Ih­sahn

Don’t be put off by Ih­sahn’s black metal be­gin­nings – the Nor­we­gian mu­si­cian has now cer­ti­fied him­self as one of mod­ern pro­gres­sive mu­sic’s most in­trigu­ing fore­run­ners. He speaks to Prog about di­vid­ing opin­ions, es­cap­ing his com­fort zone and how his reput

Prog - - Contents - Words: Thea de Gal­lier Por­traits: Bjorn Tore Moen

Nor­way’s dark master on mov­ing fur­ther away from black metal and be­com­ing ac­cepted in the prog com­mu­nity.

He might be a mem­ber of one of black metal’s most in­flu­en­tial bands, but Ih­sahn is not here to be cat­e­gorised. Sit­ting in a side room at his la­bel’s Lon­don of­fices, he looks smart and groomed in skinny jeans, Chelsea boots and trendy glasses, a world away from his early days in Em­peror when the three-piece wore full corpse­paint. His ded­i­cated fans know he hasn’t been that person for many a year, but even now, with his solo ma­te­rial be­com­ing ever more ac­ces­si­ble and eclec­tic, he finds him­self draw­ing the ire of black metal fans who feel he’s strayed too far from his roots.

“With ev­ery kind of un­der­ground move­ment or ex­pres­sion that gets any kind of com­mer­cial suc­cess, it al­ways starts out like that,” Ih­sahn says. He’s warm, in­tel­li­gent and softly-spo­ken, and it’s clear this is some­thing he’s given some thought to. “Some­body dis­cov­ers some­thing they haven’t heard be­fore and they take it to an ex­treme, and sud­denly there are peo­ple who say, ‘This is the blue­print, let’s not change it.’”

Lis­ten­ing to Ih­sahn’s solo work from the past five years, it’s clear he’s rel­ished twist­ing and de­vel­op­ing that black metal blue­print. From the 2013 al­bum Das See­len­brechen, through to 2016’s po­lar re­gion-in­spired Ark­tis, and on to lat­est record Àmr, bom­bas­tic riffs, 80s pomp and pro­gres­sive melodies have be­come ever more present, united un­der the guid­ance of Ih­sahn’s pur­pose­ful, grav­elly bark. The dark­ness and grit of his black metal roots are still there on Àmr, but it could be his most ac­ces­si­ble record­ing yet.

“I still de­fine my mu­sic as black metal because it’s the same un­com­pro­mis­ing start­ing point,” he says when quizzed about where he sees him­self on the genre spec­trum. “It’s such a para­dox – I’ve seen it all through the years. Part of the black metal scene is very judge­men­tal. Peo­ple say, ‘You’re not al­lowed to do that,’ within black metal. Whereas if any genre was self-cen­tred and do-what-I-will, it’s black metal. Do you re­ally want a true black metal al­bum made to peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions? It de­feats the whole pur­pose. I re­mem­ber on my first al­bum I had a song ti­tle with the word ‘love’ in it and peo­ple were en­raged. The song is called Will You Love Me Now, and it asks,

‘If I present this as what it is, will you still be able to re­late to it for the mu­sic and ex­pres­sion of what it is, or will you be bi­ased because it doesn’t fit with what you want it to be?’ The re­ac­tion proved my point.”

The re­ac­tion to Àmr is likely to be just as di­vided. The first sin­gle, Ar­cana Im­perii, boasts an 80s riff, while Sámr is a slice of stripped-back, avant-garde pop with 808s and sus­tained vo­cal notes that has more in com­mon with Opeth than Em­peror. Where You Are Lost And I Be­long and In Rites Of Pas­sage mix the dry, stunted gui­tars of black metal with clas­sic riffs and psy­che­delic synths, while Twin Black An­gels boasts thick double track­ing, whim­si­cal har­monies and a frankly karaoke­wor­thy cho­rus. Wake isn’t dis­sim­i­lar to what newer prog-af­fil­i­ated acts like Black Peaks pro­duce, but with a few more blast­beats.

“I grew up in the 80s,” laughs Ih­sahn, when drawn on his pen­chant for flam­boy­ant riffs. “In a sim­i­lar way to Ark­tis, Àmr is very verse-bridge-cho­rus. I wanted to fo­cus on this al­bum on more tra­di­tional song struc­tures. It sounds strange within this type of mu­sic, but I wanted a good hook.

“Cre­at­ing melody lines that stick is a chal­lenge with ex­treme metal – you can have 15 or 20 dif­fer­ent riffs. Writ­ing within that for­mat is a more dif­fi­cult task – you have to use your crafts­man­ship to keep it from re­peat­ing and be­ing bor­ing.”

“I’ve been lis­ten­ing to a lot of ABBA, and I’m a big fan of Scott

Walker.”

To bring him­self out of his com­fort zone, Ih­sahn looked in some sur­pris­ing places. “The Weeknd, Kanye West, James Blake… a lot of the pro­duc­tion tech­niques. Ob­vi­ously with The Weeknd, it’s very hard for me to re­late to that drug-in­duced, deca­dent life­style of Los An­ge­les. But I dig the sin­cer­ity and that eerie vibe. I’ve seen some of his mu­sic videos and they’re re­ally trippy. Those deep 808s have a sin­cer­ity and fuck-off at­ti­tude that’s miss­ing from cur­rent metal. It’s very po­lit­i­cally cor­rect. I think some hip hop and ur­ban mu­sic has more dan­ger than metal. At the same time, I’ve been lis­ten­ing to a lot of ABBA, and I’m a big fan of Scott Walker.”

It may not be prog in the tra­di­tional sense, but Àmr is cer­tainly pro­gres­sive in its genre-hop­ping. The ex­pec­ta­tion of what Ih­sahn rep­re­sents to those who aren’t as fa­mil­iar with him, though, leads him to be over­looked some­times by prog stal­warts.

“I’m work­ing with a book­ing agency who have been push­ing my stuff to more pro­gres­sive mu­sic fes­ti­vals, and they’ve got the re­sponse that it’s prob­a­bly too ex­treme for their fes­ti­val,” he says. “The per­cep­tion was ‘This is Em­peror, black metal’, and as a solo artist I was do­ing sim­i­lar stuff. Then they heard the al­bum and got the feed­back that it was per­fect for their fes­ti­val. Many peo­ple think I get the ad­van­tage of be­ing a known name, but just as of­ten it can work against you and peo­ple will limit you to that form.”

The barom­e­ter Ih­sahn finds him­self set against led him to think more deeply about peo­ple’s in­grained be­liefs. “Peo­ple are very afraid of lik­ing some­thing,” he muses. “Maybe they think because it’s black metal they might be con­don­ing val­ues or bad stuff they can’t stand by. Which is typ­i­cal – peo­ple are very afraid of dif­fer­ent opin­ions.

Of­ten in this busi­ness you get to meet peo­ple with very ex­treme at­ti­tudes, which for many of us is very in­ter­est­ing.

How do they come to that con­clu­sion?

“I meet a lot of peo­ple who feel threat­ened by some­one hav­ing a dif­fer­ent opin­ion. I find it very strange that they’d rather set­tle for a set of val­ues and avoid ques­tion­ing their own val­ues and de­fend­ing that, and set­ting those pa­ram­e­ters.”

It seems his in­tel­lec­tual approach of why peo­ple grav­i­tate to cer­tain things al­lows him to be com­fort­able with cre­at­ing solo work in his own way, while still pe­ri­od­i­cally ap­pear­ing with Em­peror. De­spite not hav­ing re­leased an al­bum since 2001, Em­peror haven’t bro­ken up, but Ih­sahn says that nos­tal­gia is the driv­ing force that keeps them to­gether, rather than any pos­si­bil­i­ties of mak­ing mu­sic again.

“On the 20th an­niver­sary of our sec­ond al­bum, we were more at a level where we wanted to do a few shows,” he says, ex­plain­ing that he’d pre­vi­ously felt some re­luc­tance to per­form with Em­peror because he didn’t want it to get “mixed up” with his solo ca­reer. “Those first two Em­peror al­bums were such an im­por­tant start­ing point. We were play­ing some of the big­gest stages you could imag­ine for this style of mu­sic, we played back-to-back with some of our favourite he­roes from the 80s, al­most run­ning into Ian Gil­lan on the way off stage. What’s not to like? But for ev­ery seven shows we do, we might turn down 100.”

Ih­sahn says that he and fel­low Em­peror mem­ber Samoth have moved on too far to be able to recreate the song­writ­ing bond they had in the early days.

“When peo­ple ask for another al­bum, the crav­ing is re­ally just to re­live a cer­tain ex­pe­ri­ence of dis­cov­er­ing some­thing that was ex­cit­ing, fresh and new. No new Em­peror al­bum could sat­isfy that crav­ing,” he in­sists. “With my solo work I’m to­tally cre­atively free: this is how I write metal. I get to do all these ex­per­i­ments with­out hav­ing to worry about any other band mem­bers telling me not to. I doubt we can do Em­peror al­bums with eight-string gui­tars and sax­o­phone. From my per­spec­tive, do­ing an Em­peror al­bum in that nat­u­ral cre­ative flow would be a com­pro­mise.

“When we wrote ma­te­rial for the first Em­peror al­bum I was 16 – how much ex­pe­ri­ence do you have?” he con­tin­ues.

“It was made on gut feel­ing; more on youth­ful en­ergy than ex­pe­ri­ence. Samoth and I put in just as much time but over the years I took over more and more of the mu­sic side. By the sec­ond al­bum I was writ­ing all the lyrics and I’ve al­ways had re­spon­si­bil­ity for all the ar­range­ments and key­boards and play­ing bass.”

The ob­vi­ous choice, then, was to fo­cus all his ef­forts on his solo work, which he com­poses sin­gle-hand­edly in his home stu­dio, with cre­ative in­put from his wife Heidi. “She’s the most cru­cial, and the most in­vis­i­ble person,” he says. “The cover of the al­bum, the ti­tle of the al­bum… her ideas.”

His reg­u­lar col­lab­o­ra­tor To­bias

Ørnes An­der­sen came back on board for Àmr, and the pop el­e­ments were brought to life by Li­nus Cor­nelius­son at Fas­ci­na­tion Street Stu­dios. The small, close-knit team Ih­sahn has as­sem­bled around him help him re­alise his vi­sions of cre­at­ing mu­sic that can’t be eas­ily pinned down, and op­er­ate un­der his main guid­ing prin­ci­ple of sonic free­dom.

“I re­mem­ber on my first al­bum I had a songti­tle with the word ‘love’ in it and peo­ple were en­raged.”

HOOKS IN YOU: IH­SAHN HAS ADDED POP MELODIES TO HIS METAL MELT­ING POT.

MAN IN BLACK: IH­SAHN HAS MOVED ON FROM HIS BLACK METAL ROOTS TO EX­PLORE PROG’S DARK­EST CORNERS.

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