The first six of Ihsahn’s solo albums chart one of the most fascinating and subtle artistic evolutions in all of metal. While The Adversary, his first, could pass for a vaguely eccentric offering from Emperor (the band that put Ihsahn on the musical map), each subsequent album demonstrated an adventurousness that pushed, slowly but inexorably, into new musical territories that had absolutely no right working as well as they did. Yet, with the arguable exception of Das Seelenbrechen (an album whose most dramatic distinctions are more structural than stylistic), there have been no quantum leaps in the catalogue that mark a clear phase break – nothing on the order of Opeth abandoning unclean vocals after Watershed, for instance. What we have instead is an uncommonly smooth arc following an already-accomplished musician as he refines and sharpens his voice, a journey which culminates in one of the masterpieces of the ‘10s, 2016’s Arktis.
And if it’s ok with you, I’d really love to just talk about how brilliant Arktis is and call it a day. What an album, huh? Remember “Disassembled”? Boy, that song rips. “My Heart Is Of The North”? Incredible. Let’s keep this going, shall we? Because if we can just keep talking about Arktis, then we’ll all be spared the unfortunate bit of business that is its follow-up, Ámr. Ámr (which I have to assume translates roughly to ‘approaching deadline’) is, I’m sorry to say, very much a quantum leap in the catalogue, and that leap is backwards. Make no mistake, there are some sounds on Ámr that are new to Ihsahn’s discography. Ominously buzzing synths (“Lend Me The Eyes Of Millenia”, which sounds like the music you’d hear while on hold with Hot Topic customer service), a far more tender touch on some of the clean vocals (“Marble Soul”), me sighing heavily (“Where You Are Lost And I Belong”). But the actual songwriting is the boxy, by-the-numbers blastbeat inanity of the sort Ihsahn hasn’t stooped to since The Adversary and angL. I don’t often revisit those albums, but at least they had some quality tunes sprinkled throughout. Here, even the songs that aim for some kind of memorable groove or rhythm, like “In Rites Of Passage”, don’t have much to offer beyond a solid riff or two. Maybe this stuff would have passed muster ten years ago, but the intervening decade-or-so has seen Ihsahn raising his own bar to astronomical heights, and schoolmarmish though it may sound, something like Ámr just isn’t acceptable anymore.
One point of continuity with the rest of Ihsahn’s discography is the continued counterclockwise twisting of the gain knob. This tightening and cleaning up of guitar tone has been a small trend in metal over the past several years, and as with most trends, the line between following it intentionally and being reflexively swept up into it is a fine one. A few acts have unfortunately taken to the latter course enthusiastically enough to completely neuter their tone. Post-Dethalbum III Brendon Small had always been the posterboy of this to me, but Ámr offers Ihsahn as a worthy challenger for the title. And it’s not just the guitars that sound weak; the whole album has been saddled with a truly perplexing mix, one that lacks any sense of punch or power. Tobias Ørnes Andersen’s playing is tight, for example, but it sounds as though he’s hammering away at one of those electronic bedroom drumkits with the volume turned halfway down. The moments that should get the blood pumping feel downright polite. Gone is the fury of “A Grave Inversed”, or the groove of “Frail”. Even if the intent was for the album to feel softer than his previous efforts, the songwriting fails the production as dramatically as the inverse. As a result, there are exactly zero exciting, engaging or otherwise memorable moments on Ámr, aside from the end of “Wake”, because then the album is over and you can listen to something else.
It doesn’t feel good to roast a new Ihsahn album. I wish I could be gushing about a worthy successor to Arktis – or at least something worthy of being a successor, even if it failed to scale the impossibly high bar set by its predecessor. Instead we have Ámr, which sees that high bar and responds by digging a bar-shaped hole. The most generous thing I can say is that maybe Ámr isn’t a bad album. If it had come earlier in Ihsahn’s career, or had been released by an unknown act, I’d probably have been content to turn it off and not give it a second thought. But such is the curse of excellence – Ihsahn is past the point of being able to turn in such shoddy work without a great raising of the eyebrows. Coming from someone as accomplished as he is, Ámr’s relentless mediocrity is transmogrified, hey preto, into badness. And thus, it is the obligation of a fan to roast, so that we, and Ihsahn, might be spared a repeat performance.
The cover of Ámr is a big comfy throne, and what a tremendously apt self-dunk that is! This is an album best listened to not on your feet, but slouched in a chair, staring straight ahead, periodically closing your eyes and shaking your head. And if your eyes should remain closed, and you should drift off to sleep, fear not: Ámr has prepared for this. As mentioned, the last song is called “Wake”. To read this as a coded recognition of Ámr’s soporific qualities is my best and last attempt to wring something of value from this album. At a certain point, though, it’s not worth the effort.
Notable Tracks: “Heavens Black Sea” off After; “Departure” off Eremita; “NaCl” off Das Seelenbrechen
FFO: Waiting in lines, dairy-free cheeses, caffeine withdrawal