun to hear play and never makes the songs about him.

As the opening bookend to aforementioned “Departure,” “Arrival” is a song that sounds a lot like Opeth when they still embraced death vocals, and the bleakness washes over you with lines such as, “Inside this cloak of shame there’s nothing worth undoing.” Fair enough. “The Paranoid” is the fastest, most black metal-friendly cut on the record, though it too finds itself closer to prog when all’s said and done, and Ihsahn spits out his words when howling, “The shame feeds the anger feeds the shame!” “Introspection” slows down a bit and follows a calculated, chopping pace, and that leads into an interesting duo “The Eagle and the Snake” and “Catharsis,” that are filled with exploratory and jarring sax work, a less aggressive agenda, and path that might leave you reluctant to follow at first. These are two that took me some time to fully digest, but now I’m starting to really dig them. “Something Out There” turns the album on its ear, with orchestral majesty, fury, and what sound like Apocalyptic horns at the end. Penultimate “Grave” runs more than eight minutes and makes the most of its time, with a slower pace, a really dark, almost cult-like vibe (especially with the chanting), and a true doom sentiment.

Ihsahn has made four records that stand in contract from each other and his work with Emperor. It certain wasn’t a slam dunk that he could veer so far away from the sounds people grew to love from Ihsahn and make them work, but he has been wildly successful. He’s one of those rare cases where someone can lay down a time-honored catalog of work and go onto something else that, in its own way, is just as rewarding. Just as neat is that when he comes back at us with album No. 5, it’ll probably be something altogether different. That should be fun.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.ihsahn.com/

To buy the album, go here: http://www.candlelightrecordsusa.com/store/

For more on the label, go here: http://candlelightrecordsusa.com/site/

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