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“‘Amr”, or, Ihsahn as Progressive Metal’s Guiding Light


It’s safe to say, seven albums in, that Ihsahn’s solo material has a certain aesthetic to it. While he may still call his music black metal (and perhaps from a spiritual perspective, this is not untrue), he’s gradually ceded ground to prog over the years to the point that, now, it makes little sense to call his music anything but. ‘Amr is no different in this regard; likewise, it’s just as likely to leave unsatisfied those who read the write-ups and press releases touting more black metal elements, or those who just can’t accept that Emperor, as a recording entity, has been gone for some while now.

If we’re honest though, the most vocal Emperor fans haven’t really loved anything from the band since Anthems to the Welkins at Dusk, an album in which Ihsahn’s progressive desire was already amply present. His solo material, from The Adversary up to ‘Amr, has been a steady progression; ‘Amr features eight-string guitars that were a focus of After and Eremita, the abstract texturalism of Das Seelenbrechen, and the song-oriented approach of Arktis., all wrapped up in the light frosting of The Adversary and angL. This is to say: if you were a fan before this record, you will enjoy it, and if you haven’t liked anything he’s put out as a solo artist, this won’t be the one to change your mind.

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‘Amr confirms the progressive nature of Arktis. was not a fluke. Somewhere after the hard reset of Das Seelenbrechen, figures like Ihsahn and fellow black metal icon Abbath alike both rediscovered their love of bands like Kiss, AC/DC, Van Halen, Iron Maiden, and early Judas Priest, the fundamentals of heavy metal which go overlooked sometimes in favor of hipper (but no less “correct”) answers like Black Sabbath or Hellhammer. Ihsahn doesn’t capitulate to full retro-isms, but rather is less averse than ever to melody, ever more sure of his strikingly beautiful and strong clean singing, and far more willing to trust a simplified arrangement with clear and distinct sections. He is progressive these days, largely in breadth of ideas, allowing himself to span from blast beats and shrieks on album opener “Lend Me the Eyes of the Millennia” to the tense and beautiful synth-driven “Twin Black Angels” which finds itself climb into a chorus that seems like a cross between Depeche Mode and one of the more yearning Disney ballads.

It’s both surreal and surprising how Ihsahn, an undeniable figure who helped spearhead the second wave of black metal in Norway alongside other iconic groups like Darkthrone, Enslaved, Ulver, and Mayhem, has become such a rising star and major figure in the world of modern progressive metal. The heavyweights which once dominated the field like Queensryche and Fates Warning, while course-corrected now, have certainly lost momentum; Dream Theater, the mightiest prog metal stalwarts, haven’t released a good record since 2012. Current rising stars like Leprous, TesseracT, and The Contortionist are putting out fine records but haven’t yet risen to the same level of notability as those mentioned before. This leaves space for a figure like Ihsahn, whose solo work abandoned the shores of black metal for the world of progressive metal immediately, picking up precisely where the nascent prog of Prometheus – The Discipline of Fire and Demise left off. Ihsahn may not shred like Petrucci, but he delivers a similar keen ear for melody and willingness to give his guitar a human voice in one moment and then a metonymically perfect melodic riff the next, a heavy eight-string chug brushing up against evocative wide clean chords. It isn’t shocking how black metal purists have been turned off by his solo output, and, while tracks like album closer “Wake” may spark their interest temporarily, this is ultimately not a record for them, at least not sonically.

It may be uncomfortable to some, but Ihsahn is a progressive metal artist now, and has been since long before his solo career. ‘Amr seeks not to break that tradition but to add to it, compiling ideas, making slight adjustments (more synths this time around, a doubling-down on the controversially traditional sonic palette of Arktis.). It is a modern pop metal record made by someone who has an inarguable knowledge of what constitutes the spiritual essence and aim of black metal, but with a broader sonic eye. It sits among fellow progressive and pop travellers of the second wave like Ulver, Enslaved, and Attila Csihar’s extracurriculars, all of whom are quite vocal about creating music of the same spirit as their early career if not necessarily the same sonic palette or genre form.

Like their phenomenal flowering into music that exceeds and moves beyond straight black metal, Ihsahn and ‘Amrhave an eye forward and not backward, and in that, they succeed. After all: what does Ihsahn need to prove with more black metal? The man who wrote and recorded In the Nightside Eclipse and Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk? And what use is black metal if it isn’t of the spirit? Why are we here if not for the full and unbidden revelations of the inner self? What use is the spiritual motive of black metal in specific and heavy metal in general if not for this?

— Langdon Hickman

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