Review Summary: A wonderful sophomore effort from the black metal genius. Experience a hugely innovative and experimental sound pulled off with great aplomb and skill.
Ihsahn is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. In terms of black metal, not many people can say that he hasn't had a profound impact on the scene - Emperor are regarded as one of the greatest black metal bands ever to exist, and rightfully so. Their mix of fast, unrelenting black metal with symphonic elements was largely due to Ihsahn's presence within the band, as he provided us with a three facet attack of guitar, vocals and keyboards. His debut as a solo act was also an impressive feat, proving to many that he could amalgamate a wide array of musical genres and pull it off. This, his sophomore effort, appears much more focused, yet again proving that Ihsahn is as relevant as ever in the extreme metal scene.
Opener Misanthrope wastes no time in showing the listener just what he is capable of doing. Carefully constructed black metal guitar riffs, strong keyboard presence and a solid rhythm section to boot, this is a straight up black metal song unafraid to tear your soul from within and completely eviscerate it. His vocal work is very distinctive - he is nowhere near as raspy as he was when in Emperor, yet it is still a harsh tone, suited perfectly to the music. But what makes Ihsahn such an interesting act is the way he mixes things up, particularly musically. Scarab is driven by an excellent guitar riff and features a beautiful interlude with Ihsahn performing some great clean vocals. It is clear that over time Ihsahn has perfected the art of combining genres to provide something that isn't just fresh and interesting but a joy to listen to as well.
There is also a guest appearance from none other than Mikael Akerfeldt on the song Uphealer. This is one of the slower, more somber pieces from the album but it is nonetheless a solid song. Ihsahn's guitar work screams epic - he seems to have a knack for creating memorable sections rather than all out, technically astounding riffs. The verses of Uphealer are a perfect example of the more avant-garde side of the Ihsahn's sound. When the heavier setions come in, the drums pick up the pace, providing some interesting fills but never going overboard. One thing to note about this album is that you can tell everything has been put together in a very meticulous way. Every note, every rest and every vocal line - nothing sounds out of place but at the same time you can't help but feel that perhaps things could've been a little more intricate here or perhaps a little more epic there. Regardless, the flow of the songs is marvelous and the sheer songwriting ability of Ihsahn is notable.
Malediction is certainly an album highlight for me. After a strange but nevertheless impressive drum fill, you're thrust into the deep end of black metal insanity, with Ihsahn's vocals piercing your ears over the top of some catchy guitar and keyboard work. The drums do well here, driving the song along rather than simply blasting away throughout the whole length of it. The guitar solos are short but well constructed, serving their purpose well. The transitions between each part of the song are wonderfully executed too - there is some great guitar work on show throughout the whole album, somewhat technical but always tasteful. The vocal performance on Alchemist is an interesting one, with Ihsahn switching from a doomy, foreboding clean style into his harsh, throaty rasp effortlessly over the top of those catchy guitar riffs and keyboard sections. Another guitar solo, not mind bendingly technical or anything OTT yet it is masterfully put together and suits the song perfectly. The vocals at the end are a little weird; very avant garde sounding. But that is the beauty of this album - the various genre shifts, the overall bizarre presentation of it all. It gives it a certain character that can be appreciated by more than just the average extreme metal fan.
The final third of the album follows suit with the rest of what is featured on here. Ihsahn delivers in every respect; his vocal performances suit the music perfectly and the musical ability of the man must be appreciated. Elevator features another brilliant clean interlude, almost reminiscent of something Opeth would produce. However, it sounds totally unique, and his choice of guitar chords/arepggios is very abstract. The keyboards sound brilliant and aren't used in the conventional way that a black metal band would use them (for atmosphere more than anything). Threnody reminds me a lot of Opeth; an introduction featuring minor acoustic guitar with Ihsahn's hypnotic clean vocals over the top. You barely notice that the drums have come in before the song begins to hit epic status. Its very uplifting in places, particularly the crescendos. The guitar solo in particular is relatively bluesy. When the distortion kicks in and the drum fills begin to flow, the song really does grab you by the throat. The guitar riffs alternate between chugging rhythm, angular riffing and simplistic yet memorable lead work. When put into one, everything sounds very interesting. Its a definite departure away from typical black metal, even if it retains some elements of the genre in some respects. This, in my opinion, could be described as extreme progressive metal. Almost in the same vein as Opeth, but rather than focusing on death metal, black metal is the foremost genre where the core of the sound is based.
The album closer of Monolith is an epic mix of black metal and prog. After a clean guitar introduction, a drum roll sends you back to the sound displayed on the album's opening track. The guitar riffs intertwine quite a range of genres, with a middle section that boasts so many different movements musically. Ihsahn really does show just how innovative a musician (in particular on guitar) he is with a huge range of ideas that bounce left, right and centre yet somehow form a coherent listening experience. After all you've heard, you want to listen again because you know you've missed something. This album is complex - its intuitive, very progressive and a little weird at times but you can't help but love it because the little frontman of Emperor made it. Black metal purists are unlikely to dig the mesh of sounds Ihsahn demonstrates on AngL but those with a penchant for progressive/avant-garde music will probably praise this highly.