I Am the Black Auteurs
Auteur theory is usually brought up in regards to film, but it is eminently applicable to music as well. We need not concern ourselves today with the most prominent examples (Mozart, Miles Davis, Prince – RIP all), as their mastery of the “microphone-pen” is self-evident. Instead, we will turn our lens to more obscure realms, as is necessary in near every examination of heavy metal. Today our focus falls on Ihsahn, shadowy maestro, former frontman of Emperor, and musical auteur extraordinaire.
The subgenre of black metal is especially ripe for auteurism. It is not unusual for artists in the genre to lock themselves in a room, record all of the instruments and vocals themselves, and emerge, pale, grim and proud, bearing new dark prophecies in the form of song. Ihsahn however, did not begin as a solitary artist. Emperor were a band, and a prominent, visible one, with individually skilled and well-known (sometimes infamous) members, each a creative, skilled musician in their own right. By the end of Emperor’s run however, Ihsahn had found and asserted his solo voice; well-documented is the fact that he wrote the whole damn Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire and Demise album himself, and that he performed damn near everything but the drums as well.
Emperor parted, and a string of solo Ihsahn albums followed, the latest being 2016’s Arktis. Given the title, cover art, and strangeness of previous effort Das Seelenbrechen, one would be justified in expecting a desolate and ambient work, perhaps in the vein of Thomas Köner. This is not the case; Arktis is actually a deliberate swerve back toward accessibility, featuring structured songwriting and distinctive hooks.
Ihsahn fans well know that the Ihsahn sound is the absence of one well-defined sound. After all these years, the man is still exploring, wandering the aural wilderness for the perfect collision of melodious vocals, time signature trickery, retro-styled synthesizers, chunky guitar, saxophone, syncopation, and black metal traditionalism. We should all be so bold.
“Disassembled” drops the listener into the center of some sort of supernatural assassination plot, with urgent, palm-muted sections giving way not to metal violence, but mellifluous vocal passages led by guest vocalist Einar Solberg. “My Heart is of the North” hits like Red-era King Crimson, angling its way past an organ-gilded introduction to a verse composed of rather blissful chug-chug-BWAAAAHH – with the BWAAAAHHs being exquisitely chosen guitar chords. The song is tuneful, progressive, unique, and heavy. “South Winds” meanwhile, is driven by a strange synth line and sinister whispers, and later sandwiches a djent-y baritone stomp between syrupy outbursts of clean singing. “Until I Too Dissolve” has an Eddie Van Halen-esque intro riff, and meanders through nostalgic arenas of hair and glam until its conclusion.
This exploratory approach wards off boredom and sameness, and offers a number of very enjoyable, very unusual songs. However, it would be hard to find the listener who genuinely and honestly likes everything here – the breadth is just too wide, the approaches too eclectic. Some of the genre experiments are stronger and more assured than others. However, the earnest approach Ihsahn has taken here is a winsome one, many a fan will overlook an awkward moment or two in order to embrace the totality of his vision.
“Crooked Red Line” may just contain the album’s emotional center. The lyrics are arctic, but the feeling is all neon, glass, and damp pavement. As in a dream, we are pulled in the wake of that pied piper Jørgen Munkeby, his butter-smooth saxophone cutting a path through the same Perdition City that swallowed the hearts of seekers like Lantlôs and Blutmond. Sultriness gives way to screaming desolation then back again, fading out and away like a thing imagined and barely grasped. The song segues into “Celestial Violence,” which uses a soft-loud structure to rave things up for Arktis’ conclusion, but loses the thread somewhat, coming off pat in comparison to the subtle dynamism achieved elsewhere on the album.
Each Ihsahn album is a celebration of the auteur. With every effort, the man takes on the responsibility of creating a piece of art that will be completed, released, consumed and discussed. He takes on the responsibility of pleasing his fans and keeping them entertained – and of keeping himself pleased and entertained. He must take pains not to trap himself in one of any number of stylistic boxes, or default to Emperor nostalgia, or slip into compositional cruise control. These constraints and hazards seem daunting, and the efforts to overcome them herculean. But with Arktis and each album before, Ihsahn has delivered. The man spoke the following words about one of his contemporaries in an interview, revealing in the process a great deal about the force that drives him, and the strength with which he burns:
“In spite of our contrasting personalities and our musical expressions being very different, I can relate to and understand the way he works. I think it’s because we share the same level of passion to create music, regardless of where it takes us. He also has his own studio where he does whatever it takes. If he has to bring in musicians or do it all himself…it doesn’t matter. Like myself, his key focus is getting the music done. I admire his very honest expression through his music…he has no problem daring to be who he really is, and I truly respect that.”