This review is a hard one to write. Why? Because this album is hard to describe, and yet it is an incredible piece of work. Not only does Ihsahn expertly blend orchestral sounds to metal riffing, but he also makes sure that both aspects of his sound are at an extremely high level. There is almost nothing to critique here. The sound of the album is clear and punchy, but not sterile or lacking in dynamics. The musicianship, much of which is contributed by Ihsahn himself, is exceptional. The vocals are delivered remarkably well—both the harsh and the clean styles. But the real highlight of this album is the songwriting. It is dynamic, compelling, and powerful. Any fan of extreme metal of any genre needs to make Ihsahn a priority listen.
Ihsahn needs no introduction to black metal fans. After a legendary stint in Emperor, he carved out an acclaimed solo career. I am not entirely sure where Ihsahn lands ideologically these days, so the listener might want to keep that in mind depending on their personal convictions. But we are here to review the music and there is a lot to say about this masterpiece of an album.
The intro is called “Cervus Venator,” and it is simply epic. The track sounds somewhat like a movie score—something Ihsahn suggests is an influence on his composing—and it gets the listener pumped for the rest of the album.
“The Promethean Spark” comes in next, giving us dissonant chording that is quite compelling, as well as excellent bass work. The use of orchestral elements works very well. The melodic vocals are killer and the harsh vocals are also very well done. The song, as much of the album, is unique, but memorable. There is an orchestral section that fits wonderfully. This song hooks you for the rest of the album.
I love the blend of orchestra and riffing in the opening of “Pilgrimage to Oblivion.” The song is quite heavy and features a good use of blast beats. The harsh vocals are excellent, and there is a perfect use of the orchestral sound. The songwriting here is very dynamic, which keeps the listener engaged. The melodic vocals are beautifully haunting. What a great tune.
“Twice Born” begins very dramatically, sounding like a battle scene from a film. There is an effective use of dissonance here. The song is quite intense and moves along at a good clip.
“A Taste of the Ambrosia” is slower, but no less dramatic. If “Twice Born” is a battle scene, this track sounds like the aftermath. There is some truly lovely music complimenting the harsh vocals. About halfway through, the song picks up in intensity. The drums are a particular highlight of this track.
An achingly beautiful interlude comes next in the form of “Anima Extraneae.” Do not skip these interludes for any reason, because they fit perfectly into the flow of the album.
Dissonant riffing and building rhythms kick off “Blood Trails to Love”—an album highlight. The song is very dramatic and dynamic from the beginning, with an awesome blend of guitars and orchestra. The chorus is quite catchy and features beautiful melodies. The use of rhythm and dissonance here is powerful, and I especially love the riffing on this track.
One of the longer tracks on the album follows with “Hubris and Blue Devils.” We have a killer intro of symphony and riffing. The song has a great interplay of these two aspects throughout its nearly eight minute runtime. The songwriting is dynamic and compelling. The verses feature a good use of rhythm. The song gets you pumped up and hooks you with beautiful vocal melodies in the chorus. While the song is lengthy, the songwriting and structuring keep it from being dull. The riff that repeats throughout the song is quite compelling.
“The Distance between Us” blends dissonance with lovely melodies. The song alternates between heavy and soft and is another great tune.
A beautiful guitar intro kicks off “At the Heart of All Things Broken”—the longest song on the album. Sung vocals come in next and we have repeating riffs as the song builds. While the song is over nine minutes, it paints such a beautiful texture that it remains endlessly appealing.
“Sonata Profana” is an effective outro.
Moving to the orchestral version of the album, we find much of the same strengths, but also some different ones. The lack of heavy riffing and vocals lets the complexity and sophistication of the arrangements shine. In this form, the songs really do sound like an excellent movie soundtrack in the tradition of the great film composers, such as John Williams. For example, “Twice Born” really does sound like a battle scene and then “A Taste of the Ambrosia” evokes the aftermath. Ihsahn’s orchestral composing is remarkably strong. The orchestral version of the album ceases to be an intriguing novelty, and instead is an excellent album in its own right.
Any fan of extreme metal should take note of Ihsahn—both the regular metal version and the orchestral version. Everything is in place for a great album, and the songwriting just takes it to another level. This record is a masterpiece and deserves a wide hearing.
Curtis’ rating: 10/10
Tracklist (METAL VERSION):
Cervus Venator 1:19
The Promethean Spark 4:52
Pilgrimage To Oblivion 4:21
Twice Born 3:37
A Taste Of The Ambrosia 4:23
Anima Extraneae 1:40
Blood Trails To Love 5:06
Hubris And Blue Devils 7:54
The Distance Between Us 4:31
At The Heart Of All Things Broken 9:14
Sonata Profana 1:44
Tracklist (ORCHESTRAL VERSION):
Cervus Venator (Orchestral Version) 1:23
The Promethean Spark (Orchestral Version) 4:53
Pilgrimage To Oblivion (Orchestral Version) 4:22
Twice Born (Orchestral Version) 3:39
A Taste Of The Ambrosia (Orchestral Version) 4:21
Anima Extraneae (Orchestral Version) 1:39
Blood Trails To Love (Orchestral Version) 5:07
Hubris And Blue Devils (Orchestral Version) 7:56
The Distance Between Us (Orchestral Version) 4:21
At The Heart Of All Things Broken (Orchestral Version) 9:10
Sonata Profana (Orchestral Version) 1:51
More than any other artist to emerge from the fertile black metal scene of the early ‘90s, Ihsahn has firmly established himself as an unpredictable maverick. Frontman and chief composer with the legendary Emperor, he re-wrote the rulebook on epic extreme music across a series of albums that are still widely regarded as classics. Ihsahn’s unique approach and liberated musical ethos ensured that when he embarked on a solo career, fans were primed to expect the unexpected. Full conceptual album, presented in two versions: Metal and Orchestral.
Ihsahn has created his best and most unique and powerful album to date.
With this release, I wanted to dig deep into the core essentials of my musical background; black/extreme-metal and my love of orchestral music and soundtracks.
“I approached the writing with the intent to present the material in its full-blown metal expression, but also to arrange the orchestral parts in such a way that they would work independently. Somehow an attempt to write a soundtrack within the structures of the full production, allowing me to explore different, and sometimes contrasting, variations of essentially the same music.”
In line with the cinematic inspirations, music and lyrics follow two parallel narratives with recurring themes throughout. The main story is presented in the metal version, whereas the secondary story is rooted in the orchestral version, although bleeding into the main story.