Ihsahn’s least weird & least proggy effort yet.
I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, except when the cover is particularly good and you know you should read more books, but the promotional material that I saw leading up to my first listen of Ihsahn’s new album ,'Ámr', was a little... concerning. The album cover isn’t anything egregious, except that it looks like a big-game-hunting, cybergoth Christian Grey sex dungeon. No, that’s not my issue. What bothered me is the wild change in style that his new artist promo photo depicts. I know that back in day Ihsahn used to dress like that one kid everybody knew when they were fifteen that probably tried to watch his neighbours bang out on a regular basis, sure, but at least that suited the black metal aesthetic that I prefer from him. Nowadays, he’s dressing more like one of those insufferable ‘academic types’ that show off that they read Foucault and throw the word “metaphysical” into conversations that don’t call for it.
In short, it’s that turtleneck.
I’m actively trying to be a less judgemental person nowadays (because god knows I fucking need to) but I cannot help having a bad reaction to such a bizarre stylistic change. And I hope it’s not just me, and while I don’t even like Ihsahn’s previous solo work that much, this photo indicated to me such a wild change in style that I had difficulty holding in my chuckles. The photo (below) kind of reminds me of Sleep’s intentionally corny band photo that resembles a family posing for Christmas photo from 1976.
Anyways, now to the actual review!
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The most notable thing to me about ‘Ámr’ is that it’s significantly more vocal-driven than Ihsahn’s previous work. Which upsets me greatly, because I’ve never been a fan of his vocals - harsh or otherwise. Tracks like ‘Samr’, ‘Where You Are Lost and I Belong’, and ‘Twin Black Angel’ are the best examples of this in his clean singing. Especially the verses of the former and latter tracks, where Ihsahn performs that kind of dramatic ‘whisper-singing’ that comes off sounding like he’s trying to seduce the mic. Not all of those songs are negative examples, though. ‘Where You Are Lost…’ actually contains some of the most passionate vocals on the entire album, and they make me wish there was more of that throughout the rest of these songs. My only issue with that particular song is that, much like that one time I orgasmed as a bed slat slipped out and scared the living shit out of me, I didn’t feel that climax like I knew I was supposed to. All I know is that it was there and that it happened.
Another vocal performance I was gladly surprised by was on the album’s opening track, and my absolute favourite song here, ‘Lend Me The Eyes of The Millenia’. The vocals sounded considerably more powerful than I expected from Ihsahn. And I was actually taken aback by how good they sounded too, to the point where I had to check his previous work to make sure that his past vocals were as reedy as I remember them being. (They are). Then, the song ‘One Less Enemy’ later on in the album starts off with Ihsahn’s vocals sounding just as underwhelming and “inhale-y” as ever, and I was profoundly disappointed. Also, a small PSA; don’t sing too much by inhaling, it fucks you up something proper. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t focus so much on vocals for what is predominately a prog-metal record, but this is a very vocal-driven album, so the vocals are going to gather most of my focus. But, there’s always the instrumentals, which range from synthy-progressive sounds to your more typical black metal instrumentation.
Another notable change of style on 'Ámr' is that it's a less prog-influenced than Ihsahn’s previous work, and that gets a solid tick of approval from me. It may not be a popular opinion, especially with the kind of elitism that comes with the “progressive” genre tag, but I prefer that this album’s weirder tracks, such as ‘Lend Me The Eyes of the Millenia’, ‘Wake’, ‘Arcana Imperii’, and ‘In Rites of Passage’, are spread out over the course of the album. Labouring through his previous albums, it became clear to me that Ihsahn became less and less progressive and experimental over the course of his discography. The albums 'The Adversary' and 'AngL' are inarguably weird as fuck, but his sound mellowed out quite a bit over time, culminating in what I would describe as his least-crazy album, 'Eremita'. Which is funny, considering that the cover for that album is a famous photo of Nietzsche at his most Syphilis-induced batshit crazy. For me, a person that doesn’t particularly care for progressive metal, the decision to space out the weirder songs is a welcome improvement upon Ihsahn’s early solo material, where it was all just one arduous slog through a prog-metal landscape. I just wished that the more “normal” songs placed in between their experimental counterparts here were of a stronger quality.
The song ‘Samr’ is basically an alt-metal ballad that doesn’t sound as sad as it thinks it does. Just because the word “emptiness” is belted out like a 17-year-old at a poetry slam doesn’t make it impactful, I'm sorry to say. However, the single guitar lick that's littered throughout the track is good, though, as it provides a small amount of extra weight to a song that I would otherwise forget entirely without it. The song ‘Marble Soul’ attempts to combine both of the album’s main styles, those being alternative rock/metal ballads and progressive extreme metal, but it just comes off as irritating to me personally. I can’t describe the recurring melody without coming off as one of those people who try to find an EDM song on Yahoo Answers, so I won’t, but nevertheless, the melodic motif of the song starts out as curiously odd and by the end of the song, it’s just grating. Along with that, there’s one moment in the song where Ihsahn sings “Like a cleansing fire”, then is immediately backed by vocals singing the same lyric at a higher pitch, and it's genuinely laughable. It kinda sounds like a caricature-esque stereotype of "The Metal guy who plays soft music now"; like what Spinal Tap would sound like if they did a 30-year reunion tour and decided that cock rock just isn’t “in” anymore.
Aside from the general stylistic shifts, I actually don’t think there’s too much else to talk about. There are three songs here that I particularly liked, those being the aforementioned ‘Lend Me The Eyes…’ and ‘Where You Are Lost…’, along with the final track, ‘Wake’. ‘Wake’, by the way, is a surprisingly punchy and climactic way of closing out the album, and it actually combines progressive metal and black metal quite well, instead of just making “black metal but with if also prog” parts or vice versa. Because I’ve fucked up enough meals in my time to know that you have to be patient and take time to properly combine your flavours, and not just rush it out like, say, for instance, for your editor friend that wants you to stop procrastinating and finish writing about that album that you said you’d review. (Sorry Alex).
Overall, I will very hesitantly say that, yes, I did like 'Ámr'. I’m not afraid of saying that I prefer it over Ihsahn’s previous solo material either. But that’s almost entirely due to the direction that I know he’s now going in, rather than any songs that I found overly enjoyable here, to be quite honest.
'Amr' is out May 4th via Spinefarm. Also, I didn't mention that he's from Emperor in this review because we all fucking know that!