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Interviews, THIS IS ARMAGEDDON!

THIS IS ARMAGEDDON!: Norway, Michelangelo, Roland TR-808, PRINCE, EMPEROR, And New Album Ámr - An Exclusive Chat With The Mighty IHSAHN!

Posted by on April 12, 2018 at 12:56 pm

Welcome back to the latest edition of This Is Armageddon! As a semi-regular column, our goal is to bring the very best as it relates to Norway and metal. Apart from classical, True Norwegian Black Metal might be the truest expression of the human psyche: a literal soundtrack to the human problem – ingesting (and then digesting) all the hatred, nihilism, and anti-human behavior of our species.

With a history that spans just over three decades, the glacial caverns of Nordic extremity run deep. In the past, we have brought you exclusives with the likes of Mayhem, Satyricon, and Enslaved. This week, we've plunged the deepest we've ever ventured into the permafrost to chat with the legend of all Nordic legends. The mighty…

At this point, the man needs no introduction. In fact, if his name itself does not immediately conjure images of cold, endless, expanses of snow-capped mountains – surrounded by twisting, vexing fjords, illuminated by the ghostly apparition of the aurora borealis – well, you, my friend, have some research to do. Twenty-seven years of research, to be exact. Better get studying, slacker.

For the rest of us, lesson number seven (when counting only Ihsahn's catalog of solo albums), entitled Ámr, is set to drop on May 4th via long-time label, Candlelight. Translated from Old Norse to mean dark or murky, Ámr sees Ihsahn taking on just that – a slightly darker, murkier tone. The lead-off track alone recalls the ferocity of Emperor's swan-song from seventeen years ago.

This level of extremity – though, not necessarily the type of savagery to get fists flying in the pit – would certainly be fitting for an evening out with Satan himself. The night might start with a sweet-vermouth aperitif, followed by an exquisite meal and fine bottle of wine at a modish-yet-casual establishment. Our evening with the Lord Of Darkness might then be capped with intimate conversation over Evan Williams Single Barrel bourbon, consumed in a dimly lit whiskey bar in Oslo's trendy Aker Brygge neighborhood. The perfect pairing of evil and elegance.

As the above scenario illustrates, there is no doubt that Ihsahn's brand of crepuscular viciousness has reached a classiness that cannot be touched. This was evidenced in his last studio effort, 2016's Arktis, an album that holds fond memories for the man, as he goes on to explain…

Yes, I think that album went over really well. I don't know what this is worth but, as a contrast to Das Seelenbrechen – which was a much harder album for people to get into – it seems that Arktis had a much wider reach. I don't value my albums on sales or reviews in that regard. So, in the end, I have to evaluate by how close I got to the initial goal from where I started. To be honest, that whole experience for me was quite different – working in a traditional rock/pop format – which I have focused on for this new album as well, although in a slightly different context.

More discerning listeners will immediately hear a difference as it relates to the cinematic elements in this newest venture, compared to that of his storied catalog. Àmr, though cinematic in its own right, is lit by both the nightlife of a bustling metropolis, as well as the light of the moon over a lone forest in a desolate Norwegian valley. Its cinematic flare is, at the same time, both urban and pastoral…

I would agree. Too me, Àmr is definitely still cinematic. Creating the scenes – the basic framework before I start writing – all the conceptual ideas I have for lyrics and sound production – on a profound level – is something that interests me greatly in the process of making an album. With this framework as a template, I can immediately tell if ideas fit the main objective or not. If an idea doesn't fit, I may save it for a later time or scrap it altogether. As an example, the opening synth riff of leadoff track "Lend Me The Eyes Of The Millenia" – this became kind of the leading guide for the rest of the album. Of course, this wasn't a concious thing. It wasn't until I played it and listened back for the first time, that I was like 'yes, this is it.' I recognized it immediately from the abstract write-ups that I had.

When we think symphonic-infused black metal, many of us think Dimmu Borgir and COF. This is, of course, forgivable, as they've taken things to the next damn level. That being said, Ihsahn, and his cohorts in Emperor, have the distinction of being the progenitors – the proto-symphonic black metal band, if you will. As Ihsahn explains, the grandness of the symphony is something that he still holds close to heart…

I've always had a tendency to draw from the more romantic side of soundtracks – guys such as John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. That stuff has been a big influence since the early Emperor days. It's that grandness of the orchestra – to embellish and make things sound larger than life. In fact, I have vivid memories from back in those early days, listening to things such as John Carpenter's soundtrack to Halloween – that kind of eerie, analog-synth stuff. It's still cinematic but in a much more intimate way. As the cover art and lyrics of Àmr might suggest, the metaphors and concepts exist within an internal perspective. In contrast to that, Arktis and its metaphors were placed in this kind of open arctic landscape. This time around, it fit together to do more analog synth-like explorations, as the intimacy of this approach just worked. You are very correct in saying Àmr has more of an urban sound to it. I like powerful music, and both orchestral and metal are very powerful, but so too is some of the darker urban music out there, such as can be heard in some Trip Hop and associated sub-genres.

Let's talk 808. For those that love massive sounding, window-shattering sub-frequencies – the likes of which can be found in Hip Hop and other subgenres such as Miami Bass, Acid House, and Detroit Techno – well, Ihsahn has a treat for you. Enter the Roland TR-808. This is the drum machine that revolutionzed urban music and, to some extent, Ihsahn, as he goes on to explain…

Yep. I brought in an 808. Those huge sub-frequencies are powerful but in a totally different way than can be found in metal. I really wanted to explore that type of soundscape. I wanted to have a main focus on analog synth and incorporate that into what comes second nature to me – the screaming vocals and heavy guitars. It was all about just changing the scenario to keep myself excited and challenged. This is why I started doing this in the first place – exploring new sounds in an effort to create some sort of sensation on a very personal level.  I can't really expect people to get excited about music I make if I'm not excited when making it, you know?

Absolutely. Totally understood. We are not in the room with these artists when they are creating the music we love. The end result is what brings fans and musicians together in a very intimate way – be that artist Prince or Ihsahn, or be that a fan of pop music or black metal…

I think everybody who loves music – beyond just liking it as a background thing – can appreciate depth. As an example, Prince can hit one note of a solo on Purple Rain that can make the hairs on your arm stand erect. That note may not be exceptionally difficult to hit – but only Prince can do it in a way that summons magic. There is a dimension of bewitchment that can only be found in music – that certain something that you really can't put your finger on. It's something true and genuine that can't be faked.

Ihsahn speaks the truth. Music is magic. Just as a magician or illusionist is accompanied by a capable and trusted assistant or deceptive contraption for their voodoo, so too does music have an accompaniment. Narrative. From what lyrical well does Ishahn drink? Is he like you and I – inspired by a particularly great book? Maybe a Netflix original? Or, perhaps it's as simple as the mood of the day?

If I'm honest, I'd say all of the above. Recently, I had the privilege of getting to know some Burmian musicians – songwriters, composers, and authors – all of whom express themselves in different ways and different forms of art. No matter the art form, the themes dealt with the same core, existential human dealings. I find myself coming back again and again to the same dilemmas – with the only difference being the landscape of where these metaphors exist and how I reflect on these metaphors. Honestly, each album is just a new attempt at expressing these same sort of abstract feelings. A lot of the subject matter I tackle is really very thankful.

An honest artist will tell you that the canvas is the devourer of the soul… it holds all secrets… love, hate, birth, death, joy, sadness, pain… all of it. No matter the canvas, the soul is laid bare for all to see and hear…

The past couple of albums I have been kind of fascinated with the idea of slowing things down or speeding things up in art. As an example of this, in Àmr I make a reference to marble statues. If we were to take a look behind the curtain of an artist who creates these magnificent marble statues – Michelangelo, as an example – there might be a person in total desperation; someone in an exisential crisis. But, because it is cast into stone, it becomes an immensely beautiful piece of art. These introspective scenarios – all the privileges I've had in spite of not compromising or ever really having a 'Plan B' – were things that I was dealing with when writing Àmr. It was helpful to be able to take these repeating thoughts and rearrange them in a different context.

It would seem allegory is a common theme when it comes to Ihsahn and his catalog of solo material. The man exists in a world where abstract notions are capably translated through his wholly unique musical-language. This is not self-reinvention. Not at all. That would be far too easy. Ihsahn prefers to revel in the power of self-motivation and self-exploration, forever challenging himself and his art…

Juxtapositions are something that fascinate me and are something that I often reflect on. With this in mind, and as the title of the opening track of Àmr suggests ["Lend Me The Eyes Of The Millenia"], I filter current situations and dilemmas through a milennial perspective. Doing so puts things into a completely different light, to say the least. As an example, if you nail someone to a stick and torture them, that is obviously a horrible thing. But, for millions of people, that is one of the most beautiful images that they will ever know. In simpler terms, take an emotional scene in a movie – such as someone crying out. When slowed down, the meaning of that scene is strengthened and heightened ten-fold. Even a big painting from a historical battlefield can be transformed into something beautiful. In reality, that battlefield was ugly – filled with death and desperation.

There is one reason, and one reason only, you are here today reading this column. Norway. Without this magnificently beautiful country, this column would not exist. Without Norway, Ihsahn would not exist. In fact, without Norway as the catalyst, there would be no Emperor. Furthermore, your beloved black metal as you know it today would never have come into existence without Norway.  With this in mind, could Ihsahn's music have been created anywhere but Norway?

No. Absolutely not. Actually, this is something that I reflected on quite a lot with Arktis – an album which had a very obvious Nordic theme. Norway, as a musical nation, is very introverted. Even in popular music. Something you might hear is 'oh, this Norwegian pop album is great – it's almost as good as what they have internationally'. In Sweden, they have this culture for being on par with international acts, with artists such as Max Martin and Roxette. In Norway, we are still kind of the underdog – but only because we don't allow ourselves to be anything more. I'm sure a lot of people believe that Norway is the capital of Sweden. It's a very small, exotic place for most people. When we started Emperor in '91, we had absolutely no commercial ambition. There was none to be had. The end goal was always artistic ambition. There was no chance that we would become rock stars. The most we could hope for was having a record label who could afford us a budget to record in a proper studio and that would allow for us to sell our music to people we knew. That was always the end goal. It was done for those reasons. We didn't go to LA or New York City or to these places that people often think of as the way to 'make it'. We just went headfirst, uncompromisingly, into extreme music. We didn't even try to get liked. Quite the contrary. Luckily for us, it became so aesthetic and so unique that it was actually worth something to others. This is just one aspect of it.

As the man clearly illustrates, Norway is an incredibly crucial component to those musicians who call this vast expanse of beautiful and bountiful land home, and Ihsahn is no exception. But, there is more to the story… 

The second thing – and something I am very grateful for – is the fact that I was born in a country that, for the past seven years running, has been rated as the best country to live in… ever. That alone shows that there is zero risk. In most countries in the world you can't even allow yourself to not have a 'Plan B'. You can't allow yourself to have dreams about becoming a musician. In a country where you can't afford shoes to walk to school, that space in your mind is not open. It just doesn't exist. Coming from Norway, having that kind of culture built in – not that we were ever really aware of it – is definitely something I am incredibly grateful for. This actually struck me recently when Papa from Ghost spoke about the social systems that exist in Scandinavian countries, which allow its citizens to take chances that most of the world do not have. We lived in a world where we could oppose everything else. In other countries, we have had fans who risk going to prison just from wearing an Emperor shirt. In Norway, we could stretch our imaginations as far as possible without risk. The culture itself, the way we were raised, allowed us to do these things. So, yeah, being from Norway is absolutely crucial.

Àmr drops on May 4th via Candlelight Records. Pre-oders are available here.

Photo Credits: Bjørn Tore Moen

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