Arktis is the latest installment of the varied and colorful journey Ihsahn has been on since his days heading the legendary Emperor. This journey has seen the multi-talented Norwegian through the “Emancipation” of Angl and “The Barren Lands” of After into steadily more experimental territory. With each passing release, Ihsahn seems to add more colors and styles into the mix he concocted at the dawn of his solo career (or with Prometheus, depending on your point of view).
While this dare-to-experiment attitude is laudable from an artistic perspective, this doesn’t axiomatically turn out enduring music. When at his best, Ihsahn communicates with different musical worlds while still remaining within metal’s orbit. It’s when he reverses this framework that things get a little jarring. In plain English, he’s at his best when he plays to his strengths. There’s nothing wrong with “trying different things,” but we shouldn’t pretend that this effort always delivers just because Ihsahn is a legend.
With that said, Arktis is a very good album, albeit a flawed and uneven one in some areas.
Upon hitting play on the opener, “Disassembled,” the guitar tone and style immediately bring to mind Ghost Reveries-era Opeth. If you think that sounds strange, listen to “Disassembled” and “My Heart is Of the North,” and then put on Opeth’s “Baying of the Hounds” you’ll see what I mean. Not that this is a bad thing; after all, Mikael did contribute vocals to “Unhealer” back in 2008. But it’s not just a matter of sound and production. Much of the album creates a mood not unlike Mastodon and later Between the Buried and Me (think the switching from style to style). Though this opener is memorable enough, the chorus seems a bit too sudden and out of place, as if a transitional part was planned but eventually scrapped.
There are a few clear standouts on Arktis, the exhilarating “Mass Darkness” possibly being my personal favorite. Featuring Trivium’s Matt Heafy, whom I presume contributed both vocals and that sweet guitar solo, the song plays to all of Ihsahn’s strengths while still broadening his sound. Similarly, “In the Vaults” and “Pressure” can easily stand with the best of the man’s solo material. Songs like these accomplish what Ihsahn’s always been a master of: blending chaos and aggression with serene and mysterious moods without the listener even noticing the shift (“With Strength I Burn” anyone?). One curious, yet fun addition is the 1980’s-esque “Until I Too Dissolve.” This is a great example of Ihsahn broadening his signature style, harsh mid-range vocals and all, to new territory while still being recognizable. The arena-sized Van Halen/Scorpions-style chug and soaring verses make up an irresistible slice of hard rock.
Of the blemishes, most of them reside on the second half. The synth line on “Frail” is…well, kind of annoying and was the first moment where I wanted to hit “skip.” “Crooked Red Line” has a saxophone. Again, throwing some curveballs at the listener is cool now and then. But it seemed too much a diversion in mood and style to use the instrument here. Earlier on in track four, “South Winds” attempts a critique of organized religion but comes off as a bit superficial. While I certainly agree with much of what Ihsahn says in the lyrics, he could have found a more compelling and less matter-of-fact way of making his point. Is shame always bad? Isn’t it necessary in some cases? And as with “Frail,” the synth lines are more grating than entertaining.
There’s much on this album worth listening and re-listening to, and it’s those moments that elevate the rest of the material. While not every song is essential, many others still have the power to captivate in the way only Ihsahn knows how.
Favorite songs: “Mass Darkness,” “In the Vaults,” “Pressure,” and “Until I Too Dissolve”