It seems strange that a musician from a genre notorious for its unwillingness to embrace outside influences and to stay ‘true’ to its original vision has made one of the most forward-thinking albums of the year. But Ihsahn has always displayed broader influences than many of his contemporaries from the black metal scene, and previous album After was pretty much the man moving on from his black metal roots and veering into more progressive territories. Emerita sees him fully make that transition.
The relatively straightforward opener ‘Arrival’ is a slightly misleading introduction to the album, sounding more hard rock in structure than the onslaught of ideas that awaits you once the monstrous ‘The Paranoid’ brings its wrath and fury straight into your brain. Starting with a blastbeat the song spreads out in several different directions, evoking the dark majesty of Opeth, but without the 70s connotations. The sweeping riffs and chanting refrains of the chorus – not to mention a monster of a chugging riff that hits around the 1:20 mark – change the mood totally before the blasting begins again, and then closes on more of those lush melodies. This album keeps you on your toes, that’s for sure.
‘Introspection’ adds more musicality into its beautiful opening rhythms, with Ihsahn’s strong voice giving the song some depth and clarity before he changes tack and goes all gruff, with Devin Townsend adding his two-pennies’ worth on backing vocals. ‘Introspection’ and ‘The Paranoid’ on their own would be worthy of glowing praise for their progressive and avant-garde noodlings but come ‘The Eagle and the Snake’ – and the return of the saxophone that graced After, courtesy of Shining saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby – the game is upped once again. Where the sax on After seemed more like an afterthought, here it is truly woven into the structure of the song and sounding wonderfully evil.
To be honest, the first half of this album is such a whirlwind of exciting ideas and musical adventures that it’s quite difficult to see how Ihsahn can keep up the quality throughout, but as the album moves on the twists and turns keep on coming and a breakdown of each track and its merits would probably fill up the pages of a novel. Needless to say, things don’t get any less hectic and apart from the short instrumental ‘Grief’ – which serves as an interlude before the massive ‘The Grave’, which again features Munkeby on a slightly more intrusive saxophone – the album carries on bringing forth all manner of expansive soundscapes before the closing, off-kilter beats of ‘Departure’.
Probably one of the most inventive musicians working within music – and not just metal – today, Ihsahn has pushed the envelope once again, combining avant-garde, jazz and progressive elements into his gnarly, dark metal, and released an album that will no doubt appear in many end-of-year lists come December, and rightly so.