Sound — 9
"Arktis." is album number six for long-running musical auteur Ihsahn, one that sidesteps the experimental direction of 2013's "Das Seelenbrechen" and evolves the path laid out by 2012's "Eremita." While "Das Seelen..." was a vast departure from the unique brand of progressive metal that Ihsahn had previously been travelling, "Arktis." is not so much a return to form (for he never really needed one) as it is a rightful continuation.
Beginning with the no nonsense brashness of intro "Disassembled," the hybrid of groovy riffs, subtle keyboard layers and discordant arpeggios already makes us feel right at home. Moving from mood to mood is one of Ihsahn's specialities and this track is already notable for its amazingly well constructed melodic sections, very reminiscent of the jazz-harmony-infused arrangements of Japanese orchestral composers. And also, a very thankful return for one Einar Solberg of Leprous, who's light tenor drifts over these sections like a calming ointment.
This intro almost feels misleading as the next immediate track could be even more of a dramatic opener. Starting with "Frozen Lakes on Mars"-esque guitar leads, the familiar "doongs" of Ihsahn's 8-string guitar build a constant, inescapable momentum that leads to almost-power metal levels of high quality cheese (in a good way). An absolute romp from start to finish, "Mass Darkness" is easily one of the stronger songs on this album.
That's not to say it's all metal all the time. "My Heart Is of the North" feels like this really personal Steven Wilson/Ihsahn hybrid with its detailed drum grooves, bluesy Rhodes interplay and magnificent chord choices. "Until I Too Dissolve" is a bit of unique piece for Ihsahn as it's got this incredibly catchy '80s glam inspired setting hybridized with the beautiful dynamics of the likes of "NaCl." "Frail" is perhaps the oddest track that Ihsahn's put forth in a while, having a strange relationship with chromatic piano lines and swaps to neo-classical moments. The riffs are also surprisingly technical which is something that's been threatening to happen with Ihsahn's music for a while. "Crooked Red Line" features another long time collaborator, none other than saxophonist Jorgen Munkeby of Shining. This track in particular is one of the more jarringly gorgeous examples of Ihsahn's "ballad"-style songs.
Now overall, the premise so far hasn't sounded as amazing as what's written here but what makes this album so much more refreshing than it should've been is the song-writing maturity of Ihsahn himself. Make no mistake, he's been putting forward great melodic and harmonic ideas since "The Adversary" but this album is certainly the most mature and complex in both of those fields. This is highlighted by an even bigger focus on gentle electronic pads in the production, which still remains stellar by the way.
Perhaps there's some more apparent "trademarks" present on "Arktis.," especially when it comes to drum/guitar grooves in songs like "South Winds" and the aforementioned "Mass Darkness." Indeed, if anything it makes Ihsahn's solo career feel infinitely more cemented away from his Emperor days. For what it's worth, it's much better that this has happened for this sound and direction is an entirely unique one within progressive metal.
Lyrics — 8
Having been noted for his very distinct vocal style, Ihsahn is no stranger to album performance. Bringing his A-game is just mandatory at this point and he gives us nothing less. As well as contributing his mid-high harsh vox to proceedings, his skillful way with (and often underutilised) clean vocals is brought to one the highest points in been for several albums on "Arktis."
One of the recognisable traits of Ihsahn's solo work is his penchant for rich and complex vocal layers, often adhering to uncommon intervals and harmonic patterns that really make the songs feel special and you'll be glad to know, that they're everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. It'd be very hard to not be moved by them.
As mentioned, Einar Solberg also lends his talents to the vocal section of "Arktis." Although his and Ihsahn's performances rarely cross over, his contribution is always on a much softer and touching level due to his range. Highlights include "Disassembled" and beautifully climactic "Celestial Violence."
Lyrically, Ihsahn's focus shifted from Emperor's apocalyptic and darker themes to a much more philosophical and personalised direction. With such songs like "Introspection" and "Recollection" from "Eremita," similar themes are explored on "Arktis." but blended with some of the "former darkness" of Emperor. Even the album theme itself ("Arktis." implying cold wastelands) lends all manner of lyrical tools and interesting scenarios at his disposal.
An example from "Mass Darkness":
"Give in to the hunger,
Give in to the solitude,
Give in to the rapture of life,
Give in to the darkness,
Overall Impression — 9
After "Das Seelens..." experimental twist, it's great to hear an album that both incorporates some of those elements and builds convincingly upon the more established sound of "Eremita." And it doesn't even go overboard in that department either, but rather incorporates a melodic and harmonic exploration that hasn't been felt to this level in Ihsahn's music. Truly a great album of 2016.
Songs to look out for: All of them if possible, although "Pressure" is perhaps the weakest track.