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…

GUITAR WORLD What's up with the skeleton? Is that real?

IHSAHN It is real. It’s a Russian soldier. My wife and I found it lying around a cellar in a school somewhere. It wasn’t being used for anything, so we brought him here and gave him a home. But it’s all legal and properly registered.

GW How long have you been working out of this studio?

IHSAHN This studio has played a major part of everything I’ve done since Emperor’s [2001] Prometheus album.

GW You have so many musical projects. Creatively speaking, what do the Ihsahn releases satisfy for you?

IHSAHN They are the metal side of what I do. With them, I don’t fiddle about with so many keyboards and strange sounds; I just start out with the guitar riffs, because that’s what metal is all about.

GW So you intended your first solo record, The Adversary, to be a metal record?

IHSAHN Yeah, I needed to do a more straightforward metal album. I tried to narrow my focus on The Adversary, even though it’s still musically a bit all over the place. I wanted to do something inspired by Seventies progressive music and rock operas, like what Judas Priest did on Sad Wings of Destiny, with pianos coming in and out. As a result, The Adversary is kind of thin sounding, because I didn’t want to fill it with layers of guitars—I wanted to keep it simple, with one guitar in each speaker, vocals in the middle. And then I added keyboards! [laughs]

But with this new record I’ve gone with a more contemporary way of doing it. angL’s got layers of guitars and a much heavier sound. I wanted to focus on what I think worked best on The Adversary. That album was really an experiment—an outlet to try the different metal things I couldn’t do within the boundaries of Emperor. I think angL is more focused and introduces some new angles that I haven’t tried before.

GW What would be an example of a new angle?

IHSAHN Well, I had some progressive stuff on The Adversary, but I think my exploration of different tunings on new tracks like “The Alchemist” is pretty different. That’s a progressive track with odd beats and a DADGAD tuning, which I’ve never used before. I also tried new vocal styles and ways of layering vocals. But at this point I’m still really close to the album, so it’s hard for me to be objective.

I worked with the same drummer I did on The Adversary, Asgeir Mickelson, and had Lars Norberg on bass. They’re both outstanding musicians from this immensely progressive band called Spiral Architect. I started writing guitar riffs, and then I programmed the drum parts just the way I wanted them. Then I sent the files to those guys.

GW I imagine this modern recording technology really helps you maintain a more solitary life in Notodden.

IHSAHN Yeah, I think so. Earlier on I thought that maybe it was important to be in the center of things. In a small town like this it’s very hard to come by musicians that can contribute and tune in to what we do. But with today’s technology that whole thing has changed. You can easily work with people whether they’re in Japan, Oslo or the U.S., which really allows us to expand the creative playground. I think there’s even been experiments done where recording sessions happen just using web cameras. It’s really getting like Star Trek. Soon you’ll be able to just beam over. [laughs]

GW Do you feel your isolated location helps you stay truer to the black metal aesthetic?

IHSAHN No, not really. But I think growing up in this environment…well it really forms you. There’s a reason why this expression of Norwegian black metal came out of places like Notodden. Many journalists have told me when they arrive here they finally understand, after years of listening to these records, why they were created here. Experiencing this environment adds another dimension to the music. I don’t think I could lose that wherever I would move to. At some point it makes sense to move to New York or L.A. and be part of all that, but it would be strange to be sitting in some very hot sunny place creating sad, black metal music. [laughs]

GW For angL, you also collaborated on a song with Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth.

IHSAHN Yes, that’s true. He did a fantastic job on the song “Unhealer.” It was especially amazing because he was so busy recording the new Opeth album.

GW How did he come to contribute to the album?

IHSAHN I met Mikael years ago at a lunch in London. I really identified with the way he worked with his music, and since then we had been sporadically in touch. I actually talked to him prior to The Adversary about contributing, but that didn’t work out. This time around, I met Mikael at Wacken when we played there with Emperor. He and I ended up hanging out watching Celtic Frost together and having a really good time. And when the time came to record, I asked him to contribute again. So I wrote the lyrics and sent him the audio files. Then he managed to record the vocals at night after the Opeth sessions. It was such a surprise getting the vocals back. They are amazing.

GW Is there a consistent lyrical theme to the album?

IHSAHN Ah, the same old thing. [laughs] It’s the constant conflict of the individual coping with his surroundings. For my solo stuff I’ve been very inspired by the writings of Nietzsche and also the symbolism of Goethe and Faust.

GW Like you said earlier, angL is much heavier sounding than The Adversary. Do you feel the intensity of the Emperor reunion shows influenced this increased heaviness?

IHSAHN No, not really. Earlier on, I think Emperor’s extensive touring influenced what was written for [1999’s] IX Equilibrium. But this time, I just dropped some of The Adversary’s constraints that I mentioned before and went from there. Take “Scarab,” for example: you need very thick, heavy sounds to make that work. It has this kind of Egyptian feel to it, and the punctuation creates some nice rhythmical tension. The best riffs just come out of nowhere…and some just come out heavy. [laughs] Then there would be other riffs, like on “Emancipation,” where I’d deliberately take the Locrian scale and work it out in advance. Then I would layer it with the parallel minor, so that you have thin lines going on top of this very slow minor melody.

GW What do you consider to be a signature element of your playing style?

IHSAHN If anything I’d say the extensive use of contrasting twin guitars. [laughs] I’ve actually been criticized in my previous band for not keeping things simple enough. I guess before I finish one thing I already have the idea for the counterpoint melody line. It’s very hard to turn away from that when it’s already in your head. It just becomes a way of writing. I guess it can be a limitation, too, not being able to write a guitar riff that will stand on its own. There are so many classic guitar riffs that stand well on their own, and I wish I could do that. But I always tend to add a second element to it. But I must say, that can be very interesting, too.

GW What is your favorite guitar moment on angL?

IHSAHN There’s more soloing on this album than I’ve ever done in the past, and I think I hit some really good notes. I like the solo on “Alchemist” because of its DADGAD tuning, which forced me to approach things very differently. It’s so easy to get caught up in the regular patterns, movements and scales, and I’ve found that using a different tuning can help you feel like you’re creating something new.

GW Do you prearrange your solos, or do you just start playing and then build them out of composite takes?

IHSAHN I do both. Some of my riffs have odd harmonic movements, so I need to find out how to bind them all together so they make sense. But then some of them are just improvised. For some solos, I just hit record to add some placeholder solo, but since I’m relaxed and having fun when I do that, it ends up being the best take. I haven’t played many solos, and I don’t think I have a particular style yet. So I’m always trying different things.

GW Have you been working on strengthening your soloing chops?

IHSAHN Nah, not really. I’m just happy to be doing stuff that I think sounds cool. I think I’m far beyond the point of becoming a shredder. I’m happy with what I can do, and I’d rather concentrate on my songwriting.

GW How did angL’s heavy sound affect your gear choices?

IHSAHN I used an Ibanez RG320 as my main guitar. It’s a special edition from the 2006 NAMM show. It’s a fantastic guitar to play. It was especially good for this album because it stayed in tune when I tried out all the different tunings. I also used the Ibanez RGA121, because it has no tremolo and also stays in tune really well. It’s very nice to play. While I usually play a set of .010-gauge strings, I used .009s on this album because it’s easier to get more vibrant vibrato when the string are thinner.

GW What are your main amplifiers?

IHSAHN I’ve tried many different amps, but I’ve found that I love the very hard-hitting, transparent sound I get from my Engl. For the Emperor live shows we used the Powerballs, which are very good for extreme metal. But I bought the Savage 120 for my studio because it has a nice clean sound and good overdrive. Even though you might have it fully distorted, you can still hear the attack of the pick on the strings. That’s what I like out of an amp: the ability to get the heavy tone and aggression without losing clarity.

GW You’re also a fan of amp simulations and re-amping.

IHSAHN I use Guitar Rig. I just plug in, turn up the reverb with the Engl emulation and go from there. I always record a direct signal, so when I’m finished recording the guitars I can re-amp them. I hook up my Engl Savage to my two cabs—the Engl with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers and my traditional 1960 Marshall cabinet. I put two Shure 57s on them and hit record.

GW What is your approach when using effects?

IHSAHN Just delay for my solos. I had a few guitar parts that I ran through phasers and delays, but mostly I use effects for keyboards. For the most part, the album is so full of stuff already. When you have 12 guitar tracks and you start layering on phasers, choruses and effects… well it just doesn’t really work.

GW You seem to have distilled your setup to its purest form.

IHSAHN I am kind of old-fashioned like that. [laughs] I’ve had pupils that feel they need new pickups and more expensive guitars and amps. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it really is all in the fingers. I’ve seen it so many times.

GW What kind of students do you tend to attract?

IHSAHN In the beginning, of course, I attracted a lot of the kids who wanted to play metal, but it’s such a small town that I’ve gradually been through all those students. And some of them have developed into very fine guitar players indeed. Most of my students come to me wanting to play rock songs. When they’re beginners you can always start them off with kid’s songs, but I think that would turn them off pretty easily. So for beginners who need to know the basic chords, I always start out with Marilyn Manson’s “In the Shadow of the Valley of Death.” It’s just basic chords, but they feel like they’re playing rock music, which is the idea.

GW Do you plan to tour for the new record?

IHSAHN I have considered it. It’s no big secret that I’m not a huge fan of touring. I also don’t feel like going out with my new band and playing three songs off my album and doing Emperor covers for the rest. I’m just not there yet. I’d rather wait until I have a few more Ihsahn albums and then do a proper solo show of my music—with a short Emperor set for encores. [laughs]

GW Does Emperor have plans for the future, or has that project officially been put to bed?

IHSAHN Put to bed. The only reason we came back to the States was because Samoth couldn’t come the first time around [due to work visa issues], so it was a good excuse to do it. It was a really nice experience. Coming from this small town and being able to play two sold-out shows at B.B. Kings in Times Square and the House of Blues in L.A., headline Wacken Open Air and hear 50,000 people scream [in metal voice] “Inno A Satana!”… That’s a good feeling.

Being a Norwegian musician, it’s been a great privilege to have an international career with Emperor. Having said that, I still feel I have so much more to learn and express. There are so many exciting things I want to do.

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