NaCl official lyric video: link
I like to give albums a fair listen before reviewing them. Generally, this has been to get a decent idea of how each album will hold my attention not just after three or four plays, but after a dozen or more. What can initially seem exciting can sometimes grow old, fast; and likewise, what can initially sound a bit dull can simply need time to reveal its charms.
I mention this because it’s taken me about a dozen listens to have any real idea of what to make of Das Seelenbrechen (“The Soul Breaking”). Granted, I’m not really much of one for the prog genre, but I’ve been able to listen to Ishahn’s post-Emperor output and enjoy it on the whole, yet this one left me pretty stumped at first. I’d read interviews and press releases talking about large amounts of improvisation during recording, and no one can doubt that Ihsahn has been constantly pushing himself forwards artistically ever since the first Emperor recordings. Yet even by the standards of what I’d come to expect, this album is a huge, huge leap.
The first few tracks are pretty immediate, as far as this kind of thing goes. Opener Hilber is one of the heaviest tracks on the album, featuring some stop-start riffs and tempos topped by searching guitar leads and the occasional synth. The ending is also one of the very few moments on the album that are even vaguely reminiscent of Ihsahn’s black metal past – though granted, it does bring Prometheus to mind, which was pretty challenging as far as black metal goes. Second track Regen begins gently enough, and even when the piano becomes buried beneath crushing guitars, drums, and majestic synths, the song still retains a certain aura of nobility, right up until the end with its grand choir vocals and synth flourishes. Meanwhile, NaCl is as close to a single as this album has, with more stop-start rhythms and some brilliant clean vocals, and some exceptional guitar work as is to be expected. Pulse brings the opening to a close, and is practically a ballad.
From there, though, we’re definitely in to the unknown. This is where the improvisation and pushing of artistic boundaries previously mentioned really rear their heads. Tacit 2 features frantic, devastating drums amongst bursts of guitar, noise, and cryptic shouts, and is more art than song. Tacit follows, being more song-based, but still carries a strong artistic nature, most evident during the second half and in the drumming, which is almost all fills and incredible tom rolls, though the song is at its best when the band lock in to a groove during the mid-section.
Rec and M both carry on the artistic, improvised nature of the album, and are full of subtle moments that build tension, with hints of feedback and noise amongst more traditional instruments. It’s heavily reminiscent of the darker moments of Ulver’s Perdition City at points, both in sound and tone, though this record is much more tense and shadowy, and the guitar solo in M brings Pink Floyd to mind. Penultimate track Sub Alter seems more structured and song-like, though there is still a very artistic feeling to it, especially towards the end as the drums build up and the tension mounts. Finally, See owes as much to noise as it does to any traditionally guitar-based genre, and is a sinister, dramatic closer.
It’s difficult to capture just what makes this album so challenging. I can write about how, especially in the second half, the concept of what constitutes a song – or even, at times, music – is as good as disregarded in the pursuit of art – it’s progressive in the original sense of the word, rather than as in the prog genre. For a guy who could just take the easy route and and cash-in on the legacy of Emperor, it’s admirable that he still has this drive and passion to push boundaries and challenge both himself and listeners. Perhaps that’s why I keep coming back to it even though it’s not something I’d typically be in to, not just for the sake of reviewing it, but for listening to it for its own sake. I’ll find myself with sections of these tracks in my head, and it’s not just the more immediate ones at the start either. It’s a hugely challenging album, perhaps more so than any I’ve heard this year, but if you believe in the idea that music can be both art and enjoyable, then you’ll find plenty to enjoy and appreciate here.
- CD Review: Ihsahn – “Das Seelenbrechen” (burningfist.wordpress.com)
- Diurnal Aural Experience: Ihsahn’s “NaCl” from Das Seelenbrechen (2013) (esotericalembic.wordpress.com)