I knew Eremita, the fourth album proper by Emperor co-founder Ihsahn, was something quite challenging just by its imposing sleeve art. Not many photographs bring to mind the question, “What would happen if you turn Nietzsche’s philosophy upside down?” The cover photo, taken during Nietzsche’s last, insanity-driven years, is about as imposing of a metal cover I’ve seen all year, and it’s especially fitting for an artist like Ihsahn. There are strains of black metal running throughout Eremita, but some of its progressive traits come so far out of left field that you can’t help but wonder if this is the same guy who founded one of Norwegian black metal’s most important groups. Emperor may be harsher on the ears, but the music Ihsahn has made is more akin to what a mad genius in his last years would concoct. Like the young Nietzsche, Ihsahn had involved himself in an unrelentingly bleak vision of humanity; the former had the Übermensch and the ultimate force of will, the latter a scene that espoused a dark, violent Satanism. (Emperor co-founder Samoth was the only one of the two legally tied to any criminal activity like church-burnings and killings. Moreover, when given artistic control, Emperor’s lyrics lost the Satanism that so pervaded the early Norwegian scene.) Nietzsche would mentally dissipate in his later years, becoming the “eremita” (Latin for “hermit”) of this record’s title while his daring philosophy seemed to consume his very being. Ihsahn, on the other hand, is only getting better with age. The musical madman responsible for this record isn’t anyone to fear; he’s to be admired.
His 2010 release After, though strong in its own right, was only the tip of the iceberg. With Eremita, he’s peaked with skill equal to those in prog’s highest echelons. The guitar riff on opener “Arrival” may suggest a new take on the stuff Dream Theater’s beaten to death, but don’t let that one fragment fool you: this isn’t anything like those now-fading prog mainstays. There are no cheesy songs about undead pharoahs or twenty-minute long suites that amble on, solo after pointless solo. This is as sophisticated as prog metal gets. In many ways, Ihsahn is exactly the type of artist modern progressive metal needs; when it’s too easy to shred (Dream Theater) or get caught up in your own masturbatory technicality (Periphery), a genre like prog metal should embrace an artist with a nuanced and sophisticated background. As the upsurge in deeply philosophical black metal over the past two years has indicated, the genre is rife with room for exploration. Purists are still around crying foul, sure, but with the love for intellectually sophisticated groups like Deathspell Omega and Liturgy showing no sign of deteriorating, we can be sure that discussions are still to be had, and more importantly black metal will continue to grow into a multi-tentacled beast.
Now, this isn’t “black metal meets prog.” In fact, it’s hard what to pinpoint Eremita is, exactly. Prog suffices as a tag for the same reason it does any other difficult-to-categorize LP: this music is genre-melding and consistently shifting. Take the album highlight, the nine-minute “The Eagle and the Snake”: beginning with staccato bursts of guitar and saxophone (provided by Shining mastermind Jorgen Munkeby, whose contributes to several of the tracks here), the song then throws in, amongst other things, some Porcupine Tree-like riffs, a fret-burning series of guitar solos, and a memorable chorus you can even sing along to. This chameleonic experiment is impressive in its audacity alone, but what makes it so brilliant is that it all works. For all the love prog’s fans give it for its ability to merge what appear to be disparate styles into suite-like compositions, like any genre it’s prone to formula. Great as he is, Neal Morse has taken his twenty-plus-minute epic song structure and beaten it to death. Fortunately, though Ihsahn is a good four albums into his career under his eponymous moniker, he has yet to show any sign of stagnation. Eremita is imposing, but it doesn’t expect you to stammer beneath it merely for that reason. All the things you might see as gratuitous experimentation are anything but. Even the haunting three-minute instrumental interlude “Grief” feels significant, its low-end piano chords and mournful strings serving as the catharsis from the morose cuts before it.
Ihsahn’s work here is powerful enough to easily stand on its own. But as if that isn’t enough, he’s brought on a few guest musicians whose participation elevates Eremita even more. Already mentioned is Munkeby, who is easily the best secondary musician here. As opposed to the electronic-tinged, crazed metal of Shining, his saxophone squalls in Ihsahn’s music add a sort of doomy quality much like the symphonies of Krzysztof Penderecki. There’s a killer moment in the late half of “The Eagle and the Snake” where the staccato riff is reprised very quietly; you can tell the song will explode in any second, and not a moment later it does. Equally great is Devin Townsend’s vocal contribution to “Introspection”; an artist as loony as Townsend is an ideal ying to Ihsahn’s dark yang.
Sometimes it’s nice to have a straightforward, accessible track amidst many challenging ones, and Eremita has one that rivals “The Eagle and the Snake” for the highlight spot. “The Paranoid”, taking a leaf out of Yoda’s book, turns the bleak line “And the shame feeds the anger feeds the shame” into the best chorus on the LP. Admittedly, this sentiment does tend to wear by the record’s end; even the best metal can get caught up in being too somber. The unnecessarily edgy photos of Ihsahn released with press materials further pile on the darkness you’d expect from a guy like him. But at the same time it demonstrates exactly what makes both Ihsahn and Eremita so great: they challenge us to see the darkness as a means to light and embrace what we see as difficulties not as things to be distancing ourselves from but instead to take on and mold in our own image. The musician in me couldn’t imagine handling a lot of what’s on Eremita, both in the constant darkness of the tone and the complexity of the music itself. The fact that there exists a human being who can do this, however, is something any fan of genuine progressive music, metal or otherwise, should appreciate. This isn’t an album you can describe with lazy tags like “black metal meets prog;” Ihsahn has taken all of the strengths he acquired in playing that genre and taken them in wildly unique directions. I can’t wait to see where he goes next.