Finding the appeal of a musical artist is often as simple as following their fan base; who their music speaks to, how they connect with concert-goers, music buyers. For Ihsahn, like most things, it isn't that easy. He'd built a cult following as part of the legendary Emperor, but that wide swath of fans, generally speaking, aren't in the vocal majority of his solo supporters. His post-Emperor output has little resemblance to those early days, where he and Samoth were carving out a place for themselves in the burgeoning black metal scene of the mid-nineties. Some two decades later, he's embraced the sort of freedom and eclectic nature of working inside of your own mind, something evident from the ebb and flow of each album he's released under the Ihsahn banner. While there's no mistaking whose voice it is you're hearing on Angl or Arktis, the similarities between the albums in the catalog are clear, if not shrinking.
That 'wonder what's next' aesthetic is a large part of the anticipation; there are no boundaries, perceived or otherwise. Perhaps more than any modern metal musicians, or at least any that come to mind, Ihsahn has the freedom to experiment in ways others might find too risky. But it's that foresight that brought Shining saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby into the fold for 2010's After, an appearance that changed the shape of the album, and the subsequent ones, for that matter. Munkeby has a place on Arktis, as you'd expect, but in a smaller, more succinct role. His contribution to the 'smooth jazz gone awry' Crooked Red Lines could be called understated, but it resonates. He is as much of a part of the album as ever; his participation is one of few expectations left. That the song is unmistakably beautiful is just the logical result.
It also speaks to a subtle, yet criminally overlooked theme. The album features a smattering of guest appearances, including those by Munkeby, current Shining drummer Tobias Ornes Andersen, Leprous vocalist Einar Solberg, Trivium's Matt Heafy and Norwegian author Hans Herbjornsrud. Their contributions are varying in their prominence, but each artist is allowed to put his stamp on the track on which he appears. Nothing is forced, no one added for the sake of a name attached, for the purpose of a circular sticker slapped on the front of a CD case. Solberg's is, perhaps, the most moving, adding his voice to the alternating light and dark masterpiece Celestial Violence. Having heard it with his stylized croon, it'd be hard to hear it any other way.
Arktis, as with the rest of his previous works, places a great deal of onus on the listener to submit themselves; the first listen is an important experience, the first presentation of ten parts of the same whole. The breadth and scope of the album can't been explored in pre-release singles - Mass Darkness and Celestial Violence would appear, at first glance, to be book-ending tracks, stylistically - there is so much more than a scattered collection of odds and ends could portray. Individual songs are only part of the story. The rest is told in ordering, spacing, and the contrast between. It's what elevates My Heart Is Of The North, jutted up against the pulsing beat of South Winds. It separates the very good from the great, the ability to micromanage the album down to the very tracklisting.
But while the decisions made both in the studio and afterward are important, it is, after all, the music that continually brings us back. In that regard, Ihsahn has once again focused on the abstract, progressing beyond the need for formulaic intro/verse/chorus/verse/bridge structures. Songs like Until I Too Dissolve and Pressure are as organic as they come, though I am loathe to use that word here. Rather than trim the square peg to fit in the round hole, he's widened the hole. It's what allows the former to seamlessly transition between clean and jagged, delicate and heavy handed. Furthermore, it warrants listen after listen, while you try to follow the path of mental gymnastics that brought him from point A to point B, and all stops in between.
If this all sounds a bit much - let's face it, exploration and experimentation aren't always the easiest to digest - fans of earlier albums will still find some of same dense, yet intricate guitar work they know and love. Clean vocals haven't entirely replaced that vocal tone, that abrasive howl that lets you know exactly where you are. It's a common thread tying the album together, like station identification on the radio, a reminder every so often that you haven't wandered too far off course. This is, moreso than ever, an Ihsahn album, through and through.
The enjoyment of Arktis, or any record for that matter, is not an objective endeavor. Subjectivity is king; it's what prevents us from being able to agree on what is good, what is great, and what is, well, not. Not just artist to artist; but also from album to album. You simply can't quantify what it is that makes music speak to you. Embrace change, embrace the evolution of a musician, embrace his ability to color outside the lines, embrace the art and you may find something that you didn't know you needed. And, more importantly, let go of expectations. For those who have followed the man from Emperor until now, and those who have never heard a note or word from Ihsahn, my advice to you is the same: Go read five, ten, a hundred reviews of Arktis. From people you trust, sites you hate (like ours), paid PR shills. When you're done, forget everything you read and go listen to the album for yourself. Arktis is a unique experience, one that is yours and yours alone.