Ihsahn: Emperor of the North
Originally published in Guitar World, August 2008
His influential black metal band may have reached the end of its line, but with his new solo album, angL , former Emperor guitarist Ihsahn continues his reign as Norway's progressive metal monarch.
The drive from Oslo to the rural town of Notodden, Norway, is about one hour into the heart of rugged Telemark County. On a bright, cold day in March, Guitar World is making the trek to visit former Emperor guitarist/vocalist Ihsahn in his hometown, where he has just finished recording his second solo album, the forceful and progressively black metal effort angL (Candlelight/Mnemosyne).
It was here in this town of 2,000 people, nearly 20 years ago, that Ihsahn and a few friends—guitarist Samoth, drummer Trym and bassist Mortiis—founded Emperor and effectively launched the symphonic black metal sound that influenced scores of extreme bands, from Dimmu Borgir to Children of Bodom. As we navigate through the myriad winding mountain roads, snow-capped peaks and ominous evergreen forests, under the sweeping maneuvers of the ever-present black birds, it becomes crystal clear how the epic, grim qualities inherent in Norwegian black metal could be born out of such a dramatic, beautiful and utterly brutal landscape.
Upon arriving in Notodden, we check into our provincial hotel and call Ihsahn. He says he’ll meet us in the lobby in 10 minutes. As we walk into the old hotel’s foyer at the appointed time, we see the six-foot-plus guitarist dressed head to toe in black, his hair slicked back, wearing reflective sunglasses and sitting cross-legged on a leather couch. He rises, smiling, to meet us and offers a firm handshake, seemingly unaware—or unconcerned—about the sideways glances of the hotel guests and exceedingly non-metal townsfolk.
“Welcome to Notodden,” he says. “Shall we start with a tour of my studio?” And off we go to Symphonique Studios, Ihsahn’s private recording facility. In many respects, Notodden is not unlike the countless small towns in the States that are isolated from the thriving musical and artistic scenes of large cities. In such out-of-the-way places, when musically minded adolescent boys get restless, they tend to start bands. And sometimes that leads to trouble.
In the early Nineties, Emperor were just a group of metalhead kids who played music, in part as an outlet for their youthful aggression and the frustrations of small-town life, which included getting hassled by locals who didn’t like their black outfits, long hair, spiked accoutrements and corpse paint. The situation got worse as black metal bands in Oslo became involved in church burnings and murders and gained worldwide press for their violent acts.
Emperor suffered some troubling setbacks during this time. Samoth was imprisoned for arson, and original drummer Bard “Faust” Eithun was convicted of murder. But under Ihsahn’s steady hand, the band carried on, eventually releasing four highly influential studio records before calling it quits in 2001. In 2005, much to the delight of Emperor fans across the world, the band’s core members—Ihsahn, guitarist Samoth and drummer Trym—reformed to play a few select international reunion dates, which led to sporadic one-offs throughout 2006 and 2007, culminating in a headlining spot at the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany.
Over the years, Ihsahn has remained tirelessly creative. The multi-instrumentalist has released experimental metal (with wife Heidi Tveitan) under the name Peccatum, folk metal with Hardingrock and progressive metal as Ihsahn, all while he continues to teach guitar to budding shredders in and around Notodden.
But it’s with his latest full-length, angL, that Ihsahn comes into his own as a solo artist. Where his 2006 solo effort, The Adversary, was the sound of an excited musician exploring many ideas that wouldn’t fit into the parameters of Emperor, angL takes the best parts of that record and forges them into one cohesive effort. The result is a powerhouse album of progressive metal filled with seething vocals, inventive rhythmic structures and rough-and-ready riffs.
Arriving at Symphonique, we’re led into the main recording studio, a tidy, efficient room that reflects the tastes of its designer. The space is filled with stacks of guitars, racks of effects, several amps, keyboards, consoles, mics, monitors, Gold records and, disturbingly, a human skeleton suspended on a medical display stand. We sit down with Ihsahn to discuss the finer points of creating music in isolated locations and the power of contrasting twin guitars. But first, about that skeleton in the corner…