As far as I can see, the criticism of Ihsahn’s solo material seems to fall broadly into:
1. It’s not Emperor
2. It’s not black metal
3. It’s wanky pretentious shit
4. It’s gay/boring/annoying
5. It’s objectively poor metal for musical reasons
6. It’s subjectively poor metal for musical reasons
If you hold any of those opinions (except for #6), press Ctrl+F4 (or Cmd+F4 if you’re a Mac man like me) right this instant. It’s pointless for you to read any further. You’re not going to change your mind, and nothing I say will change it for you, and AFTER is not the album that will change your mind for you. Read on if you enjoyed THE ADVERSARY and angL, or if you’re interested to see what Ihsahn’s got up to this time.
I can see many Ihsahn bashers having a fine time with AFTER. The singing in THE ADVERSARY was widely bashed – some people could not handle the blatant King Diamond worship, but I enjoyed it. It gave Ihsahn’s first solo effort a freshness, a spontaneity – and it also implicitly celebrated the freedom Ihsahn finally had from the expectations and confines of the mighty Emperor. The falsettos almost completely vanished in angL, and on AFTER, there are two predominant styles: clean singing, and some truly awful harsh vocals. The clean singing is bearable but there is wayyyy too much of it. Ihsahn crooning for a couple of minutes to add different textures and dynamics to the song – fine. Ihsahn pouring his lovelorn heart out for damn near half the album – not good. But the harsh vocals are impossibly bad. He seems caught between a constricted throaty rasp and a constipated ticklish cough. This is one area which I wish he had kept from his Emperor days. Where is that ferocious snarl and roar from one of black metal’s most compelling (ex-) frontman? At this rate, he’s way behind Chucky in the evil-ness stakes, and better be looking over his shoulder at Barney the purple dinosaur gaining fast on him.
The much-vaunted switch to 8-string guitars has had a noticeable effect on the songwriting – the opening song ‘The Barren Lands’ is a proper stinker with chug-chug stop-start riffing that equals the best of Korn and that other silly band with 9 members in stupid masks. Thankfully the rest of the album doesn’t follow the opener’s lead. But I get the impression that Ihsahn is no longer pushing himself in terms of riff-writing – I have always maintained that he is one of the most underrated and talented guitarists in extreme metal, and he doesn’t showcase that too much on AFTER, which, to me is quite a pity. However, there is a lot of bottom end chunkiness, as you would expect, with more than its fair share of wonderfully picked clean passages and flashy open chords, and surprisingly some ultra-technical death metal flourishes in there that would not be out of place on a Spiral Architect or Atheist album. Lead-wise, there is nothing to shout about, and it certainly seemed to me that the previous two albums seemed more rewarding for the lead guitar aficionado.
I have been saying it for ages, but metal needs more saxophone. Any instrument that is capable of sounding both sultry, melodic, heart-rending etc., and yet also sound like a deranged banshee – example, cello – should immediately be welcomed by the metal world, and I nominate the saxophone. Sigh, the Japanese symphonic black metal band, has a full-time saxophonist as a band member in Dr Mikannibal. Carpathian Forest and Amorphis are the only two other bands that I’ve heard use sax…and of course funk-doom on Cathedral’s ‘The Devil’s Summit’. Use more sax, metal people, goddammit!
The use of saxophone on AFTER is frankly stunning. It adds a dimension so very welcome in your average guitar-drum-bass-voice rock band dynamic. There are various instances where saxophonist Jorgen Munkeby (of Norwegian blackjazz band Shining, NOT the infamous Shining from Sweden) goes absolutely berserk, such as towards the end of ‘A Grave Inversed’, but there are also some parts where the sax simply tones down and does what it does best: mournful, wistful, ‘Mr Jazzman, play me a song. Bartender, whisky, now.’, wailing in a smoky bar. The album’s finest moment is the closer ‘On The Shores’, a 10 minute long, doom-drenched dirge featuring the most orgasmic interplay between 8-string guitar and saxophone I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. Get this album for this opus, if for nothing else – this track alone makes AFTER worth it.
It’s a mixed bag, this album, and it’s one of those albums where:
1. Everyone will have a different opinion of it
2. You need more than a few spins to really get into it.
I like it in parts, having spun it about 10 times already. Perhaps I will hate it in a year’s time, perhaps I will love what I don’t like about it now in another 15-20 listens. I would advise everyone (except the people mentioned in paragraph 1) to give it a try at least.
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