Listening to Ihsahn’s new record “Arktis” is in many ways the stereotype experience of listening to any record of any solo project, with all the benefits and trappings that implies. Ihsahn is the long-running epithet for Vegard Tveitan, founding member of Emperor and accomplished multi-instrumentalist in his own right. His diverse musical musings make up the bulk of the new album from his solo project, which means that first and foremost, a listener must divorce him or herself from the conception that Ihsahn will sound just like Emperor. Solo records tend to travel one of three paths, which are a) that the artist wishes to leave their musical home to experiment with some other ideas, b) the artist wants to perform in a genre they are not commonly associated with, or most often c) which is both, and that’s where we find “Arktis.”
The album begins much in the usual Ihsahn mold, with some airy keys and a heavily atmospheric black metal sensibility, coupled with the usual growled vocals. We get this for a small smattering of songs in the open, and while they’re fine for what they are, only “Disassembled” shows us the true potential of this record, with a thumping riff juxtaposed against a surprisingly earnest and soft outro.
The middle of “Arktis” is where the value really lies, as we see Ihsahn step outside the death-black metal box and open up into new possibilities heretofore undiscovered. “South Winds” is both weirdly beautiful and incredibly haunting, a deep and nearly subliminal keyboard line that bores into the ear and sets the stage for the soft but unquiet melody of the song. This is all decorated with a mix of rasped and sinisterly whispered vocals, all of which combines to create a unique and catchy experience.
By comparison, and this is where the versatility of a solo project can show through - particularly as Ihsahn takes the place of Emperor and makes its own impression – we are shortly thereafter asked to partake in “Until I Too Dissolve,” which begins with a wonderful but contextually out of place Van Halen riff. But this is where we’ve seen other acts like Richard Kruspe’s Emigrate and Peter Tagtgren’s PAIN really shine, right? In showing their devotion and respect for trends that worked in the past, but still turning those elements into something new and enjoyable. “Until I Too Dissolve” is no different, combining the easy hook of a proto-metal riff with the modern pounding of death metal to conjure a song that is both dangerous and easily enjoyable.
The disappointment of “Arktis” lies in the fact that there isn’t more of this kind of experimentation on the record. Much of the second half of the record starts to blend together or shifts too easily back into the usual black metal patterns. That isn’t to say that those songs are poorly constructed or anything less than professional caliber, but it does put a damper on the expansive promise of the two moments mentioned above. The rest of the tracks sway between the metal harshness of Ihsahn’s legacy and a few attempts to deliver more emotional content, but there’s not as much pure enjoyment there.
So “Arktis” has some brilliance between beginning and end, but doesn’t consistently resonate with it. Ihsahn as a musical project is in the transitional period between solo project and full-time fixture, so it’s understandable that the man and band would try to establish a base, but there’s a richer vein that could well be explored in the future.