Bringing New Energy Back to the Barren Lands: An Interview With Ihsahn

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By Jonathan Smith

“There’s no sign of life anywhere in the lyrics.”

Such is Ihsahn’s pointed observation with regards to the sublime visions that are invoked by his latest release, After. It’s a return, of sorts, to some of the kinds of abstract and desolate imagery that inspired the musician back in his days as frontman for the Norwegian black metal band Emperor. Far from recycling old material, however, After is the complex result of an artistic journey that has ultimately led back to places that feel uncannily familiar but that are now being revisited from a different, matured perspective. With 2006′s The Adversary, Ihsahn (born Vegard Sverre Tveitan) made a return to the metal genre. He embarked on a solo project that would result in that first album, lead to its more thematically-focused sequel, angL (2008), and then finally bring him to the plateau that he’s now reached. With the release of After in January of 2010, the performer will have completed his first trilogy. As his heaviest and most progressive solo effort yet, the record is much like a cap on his work to date as it acts as the base from which he can work in the future.

Speaking about the development of the musical styles in his solo work, Ihsahn says that the idea of a trilogy was something that was the result of some planning but also of the natural process of writing music. “That was kind of an idea that developed during the making of the first album,” Ihsahn begins, “and that’s why they all start with the letter ‘A’. There are some small things that were part of a ‘grand’ plan, some small bits and pieces tying them together. The development of the sounds and the songs on the albums separately was just part of the natural progression I would say, building on the techniques I had pinned down with the first solo album.”

While the exact themes and sounds of all three of his albums weren’t completely worked out from his post-Emperor position in 2006, Ihsahn does note that the idea of a ‘trilogy’ was certainly something that had occurred to him: “It was an idea that just came to me. It was nice to have a plan in the back of my mind, to make some sort of continuity and still be able to be experimental. It seemed comfortable, in a way, to have a three-album perspective when doing these things.” With that perspective in mind, he says, “It was easy, then, to focus on one step at a time.”

When it came to the actual details of the three albums, however, each record was the result of particular influences and inspirations unique to the creative context surrounding its development. With The Adversary, Ihsahn was interested in making an album that allowed him to explore territories, both those familiar and those less so, in the metal genre that hadn’t been open to him in previous projects. “With the first album I’d wanted to try out a lot of stuff within the metal genre that I’d never had the opportunity to do before. That’s why it’s musically still within the boundaries of metal, but it has everything from early 70s Priest-inspired stuff to more progressive stuff.” When it came to record the second album, the song-writer wanted to build on the experience of the first one. “AngL is kind of a more focused version of the first album, continuing the same type of concepts that I started with The Adversary, particularly lyrically — they’re very direct, confrontational, and harsh.” Both albums made up Ihsahn’s direct musical statement as he returned to metal spaces with his musical teeth bared.

That all said and done, Ihsahn points out that After goes into more sublime territory, moving away from The Adversary‘s and angL‘s more pointed attacks both towards and within contemporary life. “On this last album, I go a bit beyond that both musically and lyrically. The concept for this third album, After, it’s almost post-apocalyptic in a way. Lyrically, I’m back to more abstract landscapes. There’s references to the sea, references to the surface of Mars, just these wide, open, dead landscapes.” With song titles such as “Frozen Lakes on Mars” and “Heaven’s Black Sea,” After invokes scenes of desolation, of sublime spaces of the sorts found in many sorts of extreme metal, particularly black metal.

Given Ihsahn’s past, this isn’t that surprising. Nor is it simply a return to default musical tendencies or easy invocations. Instead, the themes found on After were a conscious artistic choice. As Ihsahn explains, “For me it’s about going beyond or beneath all the more contemporary anger of the previous two albums. I go a bit deeper to the more lasting inspirations that I’ve had during my career. On the last song of this album, ‘On The Shores,’ I tried to allow myself to have similar images in my mind while finishing that track as I did finishing ‘With Strength I Burn’ on the second Emperor album [Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk].” Not limiting himself to more tried-and-true inspirations, Ihsahn also notes that “I’ve also had a lot of images on my laptop, from the steppes of Siberia to images from Mars’ surface, paintings, and other graphical influences.”

Continuing on with the topic of After’s themes in comparison to Ihsahn’s earlier solo efforts, he agrees that the new album is continuous with the others in terms of a literary influence as well, even when that influence is more subtle and abstract in keeping with the musical themes. When asked whether any particular philosophical perspectives served as inspiration, he says “I guess the writings of [Friedrich] Nietzsche in particular. In a way, I’ve found so much inspiration in and connected so well with his ideas and also his way of thinking. I think my favourite Nietzsche work is the [Thus Spoke Zarathustra] book, not just because of the philosophical themes, but also the beauty of the language, the whole kind of religious undertone in this very ungodly philosophy.” With regard to the philosophy making an appearance within After’s more abstract themes and imagery, he notes that “I think that the Nietzsche inspiration is still just as much there, but it’s more abstract in the sense that it’s more underlying in the more beautiful parts of it that are not so aggressive. I know saying it like that sounds very pretentious. It’s just that it’s very hard to explain.”

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What is easier to explain, Ihsahn states, is the story behind After‘s instrumental choices. He’s been asked, for instance, about the fact that he wrote the album for an eight-string guitar. “I’ve been playing the guitar for over twenty years. Playing the six-string guitar in the regular tuning, my fingers will do very common moves, and sometimes I’ve felt I’m repeating myself just watching my fingers move. Writing with an eight-string guitar, you have to play it differently. You can’t do exactly the same thing if you want to utilize the full range of that instrument. You cannot make riffs in the same way you would on a six or even seven-string guitar. You can’t do the same types in low-registers. It makes me skip over the visual part where I analyze my finger movements to see if I’m going in a creative and good direction. Rather, my ears are more focused, listening for the music that happens when I try different combinations. I think that’s representative of how I approached this album in the sense that I probably did much better at listening to what happened along the way. I let the music lead the way in a much bigger extent than before. Especially with the solo albums, I’ve been putting on all hats — recording, producing, mixing all the albums and playing most of the instruments. You get very subjective and probably very technical about stuff.”

That deeply subjective perspective is something that Ihsahn addressed during the making of the new album. A unique aspect of After is not the way its creative development began, Ihsahn explains, but rather the amount of outside input that went into it. “I’ve been growing more confident on my solo efforts during the process of doing these album. It’s easier to let at least a few people have a say on my stuff. My wife Heidi has definitely been almost like a co-producer and an invisible band member.” No stranger to working with his partner in instances ranging from their past musical project Peccatum and his guesting on her project Star of Ash, Ihsahn doesn’t downplay her contribution to his more recent work. Working with others altered, in small but significant ways, the path taken toward After’s creation. “I had much more input from Heidi and I decided I wanted to mix it with [producer] Jens Bogren (Opeth, Amon Amarth) at Fascination Street [Studios]. That in itself took my mind off thinking ahead toward the mixing process while recording it. Less responsibilities. In a way, it’s been easier for me to be more perceptive of the process rather than trying to think about all the technicalities.”

With regards to the writing and recording process, Ihsahn notes that different elements are added at different times. The exact nature of those elements, however, is often worked out during the making of the albums. The amount of clean singing found on After, for instance, was not something that is decided upon prior to the development of the album’s musical direction. “It’s not really a conscious decision to bring in more of this or that. I have a tendency to write all the music first, and build the lyrics and stuff on top of that.” In the case of After specifically, “They’re very music-inspired lyrics. The vocal lines and patterns develop during the writing of the lyrics. The harsh black metal-style vocals are almost as second-nature as playing guitar. I recorded most of the black metal vocals on this album in just one or two takes. But there’s another part of the music where you can’t just have that type of voice — it demands something else. I think that’s how I’ve come into doing that type of clean vocals. With The Adversary, I wanted to try all these different styles. The different styles required, you know, different forms of vocals. In that sense, it’s taking a long time to get to some form of comfort level with my own clean singing voice.” While his music hasn’t been written to match a pre-existing desire to perform clean vocals, Ihsahn does admit that it’s opened up additional sources of confidence. “Even though I’ve done partial clean vocals since the first Emperor album, I never came to the point where I felt I had a natural voice that was mine. I think I’m slowly getting there, approaching some sort of comfort zone with my own clean vocals.”

Adding a new voice to his solo project’s sound, and one that has already been the subject of much discussion, is the inclusion of a saxophone. Despite the incoming acclaim regarding the unusual instrumental choice, Ihsahn clears up any confusion regarding the motives behind the saxophone’s appearance on the new record. “The reason I wanted to do the saxophone was because it was an old idea. I always liked the sound of the saxophone — it’s a very solitary instrument. It’s also in context with having guest soloists on the previous two albums in the form of vocals, Garm from Ulver and Mikael [Åkerfeldt] from Opeth. I wanted to follow that tradition, but in the concept of the album I didn’t want it to be a voice with words. That’s why I dug up the old saxophone idea.” The inclusion of the saxophone contributes to the larger thematic feel of the new album. “I think, or at least I hope, it will add to that more epic, open, solitary feeling of After. With Jurgen Munkeby playing it, I definitely think that worked. There was a risk that the saxophone would just be lying on top, almost like a shock effect. That’s really not what I was going for. I really wanted it to blend in a similar way as the orchestral strings and brass sections from the past.”

Munkeby’s contributions do add some quirks to After that are, in the end, quite noticeable. They add a feeling of spontaneity at points. Indeed, during the recording process, the saxophone added an organic layer into the overall mix that encouraged some shifting of the album’s details. Of the saxophone notes that linger after the rest of the instruments have been silenced, Ihsahn says that “I initially had planned to just have a fade out. But there was no point in that saxophone improvisation that I could cut away. On previous albums, I probably would have been more in control of that, and never even consider ending an album with the repetition of two chords with a saxophone over them for over two minutes. This time, it felt right to do that, and so I did. I think it ends off the album really well, especially since the saxophone melody line is the same in ‘On The Shores’ as the middle song ‘Undercurrent.’ That ties the album together.”

Alongside the clean singing and the addition of a new instrument like the saxophone is the sense that as heavy and hard-hitting as some parts of After are, it’s next to impossible to separate from those parts the more progressive moments and elements. Ihsahn insists that this is not the result of extensive experience with prog music. “A lot of people will ask me what kind of progressive influences I have. It’s kind of embarrassing to say that my prog background is very limited.” He stresses his interest in the more mainstream sources: “I know a lot of the more typical bands, such as Rush and the more recent Dream Theater.” The musician is quick, however, to praise the knowledge of his metal colleagues and friends. “[T]alking to Mikael and Per [Wiberg] from Opeth, they’re like living encyclopedias it seems, at least to me, when it comes to musicians and prog bands. I feel like I’m out of it in that sense.”

For Ihsahn, the exact nature of the included progressive elements becomes clear during the writing process and not necessarily with any grand plan in mind. The song structures, while based in particular approaches, feed off one another as they develop. Ihsahn considers it a result of his experience: “For me, the progressive side is a result of me having done this type of music for so long. Especially because I work in the studio, I guess it gives me that extra space for experimentation that we wouldn’t have time or even consider that much in a typical rehearsal room setting. The progressiveness of it, if you’re referring to it in the sense of the arrangements’ twists and turns and the progression of the beats, is basically just using more traditional classical approaches to developing motives and themes. It’s not really my intention to be overly technical or intricate. That’s just how I tried to make the themes more interesting to listen to. These days I usually just start with one main theme that I consider strong enough, and then I listen for what needs to come next, you know? That’s why after there’s some really hard parts it just feels natural to do a slower part and slower versions of the theme in contrast.” The intricate structures of After may be difficult to immediately get into, but it’s also an album that once you’ve gotten comfortable in the musical space it offers, you might not want to leave it for some time. Ihsahn agrees with that sentiment, noting that “It’s always the albums that demand something of you, at least in my experience, that you appreciate the longest.”

With the release of After, Ihsahn indicates that while people shouldn’t look forward to a massive tour any time in the future, there will be a few opportunities to see him unleash the new material on the stage. “I’m kind of done with the full touring thing,” the singer says, but that doesn’t mean he’ll not be hitting the road at various points. “I’ve been meeting with my live band since this Christmas holidays, and there’s already several European festivals that are booked. I’ll be playing quite a few of the bigger festivals this summer. I got bit of a taste of it when I did a couple of support gigs for Opeth last year.”

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Having completed his first solo trilogy, Ihsahn has some ideas regarding the next projects on which he will focus. It’s largely a matter of context, it seems, and the performer has a few choices before him. “It all depends. I haven’t really gotten to the point where I plan the next album yet.” One immediate focus is he and partner Heidi’s production company Mnemosyne Productions. “[W]e’re really trying to widen our field, as we’ve always been doing, aside from our solo efforts or the things we’ve done together, like Peccatum and other projects. She’s already been doing some music for film, the score for an Irish movie. These days I think that we often would like to look at our production company, and have a go at a wider aspect of music.” Ihsahn notes that having options after having reached this point is potentially freeing creatively due to his latest album’s connections with but also departures from his earlier material: “I like the situation I’m in now with the solo thing. With this last album in the trilogy, it’s kind of a natural development from angL and The Adversary. I think they all kind of tie in together, but After is not the most logical step from the two other albums. It’s so different that it points in another direction and leaves the next one a little open ended. I’m glad this last album indicates that the next one can be really anything. Not that it would be, like, a pure bagpipe album! It’s just a matter of me not feeling tied down by my own stuff. It makes the thought of me making a fourth album more exciting for me too.”

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Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.