Ihsahn : Das Seelenbrechen

QIhsahn-Das-Seelenbrechenuestions. Answers. Life. What’s it all about? I think it was Ludwig Wittigenstein who said: “I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.” I was thinking about this when listening to the intense, idiosyncratic and  brilliant new album from metal’s misanthrope in chief, Ihsahn. Das Seelenbrechen (badly translated by me as The Soul Breaking – (I’ve also seen The Soul Crushing as another translation so don’t take my Deutsche as anything other than ropey)) is the fifth solo opus from former Emperor front man. The mere mention of Ihsahn’s name can conjure a level of Pavlovian excitement in listeners of a certain age- he is, without question, one of the most important musicians in the metal scene, never afraid to challenge preconceptions, ideas and prevailing trends. As an iconoclast, he is, perhaps, without equal.

It would also be fair to state that Ihshan has been on a creative high for some time now. His last album, the claustrophobic and menacing Eremita was a record that unquestionably split opinion. This new record will as likely do same but perhaps for very different reasons. Those of you hoping that you are in for more of what Eremita (and its exemplary predecessor After) served up are likely to end up being severely disappointed, as Das Seelenbrechen is unlike either of those records. Considerably so. This is a good thing. I have been thrilled to listen to how Ihshan has developed as an artist, how he has never been afraid to experiment, not rest on anything remotely approaching a laurel and how he continues to test himself and his audience, often with beguiling results. If that sounds appealing, then Das Seelenbrechen is going to be a richly rewarding experience for you.

Recorded at his own studio in Norway in collaboration with drummer Tobias Ornes Anderson (Leprous), Das Seelenbrechen is a dark and uncompromising work, embracing the avant garde, improvisation and genuinely disturbing soundscapes to create a record that sees the artist clearly stretching himself and challenging the listener in parallel. In particular, the use of improvisation gives a live and raw feeling to much of the record which enhances the sense of unease and discomfort. Ihsahn has spoken about the influence of Nietzche on this record- of the desire to create art that exists in and of itself (the album’s title comes from Nietsche’s All Too Human; A Book of Free Spirits). I take the point about the aphorism and the album’s abstract artwork seems to want to ram the point home but I think he is being somewhat disingenuous. This record doesn’t offer the art up as a moral nor context free piece. On the contrary, he takes the opportunity to ask himself and us questions around the nature of art, artifice, love, relationships and the enduring human condition. It also serves as a crossroads record for him: not in the sense of treading water but the sheer breadth and depth of influence and inspiration on display here provide a brilliant insight into where this most particular and individual artist might go next; that he has dipped freely into a record collection that is highly esoteric and that he has made an active choice to eschew much of what has made his reputation, is entirely with context, albeit historical. Hey, we can agree to disagree.

In approaching Das Seelenbrechen, I think it’s worth considering this record as a form of art exhibition. Each of these pieces can be heard and considered on their own or as an artistic whole, much as you would consider a painter with a new body of work. Although the sequencing on the album works perfectly fine, I do think that your can move these pieces around and they would work equally well, much like you can start anywhere in a gallery and find any piece to be challenging or inspirational. There is no classic narrative arc to this album. You know the kind of thing I mean: big opener, lead single, epic mid pace number. No, you aren’t going to find that here. In its place is an altogether trickier proposition- this is a record that demands and commands attention and is unlikely to be your dinner party wallpaper music of choice. So much the better.

On Regen we get a plaintive piano led introduction to a song that has echoes of Damnation era Opeth before it opens up into something more expansive and visceral. NaCI is perhaps the most straightforward “rock” song (in the sense of guitar and drum driven music) here but that too is struck with juddering quirks and nuances; whilst there is a familiarity with the song’s structure and dynamic, there remains an undercurrent of sonic unease, a theme that continues throughout the record. Pulse is a slow paced, dark, brooding track built on an electronica architecture that wouldn’t feel out of place on a latter period Depeche Mode record; Tacit 2 by contrast is one of the improvised tracks where the effect is all- it’s formless yet not directionless, combining brewing anger and frustration into a thunderous cacophony. Tacit, its companion piece, feels like the calm after the storm although you cannot describe this song as being anything like calm. It is highly nuanced and deliberately provocative. Rec begins as a more introspective and reflective number but builds and builds inexorably to its abrupt ending. M is dark atmospherics writ large, a brooding vocal spouting venomous words and phrases over a guitar track that ebbs and flows like a midnight tide. Sub Ater cool melancholia completely at home here before the cold, dark coda of See brings the whole dizzying enterprise to an uneasy, disquieting conclusion.

You need to prepare yourself. Das Seelenbrechen is not a dip in and dip out record; it is an album of quite brilliant and unexpected diversity, of power and insight and challenge and provocation. Questions. Answers. Life. What’s it all about? On Das Seelenbrechen, Ihsahn is brave enough and generous enough to share his questions and some of his answers with us. He doesn’t have them all but the fact that he attempts to find them, in whatever dark part of the heart they may lurk, however painful that may be,  is hugely creditable. The sense of freedom and release that this record appears to have given him suggests that, whilst there may be a Nietzchean streak running through his veins, he doesn’t share the Wittgenstein view of life not being about enjoyment: clearly, he’s having the time of his life. Long may that continue.