Well, old Ihsahn is back with a brand new disc full of old man metal for old man ears. Fortunately, I'm getting a bit older myself and feel that I can appreciate these old man tunes just as much as the artist who wrote them. All kidding aside, I think that Ihsahn fans are going to be very pleased with what I felt as of the first listen, was an absolutely memorable record. Some have said that it is a very proggy album and I can attest to that, but what we've really got here is a much fiercer sounding recording, which is quite a bit different from the nearly commercial effort that we received with the artist's previous record, Das Seelenbrechen. It is also worth noticing that Arktis, like many of Ihsahn's first few solo outings, starts with an “A.” We have Adversary, angL, After and now Arktis continuing that fashion, and almost feeling like it belongs with those albums, because indeed it does. Arktis does have the black metal of Adversary, the experimentalism of angL and the watercolour soundscapes present in After. Yet it has so much more than just that, as I will full detail for you. I love going through massive releases in a song by song fashion, allowing me to re-explore the record and produce my finds for you in a very authentic way that feels a bit more intimate than the short paragraph summary of a record.
(We will be removing the period at the end of Arktis here, because it makes my word processing program go berserk as it wants to capitalize after every period in place. Maybe he shouldn't use punctuation at the end of an album title next time, even though I have a funny feeling that he did it just to screw with journalists and reviewers.)
The first song here is “Disassembled” which has an obvious progressive rock nature to it, coupled with Ihsahn's surprisingly harsh vocal nodes, which you certainly don't expect to come biting your ears off in the very beginning. Additionally we have the clean tones of Leprous frontman Einar Solberg, who definitely takes the song in a more accessible direction. Ultimately it makes for a truly pulse-pounding chorus, which I think is the strong point here. Next we have Matt Heafy guesting on “Mass Darkness” which first starts out with a very classic sounding metal lead, until it rolls into some interesting progressive and harsh vocal territory. The song kicks up and carries with it a thrashing nature, which pounds into one of Heafy's patented solos. This is very different territory for Ihsahn, but it definitely works. “My Heart Is Of The North” comes off as extreme-tinged progressive metal, with more of that familiar harsh vocal tone, until... wait! We have a rather unexpected atmosphere section where Ihsahn rolls out some clean lines and then toys with some Opeth as thundering riffs and frantic keyboards remind us of completely of the seventies. “South Winds” takes a bit turn from the previous material, as electronics compose a great deal of the piece, with After influenced clean prog leads backing an After styled clean vocal chorus. As I said, the electronics stay in place throughout the whole song, but the clean leads proliferate through the piece, ultimately becoming a bit of a thicker, yet slightly Rush inspired sort of extreme metal mixture. It's definitely something different, and certainly not everyone will get it. But these kinds of experiments are just another reason why I have a lot of respect for this project. Next we have another experiment in “In The Vaults” which starts a bit peculiarly, but the piece eventually finds it's strength in a mixture of clean lines, clean leads and vocal harmonizing that sometimes duets with the familiar harsh notions already pervasive throughout most of this record. On second listen I don't find this one as memorable, but it's certainly not entirely forgettable either.
Moving onto the second half of the recording, we have “Until I Too Dissolve” which starts out as an electronic piece and moves into AOR territory. Yes, you heard me. Ihsahn put on a fake wig for this one and pretended to be a member of Ratt or Whitesnake for a while. There are still some scowls on the piece (surprisingly) even though it mostly uses clean vocals (and trust me folks, he's really going full eighties with these, almost rolling right into falsettos) which comes off a bit interesting to me, even though some will obviously wonder what the hell is going on here. I have a feeling that something like this could work well on the stage, but I'm not sure if Ihsahn still tours with this project. I don't believe that he does. “Pressure” comes next, as the longest track on the album (minus the bonus, which we'll mention a bit later) and a progressive freakout if there ever was one. There is an obvious orchestral influence here, which serves to bring an already extreme prog track into an even more pompous level of grandiosity, but it seems to work wonders for what might come off as one of the disc's most weighty moments especially for those who miss the kind of black metal that this guy used to make. “Frail” comes directly afterwords as the disc's shortest track. It mixes electronics in with harsh vocals and some very light acoustic nodes. It has a bouncy nature that allows for keyboard explosions and occasional grooves, picking up on one of the disc's few solos. Thankfully, it is a very tasteful solo and shows that what we heard from Heafy was great, but Ihsahn still can write and play just as well as he's always been able to. The catchy vocal chorus here also works well as an earworm, just as we'd expect with Ihsahn discs as of late. Next we have a much more romantic side of Ihsahn, called “Crooked Red Line” which features the saxy tones of Jorgen Munkeby who plays the sax for Leprous. Ihsahn doesn't really use the harsh vocals much in the beginning of this noir-esque piece, but later rolls right into them as Munkeby plays the saxophone like his life depends on it. With such crisp acoustic riffs and comfy drumming over on the kit, the song takes a very calm approach, sans it's hefty climax. “Celestial Violence” is the disc's closing moment and delivers a surprisingly heavy moment to end this excursion. The song begins on a lighter note, but becomes increasingly heavy to allow for well-placed scowls in addition to Solberg's clean guest vocals. He provided cleans at the beginning of the record, and provides them at the end as well. Quite fitting, I feel. There's a section to which Solberg truly gives it his all, just like on the last Leprous record, The Congregation (did you hear it? We loved it here at the Tower) as the track soon becomes a harsh/light duet between the two, in a refrain that truly shows the best of both vocalists.
There's no better way to end it than this, which is why we didn't really need the album's bonus track (which is only available on the limited edition) “Til For Ulven.” Now, I know what you're thinking – that title is in Norwegian, so surely this is a return to his black metal work for the fans, right? Wrong. “Til For Ulven” is a painfully boring attempt at a soundscape and spoken word that I think you'll only really be able to understand if you can understand the Norwegian language. Perhaps the scribes at Metal Archives took the time to translate it, but to me it just sounds like an old man reading some old book, accompanied by piano. He might as well be reading the phone book over there, as I'm quite bored to tears and you will be as well. Even when the metal and harsh vocals come in, it's already too late because we've had to sit through that old man reading for seven minutes. Plus, it's just a repeating riff that feels kind of tacked on. We didn't really need any of whatever this is supposed to be and on the second listen, I'm still not quite enthralled by it. If he's going to make a soundscape, he needs to make a soundscape - not this. I'm actually pretty shocked that such a track would be offered as a special limited edition bonus and wouldn't recommend getting the special edition for it, especially if it costs more than the regular edition of the album. This little experiment is not worth more of your hard-earned money than the original record, which is ultimately a good experience in all of it's experimental and out of the box nature.
On this second listen, I'm re-evaluating the above opinion a bit and I'll say that I don't consider Arktis an absolutely phenomenal record as I had on the first listen. That being said, it's still a very pleasing experience and well worth the listen. It's much heavier in some instances, albeit weirder in others and you just have to be ready for anything. Ihsahn pulls a lot of punches and you never really know what you're going to get from song to song or even what some songs will evolve into. It's definitely an experiment in music theory in general, which may prove far too much for some listeners. I have a good feeling that some of you will have no idea as to what in the hell is actually going on here, and that's fine. If you're one of those that can't stand paint being thrown on a canvas, although at times very beautiful and quite intriguing, you may want to pass. For those who are up for this adventure however, it's definitely going to be everything that you expected and then some.
(11 Tracks, 58:00 – 10 Tracks, 49:00 on original)