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Ihsahn: “I am not a very technical guitar player - progressive is more a mentality”

Ihsahn: “I have never tried to be progressive, as in being technical or difficult.”
(Image credit: Future / Marcus Robinson)

The act of songwriting is much like telling a story. When it works, the music alone can do much of the heavy lifting, creating atmospheres, building worlds and drawing the audience in.

That is how Ihsahn sees it now, seven albums and one EP into a solo career that has seen him pursue a progressive extreme metal sound that’s placed at a remove from the tempestuous, quasi-Wagnerian black metal he pioneered with Emperor. That is how he has seen it since the beginning, when, as a boy living on his parents’ farm near the Norwegian city of Notodden, he learned guitar by jamming along to Iron Maiden songs while playing bass on the pedals of his electric organ.

“I guess by instinct, all through my career, as a subconscious influence, I have just tried to recreate Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son by Maiden,” he says. “Because, in my head, just by nature, I know how I want a full-length album to feel. And in particular, that album. It’s conceptual. It’s folklore. I practically learned playing guitar from that album. Another album that was huge for me was King Diamond’s Them, and consequently Conspiracy - both full-story concept albums.”

Ihsahn found these concepts totally immersive; the ebb and flow of these albums interpreted as dramatic arcs within the song-craft, each track essential to the next, the sequencing similarly vital. Are the likes of Iron Maiden and King Diamond prog? Maiden’s latter-period sound has evolved towards long-form progressive compositions, but the King? No. That seems too much of a reach. 

Ihsahn, however, for his sins and to his bemusement, has found himself a paragon of progressive extreme metal. He sees progressive music as a state of mind, one that guides his process.

Norse Code

Ihsahn's latest EP Telemark was no different. As with every release since Emperor, it started with a blank page into which titles are written before a note has been composed. This time around it was Ihsahn’s wife and co-collaborator, Heidi Solberg Tveitan, aka Ihriel, who suggested the title. Once the titles are down, the music can follow. 

“I will always have titles. Telemark is the county I come from, and it was natural then for the riffs to be very inspired by traditional Norwegian music, especially from this county, the Hardanger fiddle and folk elements. The title, in that respect, really, influenced me using those kinds of voicings and riffs for that song.”

Ihsahn will typically sketch out what he wants from a song and how it fits into the concept, what instrumentation he wants to use, what tones might serve the concept. This isn’t about putting limitations on where he might take the record but instead allows him to focus his mind and keep his compositions tethered to the whole. And it allows him to think bigger.

I would say gear is really important but I kind of got off it. The most important thing when it comes to creativity is having something that works

This, if anything, is what Ihsahn believes is what defines progressive music. It’s not a question of technique, melodic abstraction, or awkward time signatures. Progressive music is a state of mind, a sensibility.

“I have never tried to be progressive, as in being technical or difficult,” says Ihsahn. “It was just my fascination for trying to bring new sounds and new colors to what I do, and I kind of extend the palette of what I can do with music. I wouldn’t say my music is generally very technical. I am not a very technical guitar player; progressive is more a mentality. Of course, you wish to push things further - at least that’s my intention!”

New Horizons

Chasing the bigger ideas is easier when you have the casting vote. Emperor was one of the most musically expansive of the early Second Wave black metal bands. There was symphonic grandeur to their sound, total aggression, and arrangements that sounded alien enough that legions of would-be copycats could never quite replicate.

 Their horizons were broader, and yet, looking back on how he worked compared to how he works now, Ihsahn is appreciative of the freedom you have when pursuing a solo career.

Chasing the bigger ideas is easier when you have the casting vote. Emperor was one of the most musically expansive of the early Second Wave black metal bands. There was symphonic grandeur to their sound, total aggression, and arrangements that sounded alien enough that legions of would-be copycats could never quite replicate.

I have this huge privilege of having people around me that I trust and that are in the same kind of artistic mindset

Their horizons were broader, and yet, looking back on how he worked compared to how he works now, Ihsahn is appreciative of the freedom you have when pursuing a solo career. Playing in a band is as much about learning to compromise and bargain as it is about being able to perform your parts. 

A solo artist can take their sound anywhere, just so long as they can play the parts. And if they can’t, well the usual rule applies to anyone playing music; collaborate with the most talented musicians you can find. 

“I have this huge privilege of having people around me that I trust and that are in the same kind of artistic mindset,” says Ihsahn. “Most importantly, Heidi. She knows me so well and we are so in sync. She will listen to my ideas and help me filter out the good and the bad. The drummers I work with are super-talented, with wide experience.”

I Am the Gear Wizards

Where no one can help is when you are sitting alone with just the guitar and working out what works in terms of arrangements and tone. If ability constrains the former, technology has made the latter a question of discipline - there are simply so many options for today’s player. 

Even a kid with a 6-watt, battery-powered Line 6 Micro Spider will have options, with onboard effects and four amp models to choose from. That is plenty to be getting on with. Ihsahn now runs a Kemper Profiler, with an onboard power amp so he can run it through a speaker cab, and that presents as near to infinite tone options, certainly more than anyone could need.

That still isn’t enough to stop him from wanting more, though, nearly spending all his money on a vintage Neve mixing console. In a moment of clarity he demurred. “I came to my senses and thought that is probably not what’s holding me back,” he says, chuckling at the insanity of it all.

“I would say gear is really important but I kind of got off it. I have spent too much money from reading up on Gearslutz. com. You know the feeling, ‘If I only had this piece of gear, my life would be complete!’ by the time you get it there are 10 other things, and £100,000 later you are still there. No! The most important thing when it comes to creativity is having something that works, and in that respect now I am running a Kemper.”

I read somewhere that Jack White likes guitars that are really cumbersome to play because he likes the struggle. I am the opposite. I just want instruments that feel like my guitar

Still, that’s a lot of options. Some are essential. Ihsahn leans heavily on the cab simulation for the studio. It speeds up his workflow. No more agonizing over mic placement, doing a take, and re-miking. Adjusting to multi-functional tools such as the Kemper is fast becoming an essential skill for today’s players. 

Ihsahn wouldn’t change anything, but does worry that there is a generation coming through who have never had the chance to get hands-on with their tone, to do the experimenting for themselves. 

“They have access to all these things, all this equipment is very cheap now, but it doesn’t give them the opportunity to explore the different elements of the signal chain,” explains Ihsahn. “I was doing front-of-house for some young bands back in the day and they would come with their huge Boss multi-effects boards, with cab simulations, plugging that into the front of a breaking-up Marshall and complaining that the amp sounds horrible!”

In some respects, Ihsahn is in a similar position. With Emperor, and similarly with his solo work, he has less space in the mix for time-based effects such as delay or echo, or to bring in modulation. “I admire all these players who can integrate certain effects and old-school fuzz boxes, phasers, and creating a sound with big reverbs and delay combinations,” says Ihsahn. “It sounds beautiful.” 

Aside from an occasional delay, Ihsahn’s signal is largely dry, with lead tones running a little hotter than the rhythm. As for guitars, in the last few years Ihsahn has moved from using Ibanez’s RG Series to a variety of six-, seven- and eight-string custom electrics from Aristides.

An avant-garde choice, Aristides use injection-moulded arium bodies, a lightweight composite resin that is injected into a glass fibre and carbon exoskeleton. Aristides use Richlite fretboards, an eco-friendly material made from recycled pulp.

“I make sure that they have different pickups and different setups so that they have this personality where I can pick them up, and it is partly the instruments themselves that influence how I write,” explains Ihsahn.

“I read somewhere that Jack White likes guitars that are really cumbersome to play because he likes the struggle. I am the opposite. I just want instruments that feel like my guitar, and that I am comfortable with so that when I need it to do something it just does it.”

Harmony Corruption

And therein is a lesson: choosing the right tool can make the job a lot easier. Save your efforts for the struggles that matter. Playing a progressive strain of extreme metal presents its own challenges. Big ideas lead to more complex compositions. 

As Ihsahn maintains, you don’t have to have to shred, but it helps if you know your way across the fretboard. In that sense, music theory can help. Ihsahn picked up theory along the way, but there are abundant resources for players looking to get their heads around scales, chord progressions, whatever tickles your modal fancy. 

“I would absolutely recommend getting at least a basic grasp of music theory because in my every uneducated approach to this I have had some great a-ha moments!” says Ihsahn.

“I hear this amazing chord structure or arrangement and I have absolutely no idea how people could manage to go down that road, and then later on I learned that these kind of compositional techniques, or arrangement techniques, that have eventually led me to similar results, and it is just very, very rewarding.”

A little can go a long way, too - especially in extreme metal, when borrowing simple concepts from other genres can put an almighty slice on your sound.

“Every time I come across something interesting, a concept in the jazz world or in modern orchestral music that’s totally basic, in my world it becomes a whole new thing!” laughs Ihsahn. Right now, he is trying to wrap his head around the concept of negative harmony - “re-harmonizing, but across an edge of the circle of 5ths” - and checking in on Jacob Collier’s YouTube page to get a bead on it.

YouTube is full of them,” he laughs. “The information and the skills that you can acquire from just using the internet now is amazing. On the other hand, I am very, very pleased that I grew up without that because instead of playing guitar I would end up watching all the stupid things. If you are a kid today, you can easily get lost in all the bullshit.”

Ihsahn's Telemark is out now via Spinefarm.