Last month, we heard a track called “Winter Bane,” the first single off the self-titled solo debut from former Immortal frontman Abbath. The song was (and is) absolutely fucking awesome — so much so that it wound up claiming the #1 slot in November’s Black Market, and also inspired that column’s excellent intro essay by Stereogum metal writer Doug Moore. Immortal were, of course, one of Norway’s seminal black metal bands, alongside Darkthrone, Burzum, Emperor, Gorgoroth, and a small handful of others. It’s kinda rare for a black metal frontman to go the “eponymous solo project” route, and considering the fact that Abbath is a legitimately great LP, it would have been pretty reasonable to imagine that the erstwhile Immortal singer would enter the new year with a lock on the (thus-far nonexistent) award for “Best 2016 Solo Album By The Ex-Frontman Of An OG Norwegian Black Metal Band.” But with a week to go in 2015, the artist known as Ihsahn — who fronted Emperor for that band’s decade-long lifespan — drops the first single off his own 2016 solo LP (his sixth since 2006), Arktis. The song is called “Mass Darkness,” and it’s immediately, somehow, even better than anything on Abbath.
That’s not to take a damn thing away from “Winter Bane” — or the seven songs that surround it on the album from which it’s culled — but the differences between the two songs underscore the totally divergent paths taken by Immortal and Emperor/Ihsahn over the years. Immortal were always the most straightforward, traditionalist band to emerge from Norway’s black metal nascence, and “Winter Bane” feels like another step forward in that particular evolution. Emperor, on the other hand, quickly vaulted into arty progressivism, going ever-further in those outré directions. Ihsahn’s solo albums doubled down on those tendencies, occasionally recalling the jazzy post-rock ambience of latter-day Talk Talk. Unexpectedly, “Mass Darkness” swerves back toward the center, but does so without sacrificing Ihsahn’s signature weirdness. It feels like an avant-garde master’s attempt to wrestle with populist sounds — in this case, NWOBHM-derived melodic death metal and arena-style symphonic black metal. Ihsahn works comfortably within those genres, but never allows their conventions to guide his hand. The progressions here feel absolutely fresh, almost bizarre at points. And you can marvel at his choices while still being absolutely rocked by those riffs, those leads, those melodies, that goddamn chorus. It’s just a great piece of music, and it suggests Abbath has some competition for the crown. Of course, there’s no actual crown, and therefore, no actual competition: just two legends releasing two magnificent albums within two months of one another. We’ve still got five days to go in 2015, and already 2016 is sounding pretty freaking great. Listen.
Arktis is out 3/4 via Candlelight.