Written by: GR on 23/01/2010 02:40:14

The name Vegard Sverre Tveitan might not register with most metalheads, but the assumed name of this Norwegian innovator most certainly will. Ihsahn, as Emperor's front-man and creative visionary, is one of the iconic figures from the early 90s black metal scene - despite never burning a church down - thanks mainly to his passion for progression. While the symphonic nature of the albums that made Emperor successful may not sit well with the kvltists, there's no denying the impact they had, as witnessed by the excitement surrounding their reunion a few years back (I saw their performance at Wacken but can't remember much about it, unfortunately). Since the end of Emperor, Ihsahn has been busy with various projects including a planned trilogy of solo records, of which "After" is the final instalment.

I have yet to hear the previous efforts "The Adversary" and "angL" but considering the quality of music I've discovered on "After", that is something I will work on changing. That's right, if you haven't scrolled down to check the grade already, I'm telling you right off the bat - this is a brilliant album. Before I had listened to it at all I read reviews lavishing praise and almost-perfect scores upon it, but I was unsure if I would agree - after all I don't listen to a great deal of prog metal and have no real affinity with any of Ihsahn's previous endeavours. On first listen it seemed the reviewers' fervour might have over-egged it somewhat, the album sounding pretty good and interesting but not the masterpiece it had been claimed to be. We all know, however, that first listens can often mean nothing, especially when dealing with progressive music, and with each extra play "After" revealed itself to be worthy of the critical acclaim pouring in for it.

There's no simple way of summing up the album as a whole, but the broad tag of 'progressive extreme metal' best describes the category "After" would be filed under, for those of you still unsure what might be on offer here. Whereas bands like Opeth and Enslaved base their progressive ideas on a clear anchor (i.e. death and black metal), Ihsahn's metal storm is not so easily pinned-down. His characteristic croak may evoke the Emperor days but much of the heavy guitar work has a technical feel to it, reminding me of something I can't quite put my finger on. In truth, considerations of sub-sub-genres don't really matter when listening to "After", as the quality of song-writing and musicianship is such that anyone with an interest in the less orthodox end of extreme metal should enjoy its 53 minutes.

Ihsahn deploys seamless transitions between harsh metal sections and beautiful, soaring, clean vocal harmonies along with reflective progged-out guitar passages to great effect throughout the album. Each song, while an integral part of the album as a whole and its perfect flow, also feels like a distinct construct. Opener "The Barren Lands" starts of calmly before exploding with guitars that flit between surprisingly catchy jarring prog riffing and sublime melodic runs, with dreamy clean vocals making their first brief appearance. "A Grave Inversed" is like a slap to the face, a fast, furious and almost cacophonous soundtrack to insanity, showing Ihsahn has not lost the aggression of old. The track also introduces an element you might not have been expecting, although much has been made about the inclusion of this decidedly non-metal instrument on the album - saxophone. The sax on "After" is provided by Jorgen Munkeby from Shining, a band I saw support Enslaved a few years ago. It was certainly odd to see a saxophone on stage at a metal gig and you would think it an odd experience to hear one on a metal album too - but it fits so perfectly with the music that it doesn't seem out of place at all. In fact, at first I didn't really notice it; I heard it of course, as it is prominent in the sound mix, but I just automatically accepted its presence without so much as a raised eyebrow. From the manic spasms on "A Grave Inversed" right through to the forlorn solitary playing that ends the album, the use of the instrument in both backing and lead roles is executed so successfully that any notion of it being a gimmick is brushed aside. Ihashn has said he feels the saxophone is a solitary instrument, expressing a 'kind of loneliness' and you can really hear what he means in the brooding, all-consuming atmosphere of "On The Shores", something that would never have been achieved in its absence.

Much could be said about each track as this is definitely an album best appreciated in its entirety, and with a couple of songs clocking in around the ten minute mark, is naturally full of many ideas. The way a song like "Undercurrent" slowly builds elements upon each other, reaching a saxophone crescendo then starting anew, before breaking off to an aggressive metal section and returning again to build further with some of that aggression now woven into the sound, is a joy to listen to. The second half of the album in particular has an expansive feel to it, creating soundscapes that are both beautiful and brutal. Somewhat surprisingly, many of my favourite parts of "After" are the clean vocals choruses, particularly "Frozen Lakes On Mars" and the title track itself, which have been floating around in my head for days. Ihsahn has managed to craft a set of songs that do not sacrifice memorability with their complexity.

I've realised that despite only having this album for a limited amount of time, it's already entered my subconscious - a lot of the time I know what the next part of the song sounds like and am anticipating it, waiting for a sweet mental payoff as my memory of it becomes reality, much like a favourite classic record. Most of the album just works as though it was meant to be, as if the songs somehow already existed in the ether and Ihsahn is simply the vehicle through which they are being channelled. What I'm trying to say, before I get lost in any more abstract nonsense, is that this album is as fine a piece of extreme progressive metal as you could wish to hear. Whatever the future now holds for Ihsahn, he has produced the first truly great album of the new decade and shown once again why his name resonates throughout the metal world. I'd be surprised if "After" isn't sitting high in many end-of-year lists in just under 12 months time, including my own.


Download: A Grave Inversed, Frozen Lakes On Mars, Undercurrent
For the fans of: Emperor/Ihsahn projects, Enslaved, Opeth, saxophone
Listen: Myspace

Release date: 25.01.2010
Candlelight Records

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