Solo Ihsahn is honestly such an enigma to me.
As someone who sits around endlessly praising Leprous to all corners of the globe, decrying unimaginative Dream Theater worship and claiming that the future of progressive metal is blackened, it honestly still confuses me that I am yet to properly get into Ihsahn’s solo career, though I have spent some time trying. The man is an icon of black metal turned modern prog metal hipster. He nearly single-handedly exposed the band I now consider to be the best progressive metal band of all time, whilst consistently churning out albums that twist prog, black, jazz, ambient and avant garde in new and exciting ways. All of which just puts him right into a category of “music I should adore”. And I sort of do, in a way.
Arktis is Ihsahn’s sixth record under his own name, and it’s also his sixth record that I kinda like. Some of his albums I initially disliked, until I learned to enjoy their intricacies and complexities somewhat (2012’s Eremita), and others I loved at first but then started to find parts that irritated me (2013’s Das Seelenbrechen), but all of them, this included, end up around the same sort of spot. It’s like he’s incapable of completely convincing me of anything. He can bring some brilliant influences and mind-bending genre distortions. He can channel his brother-in-law’s ability to merge accessible with complex, or even just bring him in to sing on the record itself. He can have Mikael Akerfeldt sing a track or he can imitate his voice himself, but every single record that Ihsahn has put up under his own name has been as equally messy as it has been ambitious, as equally misguided as it is stylish. And while this is no exception to that adage, Arktis does find itself leaning towards the irritating and questionable, a touch more than the stylish and suave, in my ears.
Arktis opens with a truly surreal note. “Disassembled” is far from a bad song, but it is not the sort of song you’d expect on an Ihsahn record, at all. This is a guy who plays his prog metal covered in screams and saxophone, and this is… a Stone Sour song. I mean, listen to that chorus, it’s basically a sugar-coated Linkin Park chorus, complete with the edgy lyrics and the Disturbed-esque groove metal circus outro. It’s not bad, but boy is it out of place. But contrast this with the verses, with manic drumming, synthesiser riffs, intense screams and a blackened fury. It sets the tone for the record remarkably I must admit, but not in a good way. It’s sort of a precursor to how messy the rest of the album sounds, with flashes of serious quality, a general sense of ambition, but some truly questionable compositional decisions. Einar Solberg makes a fantastic appearance in the track too, to add to the weird hot/cold feeling.
Arktis, as a continuation from Das Seelenbrechen, is still in the same vein of progressive metal with bits and pieces flung on. There isn’t much of the violent jazz metal that we heard on Eremita, but Ihsahn’s obsession with dissonance and release continues here, frequently employing powerful blackened rasps over relentless tritone riffs, along with some Opeth-inspired clean vocal breaks, (which honestly don’t show up here enough, “Frail” being the best example, and one of the best songs). The best moments of Das Seelenbrechen were the parts in which Ihsahn, well, ripped off his brother-in-law. “Contaminate Me” from Leprous’ Coal honestly feels like the best Ihsahn solo track, but on another band’s record. “Celestial Violence” is far and away the best song on Arktis, and along with the rest of the final four tracks, is part of the last gasp burst of quality that save this from being quite mediocre. Of course, it is also the album’s second feature of Einar himself, and naturally, it does just feel like a Leprous song. A great one at that, and with guitars that are a bit blacker than Leprous would likely feature, but it does bring this weird feeling that Ihsahn, a legend of metal, is leaning his current material on the success of a band he was once a mentor of. It really does feel as if the good parts of this album are just “a poor man’s Leprous”.
The saxophone on “Crooked Red Line” of course is a refreshing addition, harking back to the jazz metal ambition of Eremita, and is simultaneously one of the better written songs on the record, even without the sax. “Til for Ulven” complete’s the album’s last-minute redemption, and is a truly fascinating piece, being avant-garde and abstract, but in a tense and clever way, not a purposefully random or spastic way. It’s essentially a 9-minute ambient piano and spoken word piece that builds to a standard Ihsahn violent end, but it’s really quite beautiful, and has a gorgeous atmosphere that flows throughout, especially once the washy synths start coming in. It reminds me a lot of a band like Manes, not only because of the fact that they once ended one of their albums with a spoken word piece, but because the samples really feel like part of the song, not just tacked over the top. I’m sure many will have some negative words about this song – it is rather self-indulgent, but I personally think it’s one of the best moments here.
But the biggest reason that Arktis falls flat on the whole is really just the lack of quality material during the body of the album. Stylistically, it may be another uber-trendy prog-black fusion record, but for most of this Ihsahn is just packing the music with fluff. There are very few quality hooks or interesting riffs, with the vocals being harsh for an irritatingly high percentage of the record. For a great deal of this album, nothing is wrong and nothing is right. There are so many flat riffs here and extended sections of no emotion, particularly during the middle of the album. A song like “South Winds” is almost the definition of an empty filler song.
But amongst all the forgettable material and all the quality, there are some moments that are just truly confusing, like the DragonForce twin guitar harmony that opens “Mass Darkness” and turns it into a power metal ballad for 30 seconds, or the punk beat later in that same song, or the pysch rock guitar solo in “My Heart is of the North”, or the Van Halen riff that opens “Until I Too Dissolve”, or the little bursts of glam rock guitars that burst through “Pressure”. It’s all of these small bits and pieces of weak material, plus the generally forgettable nature of the rest of the album that add up to make Arktis Ihsahn’s weakest solo album to date, despite not much really being all too different from his other records. It’s a confusing album, and a confused album. It doesn’t really seem to know where it’s headed, which is truly ironic considering his previous albums in the same style didn’t really have that problem. There isn’t much wrong with it, but even after many listens, it hasn’t revealed itself to me all too positively, sans a couple of small moments. A disappointing record from a man who really should be making records better than he actually is, given his undeniable ambition and scope.