Monday, April 30, 2018

Album Review: Ihsahn - 'Amr

One thing you can't deny is that Ihsahn has been eclectic. In the years since Emperor folded, he has traversed a wide swath of musical ground, peddling everything from black metal to free-form jazz. He has never rested on his laurels, and while I can't say I have enjoyed much of the music he has made (since we share radically different musical roots), I do respect his dedication to moving forward. Whether you like what he's doing or not, every album is an interesting experience, because you never know exactly what you're going to get.

For this album, we get his spin on the metal of the 80s, as his streamlined approach has integrated the synths that ruled that decade. Rather than an album relying on the scope of orchestration, or the rule-bending of jazz, "'Amr" focuses on the coldness that comes from artificiality. A synth is more than a sonic tone, it is a nod to technology replacing humanity in music. And since Ihsahn's roots are in black metal, where humanity can be hard to find anyway, that is a combination that makes a lot of sense.

Putting it bluntly, this is a difficult album. Ihsahn throws enough blistering drums and progressive riffs into the mix to constantly challenge the listener, but it's not as simple as that. There is also the fact that these songs, despite their structure being simplified, spend much of their time screeching without melody, flattening  out where sharp edges need to be. Without massive orchestrations to give the songs character, Ihsahn's songwriting simply isn't interesting enough to carry the day.

It's a fundamental truth about music that the hardest thing to do is write simple songs. Think about it; if you write a twenty minute progressive epic, you can take needless detours, indulge every thought you've ever had, and claim the whole thing is about a 'journey'. To write a good, simple song, you have to focus on every idea you have and use only the best of them. Simplicity shines a spotlight on your ideas, stripping away the coats of varnish lesser songwriters use to polish the proverbial turd.

I don't intend to use that word with regards to "'Amr", but the point remains. This album is one that falters because of its focus. The pacing is often too slow, the actual musical ideas aren't particularly interesting, and Ihsahn's vocals rarely add elements that elevate the compositions. The entire album feels like it was written for no other reason than to use certain synth sounds. The songs themselves are turgid, lacking either the visceral bite or the intellectual sprawl of Ihsahn's best work. This is a condensed version of Ihsahn as a solo artist, and like an abridged version of a novel, a lot is lost in the missing details.

I understand that Ihsahn is considered a legend, and I will likely be one of the few voices saying this, but he is not particularly well-suited to writing conventional music. "'Amr" is likely the most straight-forward album he has released yet, and it is the one that most exposes his shortcomings.

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