Having first acquired a copy of After-the third solo effort from former EMPEROR frontman Ihsahn-in late 2009, it was clear from the get-go that this truly was going to be the first great album of 2010. Time has proven this initial analysis correct, as After survives further investigation in spades, spreading the wealth of its expansive songwriting and proving-beyond a shadow of doubt-that Ihsahn has certifiably arrived as a solo artist. Notoriously perfectionist in his regard for art and music, Ihsahn spoke to Cape Cod Rock and shed a little light into exactly what sort of thoughts drive this creative, driven mind to unleash sounds beyond the oft-limiting parameters of the black metal spectrum.
Cape Cod Rock: Do you feel this album could open up your solo career to those who either haven’t heard, or have been slow-moving in checking it out since the demise of EMPEROR?
Ihsahn: I guess I haven’t been giving that too much thought, so to speak, because I’m usually far too focused whenever I’m creating an album. I also wear many hats—from writing and producing to recording—so I don’t have much time to think of it from a promotional standpoint, but yeah, I think the feeling has evolved into something which might appeal perhaps to a wider audience of the more experimental fans of the traditional black metal form.
Did you ever feel boxed-in within that black metal genre prior to starting your solo career? Struggling with pre-conceptions of what you could do as an artist?
There are, of course, very conservative ideas within the traditional black metal sense, and sometimes it’s been irritating. I’ve been doing this for twenty years now, and at times it’s a bit frustrating to hear that some people think I did my best work at seventeen! (laughs) If I thought that, there would be no reason to continue, so I always think that the best is yet to come. I’ve also grown much more confident, and have come to terms with EMPEROR as a phenomenon, living a life of its own. The rest of my career will probably live in the shadow of my own creation, in a way, but I’m still here doing what I love, and that’s the only way I can honor that: doing my absolute best, in the most truthful way I can.
When comparing After to your prior albums, Angl and The Adversary, what did you think was done differently, and do you feel this best encapsulates what you’ve always wanted to do? Are you most satisfied with this record?
I’m very pleased. I don’t measure each album; they’re all a new experience for me, and very much where I’m at—on many levels—at the time I’m making them. I definitely feel that this is way up there, though, with regards to my own work. I changed the parameters, especially with the type of atmospheres I wanted to express. The idea of doing a trilogy first become involved when I was doing The Adversary, which—as the title implies—is very personal, confrontational and Nietzsche-inspired. Angl is the other side of the coin: still very direct and referring to this solitary, Luciferian figure. Ending this trilogy, I wanted something a bit more abstract; going a bit beyond the contemporary conflict thing, and seeking out more underlying and lasting inspirational sources. I feel I’ve touch more on the things which have been inspirational to me all along.
Musically speaking, do you feel this unleashes your inner prog-rocker, so to speak? For me, this is the most progressive route I think your music has taken. I hear a lot of 70s, GENTLE GIANT-esque prog within a lot of these songs.
That’s the thing a lot of people ask about: my prog influences. In that sense, I feel almost like [an outsider]. Speaking to Mikael [Akerfeldt] or Per [Wilberg] from OPETH; they’re like encyclopedias of the prog scene. Of course, I know KING CRIMSON, RUSH, YES and DREAM THEATER, but I don’t come from that background. The progressive parts in my music I feel is the result of using more traditional compositional techniques. When I started in my teens with EMPEROR, it was more about getting all of these riffs together in a sensible way and convention, whereas now I start with a main theme or motif, and listen for what needs to come next. Afterwards, I’ll twist and turn those elements in a more traditional compositional style; transfer the melody lines, themes or riffs and work the arrangement in a different way. I’m not trying to have all these different themes and riffs sticking together in one song; I’d rather explore fewer ideas, and make the most of that.
How do you feel your approach to playing guitar and singing has shifted over the years, then?
Well, I guess it’s just been a natural progression. I’m sure I should have rehearsed more! (laughs) I’ve always been too occupied with making the music, and too lazy when it comes to actually rehearsing! Most of this new album is on the eight-string guitar, which forced me to learn something new, and do something different. That’s why I used it. Having played guitar for as many years as I have, my fingers tend to move in predictable patterns. Sometimes, I feel that I’m just repeating myself, so on Angl I did a couple songs with open-tunings, which has a similar effect as the eight-string, which is so low into the bass territory that you have to treat the low register almost as a bass.
You can’t even really do power chords in that low register, so that just opens things up for trying new combinations of chords and strings; it skips right to the listening part, rather than the technical aspect. It leaves the fear of doing something too similar out the window for me. Quite early on, I decided to mix the album with Jens Bogren at Fascination Street Studios in Sweden, which also left me to focus on the writing on recording side of things, rather than always thinking ahead towards the final mix, as well. It made things very much more relaxed, contemplative and observant towards the entire process.
With regards to the vocals, we first heard this Rob Halford/King Diamond-inspired clean tone on EMPEROR’s Anthems to the Welkin At Dusk, but over the years—and especially on this record—it’s much more dynamic and smooth-sounding.
I guess I just go for it, and try to do my best! (laughs) After I recorded Anthems, I actually started taking classical singing lessons for a few years. Again, however; I’m not that good at rehearsing, so it’s probably something I should do much more. It’s a result of listening, and trying to go for what I feel the song needs, so I suppose I’ve developed a bit of a more personal style over the years than I’ve had in the past. I hope that in the future I can find something in my clean singing which can feel as second nature as the shrieking vocals I’ve done for so many years.
Was having this explosive saxophone sound something you’ve always wanted to explore? It adds so much to the album as a whole; like it was always meant to be there.
It was kind of a risk, in a sense, because I never wanted the saxophone to be there for “shock value”. In my mind, I wanted it to blend in, rather than being this crazy idea, and I think Jorgen [Munkeby, of the Norwegian jazz/metal group SHINING] definitely contributed to that, letting it go with the flow of the music. He would always do great takes during the improvisational parts of the songs, but if it wasn’t in line emotionally with what I had in mind, I would explain where I originally wanted things to go, and he would turn around and do another a take which was so much more in the context of what I needed. He related perfectly to my music, in that sense.
How does the dynamic of working with the studio assistance of Asegir [Mickelson-drums] and Lars [Norberg-bass] differ from working within the EMPEROR structure or yourself and Samoth [EMPEROR guitarist/songwriter] having this almost unspoken creative connection, having known each other for so long?
When you share something as intense as writing music together, it becomes very hard when that doesn’t connect anymore. I guess I’m just very stubborn and probably very hard to work with for most people! (laughs) I guess I’m a bit of a control freak, and have a different time listening to other people’s suggestions, because when I hear this sound or idea in my head, it’s very difficult for me to consider changing it. I’m probably a very bad person to collaborate with musically!
I feel on this album I’ve been much more receptive to other people’s suggestions, and my wife Heidi [Tveitan, aka Ihriel of HARDINGROCK and STAROFASH] has been invaluable in helping me form the concepts and suggesting instrumentation. She will tell me if things are going well, or if they suck! She’s almost an invisible band member, but I suppose I provide the same thing when she does her solo albums! It’s not as solitary and egocentric as it may seem, but this collaboration with her gives me everything I need which most people probably get from a whole band. I’ve become accustomed to this style of writing which is focused on the whole studio experience.
“The Barren Lands”, taken from Ihsahn’s 2010 Candlelight album, After.