[18 January 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“I’ve felt really close to the sea because of the whole symbolic value of water,” says Vegard Tveitan, otherwise known by the metal world as Ihsahn. Calling from his home in Norway, the singer/songwriter and former frontman of the highly influential black metal band Emperor is set to release his third solo album this month, a record that has a decidedly elemental theme running through it. “The references to undercurrents and all that, it’s just something that’s been a natural image for me to use also in the past. Everybody has that relationship to that movement of water in a way.”
Indeed, Ihsahn’s After is practically permeated with thalassic references, both stylistically and thematically. More than anything else, though, that inescapable connection between water and new life is resoundingly strong on the new album. In a way, Ihsahn has had to start from scratch ever since leaving Emperor in 2001, first exploring dark ambient music with Peccatum, a collaboration with his partner Heidi Solberg Tveitan, before getting back to extreme metal with 2006’s The Adversary.
While 2008’s angL was a marked improvement over the admirable but somewhat stilted solo debut, After truly sees Ihsahn finally finding his voice as a solo musician, for the first time distancing himself from his Emperor legacy without completely disowning it. Envisioned as a trilogy, his first three albums have allowed him to gain some footing on his own while at the same time giving him the freedom to see just how far he could take his music, with After serving not necessarily as a climax, but more as a true springboard for further experimentation.
“The first two albums are very Nietzsche inspired, by Zarathustra in particular, and very direct and in your face, both musically and most of all lyrically,” he explains. “Very confrontational and a lot of conflict in there, hence the name of the first one The Adversary. The second one, angL, with a winged angel on the front cover, is basically just two sides of the same coin in a way. This last one also starts with the letter A, it’s called After, so this is kind of after the conflict, and the whole concept is much more abstract, taking a few steps back. Thematically there’s no sign of life, it’s almost post-apocalyptic in a way. The opening line of the album is, ‘These are barren lands, austere and cold,’ and that kind of gives you an idea.
“On a more symbolic level it’s getting beneath all the more superficial conflicts of things and rather look at some of the more basic sources and the essence of the inspirations that make me do this. I’ve realized during the process of making this last album that I’ve made stuff based on the same kind of images in my head as I did even back in ‘95-‘96 with Emperor, so it’s kind of going deeper to the source in a way, and that’s why I have song titles like ‘Undercurrent’, ‘On the Shores’, ‘Heaven’s Black Sea’. There are a lot of references to the sea, it’s something very eternal, big, and forming.”
Musically speaking, with After‘s languid arrangements and strong emphasis on clean singing (at times bearing a slight similarity to Opeth’s Damnation album) this is some of the most restrained metal songwriting we’ve ever heard from Ihsahn, and while it’s a far cry from such busier Emperor classics as “The Burning Shadows of Silence” and “The Loss and Curse of Reverence”, this is the most comfortable we’ve heard him sound on record, never for a second sounding complacent, either. “It’s much more of a relaxed album,” he admits, “And I guess it’s like that for many reasons, because I’m personally more at ease with my musical past in Emperor.
For many years I subconsciously tried to get away from that and dig out a new path for myself, but I’ve come to terms more with it as being part of my musical heritage in a way…On a subconscious level. I didn’t want it to happen again like it did with Emperor where the band project and the form was so creatively limiting, and I didn’t want to paint my solo project musically into a corner by looking at this project as something too particular. So for me I’m very happy with the way this album turned out, I think it’s a very nice ending for the trilogy, and it kind of leaves me with a clean slate of where to go next.”
Contributing more fluidity to an already graceful album are the contributions by saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby, leader of the excellent Norwegian progressive metal band Shining, whose free jazz solos and gorgeous melodies adorn such tracks as “Undercurrent”, “Heaven’s Black Sea”, and “On the Shores”. Although saxophone has been utilized in metal more and more over the past decade by such bands as Ephel Duath, Ulver, and especially Yakuza, it’s far from an easy marriage to pull off (Deadlock’s “Fire at Will” a prime example), and Ihsahn knew very well that it would be a challenge to make his idea work.
“For many years I’ve had this sonic idea in my head that I wanted to implement saxophone in my music at some point,” he says. “For the two previous albums I had a guest vocalist for one of the songs on each album: Garm from Ulver did a song from the first one, and Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth did a song from the second one. So following that tradition I wanted a soloist for this record, but given the concept I wanted something very personal, but I didn’t want words and a human voice. So I thought it was the perfect time to try out the saxophone idea, also because for me the saxophone is such a solitary instrument and I thought it would suit the music well,” adding with a laugh, “At least the way it played out in my mind.
“It’s kind of a risky idea in the sense that the saxophone being so unfamiliar to this type of music, it could end up lying on top of the music, being almost like a parody. I didn’t want to make a strange part in the music where it’s, ‘Oh, surprise, there’s a saxophone.’ I wanted it to be implemented as just a natural part of the arrangement. The way [Munkeby] interpreted the stuff and the way he played it, I really felt we managed to blend it in like that…For this particular album I think the free jazz stuff blended well with the rather chaotic and abstract expressions, and on the more mellow lead melodies it functions as this very solitary, inhuman voice.”
Just how Ihsahn found Munkeby for his project is a lot more convoluted than one would assume, considering these guys live in the same small country. “It was a strange coincidence, actually, that I ended up with Jørgen,” Ihsahn explains. “It was only after I had actually talked to him and hired him for the project that I realized that he’s been playing in one of my favorite bands, Jaga Jazzist, and that he’d also played with some of my friends in Enslaved. Doing press for my first album, I was in Paris and I met a Norwegian jazz musician called Bugge Wesseltoft at the baggage claim, he’s one of the most famous jazz musicians we have in Norway.
“We just started talking, and I had his cell phone number, and a few years after, I thought, ‘I want the saxophone on my album, who do I ask?’ And I reckoned since he’s a jazz musician he’d probably know more saxophone players than I do, so I called him and he mentioned three names, but this guy Jorgen would be in his mind be the right fit for my type of project. And he was very right, because in the end it worked out really great, I think.
“Of course he was used to blending that type of playing with such an extreme expression before, and Shining is just going more and more extreme. That’s a kind of funny crossroad there, because he comes from a jazz background and he’s aiming for the more and more extreme, whereas I’m coming from an extreme metal background and I’m going in the direction of being more experimental in the arrangements, doing more soft stuff in a way,” he laughs.
As for whether the new songs were written with saxophone in mind, he says, “It came more at the end of the songwriting. The real melodies for the saxophone, where he follows certain patterns, they were all originally lead guitar melodies. The idea of using saxophone for an album came quite early on, but where to put it and to what degree it would be implemented was kind of an ongoing process.”
Getting back to live performances has been a very gradual process for Ihsahn, who made his live solo debut last April, but when asked to compare playing solo compositions like “Scarab” and “Caught By the Fire” as opposed to Emperor’s material, he fully admits there’s a huge difference. “Technically performing these songs live is much more challenging than playing any Emperor song, so in that respect it’s harder,” he says. “A couple years back we did some Emperor reunion shows, which was very nice to do, we got to play some very nice places and had a very decent pace…
“But it was a whole different set of rules almost, because the people that came to see us had certain expectations of what to hear, and we probably played most of the songs that they wanted to hear. It was in a way an easy job to do. But whereas when I played my first solo show as support for Opeth in Oslo, to start with Opeth’s fan base is a very different one from the Emperor fan base, and also it was my debut show and it was only my solo material, so I was in a more challenging position. It demanded more of me and the songs are more challenging to play, so in that sense it’s harder, but that’s what I like about it, I was back in the challenger position, out of the comfort zone so to speak. With this type of music it’s probably best to be in that position.”
As strong as After is, no matter what Ihsahn does from here on in, he will always be known as the voice of Emperor, and his coming to terms with that cold, hard truth is a big reason why his own music sounds so much more assured than it did three years ago. “I don’t try to divide myself so much from the whole Emperor thing,” he says. “I’ve done that in the past, that was why I wanted to leave Emperor, because there were so many preconceptions and so many pins about what Emperor should be or should not be. And for me that works against me. Having set that many limitations on my music and my creativity, it’s not very good for me, so I wanted to distance myself from all that. But I’m coming to terms with it now.
“I’m living under the shadow of my creation in many ways. I’ll always be my own little brother. Emperor, even after we quit, the phenomenon, regardless of who you played in the band, it lives a life of its own, almost like this cult thing that goes with it. So it will be hard to compete with that, there’s nothing interesting in trying to compete with it.”
Still, it’s got to be a great feeling to know that the music you created 15, 16 years ago is now more popular than ever with a new generation of metal fans discovering such great Emperor records as In the Nightside Eclipse and Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, and although Ihsahn justifiably knows his best years are ahead of him at the still-young age of 34, there will always be those who prefer to cling to the past. Even, he confesses, himself.
“People and fans approach me who weren’t even born when we did the first recording, but they still get in to the early Emperor material, and thinking about it I guess it’s because we were so young ourselves. I was 16, 17, and we probably weren’t all that good musicians, but it’s that youthful energy, that 110 percent going into it and that youthful courage that went into it, and I think that young people today can also relate, tap into that same force. And I’m like that myself, it’s kind of a paradox. Yes, it’s irritating that some people still think that I was at my best when I was a teenager, and there’s no way I can agree with that. If I didn’t think my best was yet to come, I might as well just drop it.
“On the other hand, when I listen to metal music, which is rare these days, I end up listening to what I grew up with. I don’t listen to the newest Iron Maiden albums, I listen to Somewhere in Time and Seventh Son. So as a listener I’m just as bad. I guess you just invest so much emotionally in the music you listen to in your teens. There’s no escaping that.”
Adrien Begrand has been writing for PopMatters since 2002, and has been writing his monthly metal column Blood & Thunder since 2005. His writing has also appeared in Metal Edge, Sick Sounds, Metallian, graphic novelist Joel Orff's Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll, Knoxville Voice, The Kerouac Quarterly, JackMagazine.com, StylusMagazine.com, and StaticMultimedia.com. A contributing writer for Decibel, Terrorizer, and Dominion magazines and senior writer for Hellbound, he resides, blogs, and does the Twitter thing in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.