Former Emperor frontman Ihsahn was never afraid of taking musical risks.
At a time when the early Norwegian black metal movement was still lo-fi and jagged-edged, Ihsahn led Emperor into a fuller sound, paring classical arrangements, strings and – occasionally – clean vocals with the band’s blistering black metal. The music was both genre defining and genre defying and the albums “In The Nightside Eclipse” and “Anthems the to Welkin at Dusk” are still considered black metal classics.
However, all things end and Emperor is no more. But Ihsahn has continued to push his creative boundaries through the Peccatum project and through his solo albums. Ihsahn’s most recent album, “After,” is a progressive giant that blends elements with black metal with hints of classic rock and the chaos of free jazz.
It’s challenging music – and while “After” may turn off black metal purists, Ihsahn is unapologetic about wanting to reach beyond the confines of the genre he helped found.
“While of course I appreciate that people are interested in and like my music, I don’t consider that when making albums,” Ihsahn said during a recent phone interview to promote “After.” “Metal in general was never about that. We’re still in a genre where a majority of the fans want to have the album artwork. It’s album music, not single music.
“I don’t think I would honor that very well if I tried to please the audience,” Ihsahn said. “The only way I can honor that is to make the best music I can.”
Ihsahn co-founded Emperor in the early 1990s and the band had a contract with Candlelight Records by the time Ihsahn was 16. “In The Nightside Eclipse” and “Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk” were epics that showed the how free from musical convention black metal could be.
Today, Ihsahn finds it ironic that many black metal bands limit themselves to a painfully strict black metal formula.
“If you listen to (early) Emperor or Darkthrone or Mayhem, they don’t sound the same. There is very clear individuality between the bands. But when (the scene became) big enough, there were copies of copies of copies.
“For me, it’s almost a paradox,” Ihsahn said. “It seems there’s a lot of rules of what black metal can or can’t be. But, to me, even the term ‘black metal’ means not giving a sh*t … it’s the individual against the mainstream. At the moment you even consider having rules … at that moment, it’s not black metal.”
“After” is not confined by musical rules. Ihsahn does reference black metal – particularly on the bruising “A Grave Inversed.” But Ihshan pulls also from prog rock, folk and free jazz. As part of the process, Ihsahn collaborated with Jørgen Munkeby, saxophonist with the Norwegian avant garde jazz ensemble Shining, to solo on “Grave” and provide melodies for several of the tracks.
“I always find it hard to (determine) what musical influences I had for certain albums and projects,” he said. The songs on “After” are “a mix of everything I’ve heard in my years,” he said. Much of the inspiration was not musical.
“My main (inspiration) for this album has been visuals and pictures I’ve had on my lap top,” he said.
“After” is Ihsahn’s third solo album, following 2006’s “The Adversary” and “AngL” in 2008. Considering the aggression of the previous two albums, “After” might be unexpected, Ihsahn said.
“Something people probably grab onto in the album is the sax,” Ihsahn said. “… It was a bit risky. I really liked the sound of the sax but I had no real reference in recording the sound of the sax.”
The first introduction of the saxophone on “A Grave Inversed” might be startling for some, Ihsahn said. “On the initial listen for people, there might be some shock effect, especially because it’s included on the most brutal song on the album,” he said.
Ihsahn said he did not worry the saxophone would seem out of place in the songs. “I kind of guessed it would fit quite smoothly. I was never my intent to use it for shock effect. I’ve used synth strings before … and I wanted to blend it that way.”
“… When starting the process of making the three solo albums, with the first I had a go at genres I hadn’t experienced before,” he said. “For the second album, I tried to focus in on what became my solo style. With this album, I’ve become more comfortable with my solo effort.
“Where “AngL” and “The Adversary” were full of conflict, (“After”) is more about the inspirations that lie underneath,” Ihsahn said. “They’re harder to pinpoint, but they’re always there … If I did the third album the same as “The Adversary” and “AngL,” I’d feel I’d paint the project into a corner.”
In creating his solo style, Ihsahn said he had to reconcile with his past with Emperor, he said.
“I will always kind of live in the shadow of my own creation,” Ihshan said. “Emperor lives a life of its own now, but I don’t really care. I didn’t try to escape my past with Emperor … Those parts of me (that did) the Emperor albums are part of me today.”
While the style Ihsahn created for Emperor will always be a part of his music, Ihsahn said he does not simply want to copy the work of the past.
“There are so many people who wish for that,” Ihsahn said of fans who want Emperor to reunite for a new album. “But would they really want one? Would they want an album that would make us a lot of money (by copying previous Emperor albums)? … If we did that, it would be turning everything I did in the past into a lie.”
For now, Ihsahn is preparing for live shows and festivals in Europe. A U.S. tour is not forthcoming, considering the difficulties to getting visas to the United States, he said.
While Ihsahn is anxious to begin work on new material, he said he does not know what musical direction he will take next.
“I don’t know what the fourth album will be,” he said. “… If anything, I’m as black metal as I ever was, because I (keep) doing whatever the hell I want.”