IHSAHN - Black Metal Redefined: A Thinking Man's VAN HALEN?
May 4, 2016, 2 years ago
First, let me start the festivities by saying how un-be-fucking-lievable Ihsahn's sixth studio album, Arktis, is! From start to finish it is a preposterously pleasurable listen - one that screams maturity, but not at the expense of youthful pleasures. This is a damn fun, yet sobering listen. Within its 48 minutes, I go from feeling like a fourteen year old again - rocking out with a tennis-racket-turned-guitar in hand, to feeling like the forty-something man I am, sipping scotch on the rocks in a candle-lit room to a cerebrally stimulating soundtrack for those with fine, yet time-earned, discerning tastes. I'll be the first to admit at being perhaps overly challenged with his last studio effort, Das Seelenbrechen - its distorted atonality and noise/drone-like ambiance landing slightly outside my comfort zone, especially when considering what I've come to expect of the man's work. Upon first listen of Arktis, it becomes immediately apparent that those experimental waters have receded a little, giving way to tamer, perhaps calmer, waters. I start, simply, by asking Ihsahn about the creative process when approaching new material.
"Well, working as a solo artist, and not having that compromise-push-pull thing of being in a band, and also working in a studio environment, allows me the freedom to basically do anything," answers the man. "For me, it's always important to have a kind of different angle to approach every album. This has been a big privilege for me as I have been doing it this way for a while. Now, the challenge is keeping myself enthusiastic and excited about the music. So, in a way I have been able to kind of plan my route for my solo efforts. I started out not planning to do one album, but to do three albums. I built a platform of sorts with the first two albums, and then ended up at the third album, after, which formed my new creative platform - 8-string guitars, and saxophone. I kind of continued that with Eremita in a sense. But, then I had this need to reset the parameters and challenge myself on Das Seelenbrechen, in a way that allowed me to throw old experiences and control out the window. I wanted to approach the album in a way that Diamanda Galás might approach an album - where you just have an idea and go for it. That was a very deliberate side-step musically. In a way, it was like musical scuba-diving, kind of scary, yet at the same time very rewarding. In the process of doing that, I could then approach Arktis from the craft of good ol' songwriting - in the more traditional pop-rock formula - which is 90% of the music I grew up with in the ‘80s; you know, every Maiden song ever - verse, chorus, verse, chorus. Growing up in an extreme metal band, where we steered away from that formula, it was really a challenge to try and create within such a well-known formula. At the same time, I just wanted to challenge myself to see if I could make a very distinct song with a distinct personal identity. That was kind of the frame of mind for making this album.
Ihsahn, by now, has earned a doctorate in all things black metal and Norwegian. His experience is unrivaled - unparalleled. Today, we are inundated with inquisitions, debates, and exploratory expositions that pick apart the soul of Norwegian black metal - from those who think themselves erudite on what/what isn't black metal. How many more fucking panels do we need on the subject? Yes, it was evil. Yes, churches burned. Yes, a couple of murders were committed. Beyond these aesthetic events - and, yes, these events were most certainly aesthetic - only the music lives. So, with this in mind, I avoided asking Ihsahn what he has likely been asked several billion times before. I asked him what advice, if any, he would give to young musicians trying to make a go of things in 2016.
"It really depends. There are two opposites as it relates to this," starts Ihsahn. "Let's think of it this way: recently we've lost two icons as-of-late, the first being Lemmy, who was no doubt a rock icon. Lemmy made a career of doing one thing - he was Lemmy - all of the time. Then, David Bowie passes, who is just as much an icon, but he was different from Lemmy in that he was essentially a chameleon throughout his entire career, while still maintaining the dignity of being David Bowie. If you see what I mean, there are kind of two different routes to go. I'm not saying one is better than the other, and no offense to a band like AC/DC, but there exists different avenues a new band can take. Most importantly, and this may sound like a load of crap, and it's advice I've given to younger bands before, if you want to start a band and play music, locally, please join a collective and be a part of that. If you want to go anywhere, isolate yourself from that, and create something highly individual, and try not to sound like anything else. Be inspired by anything but don't follow the route people applaud. I do speak from experience here. I mean, in '91, when we started Emperor, career wise that was probably the worst idea ever (laughs). In fact, the idea of being Norwegian and having a musical career, unless you were A-ha, was not even in our minds - it was unreachable. Then, when we did In The Nightside Eclipse, we found that we reached our goal - we received an advance to record in a proper studio to make a full-length album. This was against all odds, and we just did the music entirely based on our own needs. People think we were very successful from day one with those first Emperor albums, which was not the case at all. Those big metal magazines of the time absolutely slaughtered these albums. People thought it was horrible. I have taken so much shit and praise for the same albums that you just never know. So, my advice is that you just have to do your absolute best every time you write a song and an album. You have to be enthusiastic and excited about it. If you manage to keep that love and passion for your music alive, hopefully you get that bonus of someone experiencing it like that as well. It's like playing guitar - there is a lot of stuff you have to do in life, but playing guitar is not a human right, you just do it for yourself and your own love of playing, and, just maybe, you get to the point of being good enough that someone else might appreciate it as well. But, this is kind of an added bonus. I think that goes double these days. Even successful musicians have a rather hard time making a career of it."
Obviously, it must be quite surreal, as an artist who literally birthed an entire sub-genre, to reflect back on whence they came and everything that has lead them to the present. To have made a career from a once-reviled form of music is an incredible feat and absolutely commendable. I can recall, like it was yesterday, being infatuated with not only Emperor, but with Ihsahn himself - his persona of that time. To my friends and me, he and his peers were larger than life. Norwegian black metal was this mythical beast-like entity that seemed to rule the universe. Of course, as we all know now, the intention was just this - to create a fantastical world that rivaled any classic narrative. How much of the old Ihsahn - both musically and philosophically - is still present in the Ihsahn we know today?
"Well, I guess it's a mix. I mean, I just turned forty, so you and I are about the same age," reveals Ihsahn. "Of course, the times you speak of, I was sixteen when we wrote the material for In The Nightside Eclipse, and seventeen when we recorded it. So, I couldn't even get into the pubs, which is really the reason why I ended up being in the studio a lot. The other guys were all a year older, and they could get in the pubs and spent their evenings there. So, I was kinda stuck alone playing the keyboards all the time (laughs). So, when looking back, and comparing with how things play out these days, there really is no room for mystery or building an enigma - the internet has taken that away. The thing is, that mystery was such an important part of discovering and experiencing a band for the first time. I remember going to see Iron Maiden on their Seventh Son Of A Seventh tour back in '88, for me that was life changing. The experience of being in the same four walls as the band, being with them there physically, was just incredible to me. Those personalities, they became part of the entire experience. My whole career was built around people not knowing shit about us, with the paint and everything. Of course, people could say the corpsepaint and all that was childish and stupid, but it really did create this atmosphere. We were really into all of it - going out fire-breathing and other such things - it was very fairytale like... we lived it. All of these things really helped us get into the vibe of it all, really believing, and creating, the atmosphere that became our own little universe. There was nothing halfhearted about what we were doing in those early days, and it goes way beyond skill, of which we had none at the time - we had strong passion. I believe that it was this energy that really connected with young people at the time. Some of these early Emperor albums keep on selling today, to people who weren't even born at the time they were released. I think it kind of appeals to that same youthful, rebellious energy. Even though that was many years ago, when people ask me today how I relate to that music now, I still regard what I am doing now as black metal. At the heart of it, through my entire career, this force of inspiration is a constant. It is a very abstract thing in me - a very abstract goal. I regard every album as another attempt to come closer to that. I know this sound like a lot of mumbo jumbo, but the inspiration is the same today as it was twenty years ago. I think I've talked myself way too far out with this. Sorry (laughs)."
No apologies necessary - I totally understood what he was throwing my way. In fact, Arktis, to these ears, is probably the most black metal release since their swansong Prometheus, and evokes those very same feelings I had twenty years ago when first discovering Emperor. Of course, aesthetically, Ihsahn has moved away from the black metal stereotypes forever ingrained in us. What I'm referring to about is pure feeling - that inexplicable feeling that digs deep into the nucleus of human emotion, and evokes feelings that are primitive and intangible. Black metal is a very personal experience that, if done right, can be an incredibly cosmic, universal experience. I think Ihsahn nails this feeling on Arktis, particularly in songs such as “Pressure” and “Celestial Violence”. I ask the man if there is a deep underground well - an ever-flowing stream from those early days that, just perhaps, he continues to draw from. Is he striving to recapture feelings from yore?
"It's definitely got that kind of primal scream within it - at the heart of it - that stirs emotions," clarifies the legend. "It's about creating more from the same source, only now from different angles and perspectives. It's a very abstract thing. The main force, and my closest way of expressing this is through that primal feeling in my black metal vocals. That is about as primal as it gets."
It's funny that Ihsahn and I connected on the particular day that we did. Literally a day later, I appeared as a guest-host on Sam Dunn's (of Banger Films) new program called Lock Horns, where each week Sam and his guest discuss a sub-genre of metal from his Metal Family Tree he created ten years ago for his movie Metal: A Headbangers Journey. On said day, Sam and I tackled early black metal - specifically first and second wave. With one day left to go before taping, I thought it would be fun to pick Ihsahn's brain on the subject of early black metal... I mean, who better to ask than the man who helped create it.
"Very cool! Send Sam my regards," enthuses Ihsahn. "For me, the very definition of black metal is Bathory. The album Blood Fire Death is the ultimate black metal album. As an inspiration for vocals, Quorthon is the man. As much as I love Tom G. Warrior, he has such a different style, that only Tom can do. Quorthon's vocal performance, especially on Under The Sign Of The Black Mark and Blood Fire Death, really emphasized that difference between black metal and death metal. I mean, death metal is very one-sided aggression, whereas black metal has so much more depth - you can scream the same kind of aggression with black metal, but it can also be this fall-to-your-knees-in-despair type of screaming. If you listen to Quorthon and the way he screamed out the aggression, his vocals kind of broke up into this atonal voice. There was this fragility there that is touching - a primal, human despair. For me this was very magical. If you were to relate it to movies, death metal would be a zombie movie, and black metal would be like the Omen movies. So, for me, yeah, Bathory is the ultimate reference in black metal. In fact, Diamanda Galás' Plague Mass is just as much black metal as any Bathory record. It invokes this same feeling. Black metal is not always about a type of guitar or beat, it is an attitude - a feeling at the heart of it."
Quite recently I posted an off-hand comment on Facebook that referred to Ihsahn's new album as containing perhaps the greatest Van Halen riff that Van Halen never wrote. Of course, this was referencing the song “Until I Too Dissolve”, which starts with the catchiest damn riff since the early days of the Sunset Strip. The next day I awoke to find a request from Ihsahn's manager, Hakon Grav, asking if he could use the quote. This also happened to me last year, where, in a review for the new Enslaved I wrote “Enslaved have become the future of this genre. We now have our generation's Dark Side Of The Moon. This time, though, the dark side has become pitch black, with brief, beautiful glimpses of the universe beyond.” The band and their label ended up quoting this. What this says to me is that things are perhaps moving full-circle as it relates to some of the originators of Norwegian black metal. These guys are now breaking boundaries, and being hailed in the same breath alongside some of the greatest bands to ever exist. I ask Ihsahn what does he believe the future holds for both himself and bands like Enslaved - bands that don't shy away from their past, and, in fact, are transforming lessons from their past into something that is just as powerful, if not more so, than the rock gods that came before them. A song like “Celestial Violence”, easily one of the strongest songs in his formidable catalog, showcases this marriage of past and present. This is a song that deserves to be heard... by everyone... everywhere.
"First of all, thank you very much!," enthuses Ihsahn. "Both myself and Enslaved go way back - I knew those guys when they were teenagers as well. So, we were both kind of created from the same thing. Some bands have, sadly, painted themselves into a corner, where fans don't expect anything else other than repeating what has come before, going into that AC/DC landscape. I think it's a matter of communication, and music is a form of communication. Since going solo, I have been able to go wherever my heart wants. There has been nothing calculated, nor have I had to fill any outside expectations or hopes. It's me trying to do my best and fulfill my own egotistical needs. I do this wholeheartedly. I think because I have been clear about my intentions from day one, that this isn't just for the fans, people expect the unexpected. As you said earlier with the previous album, for many it was perhaps too far-fetched - too hard to grasp. Even so, I would hope that people would find it at least a very honest album, and that you can trust the next one might be something totally different, but just as honest. I also think it says something about this kind of music, and second guessing yourself - will people like it? This way of thinking is like shooting yourself in the foot. At the heart of it, metal-related music, people are drawn to it because it is real. It's not McDonalds. It's something that people are truly passionate about. If you lose that passion and try to make something commercial out of it, even if the audience is aware of it or not, I think they will know. Fans of metal want something that is real."
He makes a good point; we metalheads are certainly adept at weeding out the wimps. That said, when one works alone, they can become deeply ingrained, where the lines between creativity and consciousness become blurred. Is there ever a situation when perhaps things go unnoticed, and, at the end of the process, after stepping back a little - back into the real world - you question what came out?
"I may see the irony in a situation like that. I mean, when writing the opening riff for 'Until I Too Dissolve', I could see how that it might be considered shamelessly ‘80s (laughs). So, of course I see the irony of that. Even the opening melody of 'Mass Darkness' is bordering on being cliche-like. At the same time, I try to be honest with myself... do I like it? Does it make me feel good? I grew up listening to things like that with Iron Maiden anyway. So, that way of harmonizing things is second nature."
Ihsahn, unlike many other of his black metal peers, finds himself in a position today that any professional musician would envy. He has been blessed with limitless freedom, without having to fear whether or not he will be ostracized. Does it get any better than this?
"That's kind of what metal and black metal should be about, right? As soon as people start defining this music as this way or that way - by definition - that would make it non-black metal, wouldn't it? It's a big paradox (laughs)."