Under a Northern Sky

Norwegian legend Ihsahn has, by all accounts, got it made. With his legacy secured on several seminal records under the Emperor banner in the nineties he has gone on to experiment with various sonic shapes and sizes while maintaining his own high standards and a loyal fanbase eager to hear what he is going come up with next to boot. His most obvious peer in this way is Devin Townsend though their interests seems poles apart (no pun intended, honest). On this record that happens to be an album of hard rock, metal, glitch even bordering on EDM covering the topic of fellow Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen (of literal hard to reach places reflected in the album’s title Arctic).

Mass Darkness charts the experience of Nansen in the North Pole and it’s fertile ground for Ihsahn’s imagination and musical chops. Guitars duel against swooping strings creating a bright glare befitting of snow-blindness and gives fans a touch of the symphonic metal Ihsahn has made his calling card. In fact, the opening of Arktis continues much of the Norwegian’s past work; lyrics invoking struggle and strength while there is a bleakness to music, especially in the high drama songs that close the record, but equally these atmospheres are frequently interrupted by stylistic and instrumental shifts. Arktis is a restless piece. While the guitars are threatening and the vocals are growled on My Heart is of the North this happens over bursts of groovy organ like Jon Lord was in the band. South Winds reverses the flow as it has a juddering Radiohead alike glitchy intro before giving way to a djent heavy ending. A rare blend.

Arktis sees its creator shift shapes and play with expectations throughout and this mission is often successful with disparate musical styles melding well and unexpected approaches keep the album surprising - check out the full on 80s hard rock riff on Until I Too Dissolve, the electro pop synths on Frail, the cool jazz aspects to Crooked Red Line. The closest analogue to this approach seems to be direction that Mikael Akerfeldt has taken Opeth in recent years whereby albums have narratives packed with melody and metallic punch but are unafraid to include left turns and seemingly passe influences. Given the multiple sounds there are few, I imagine, that will love everything on Arktis but the sheer daring attitude should appeal to those who, to paraphrase Ihsahn on Crooked Red Line, travel to the borders of perception.