Ihsahn: Dark and Decadent

The mastermind behind Emperor exposes the passion behind his seventh solo album Àmr

After two decades of defining and shaping the contours of black metal as the musical force behind Emperor, Ihsahn has emerged from the fray as an accomplished solo artist. This May, Ihsahn is set to explore even further horizons with his seventh solo album, Àmr. In the eerie calm before the storm, Metal As Fuck talked with Ihsahn about Àmr and what lies within...             

What does ‘Àmr’ mean, as a word? What is its significance, as the title of the album? “Its an old Norwegian word … it means ‘dark’, ‘gloomy’, or ‘rust red’, and the initial imagery and titles I had for this album, it just made perfect sense…it doesn’t have a particular meaning in that it describes a colour and an atmosphere that really fit the album and its not a word people really know…its something you have to reach for, and together with the artwork of the album, that is almost monochrome, and dark, and the only colour is this kind of rust red glow…its parts of the puzzle [laughs]”

Àmr is a very diverse album, and experiments a lot. How have you approached its writing? “What can I say? There are so many levels. There are technical levels, and more, but in general I say, every album I make … I want to sketch out everything before I start writing, kind of creating a framework or scene to place the album within, as a creative focus point.  With the last album, named Arktis, it was very much happening ‘outside’, the metaphorical placement in an artic landscape, and this time its very much ‘inside’. I think the cover artwork, everything, kind of reflects on that and of course within that framework I want to explore the extremes of it. That’s why the album has anything from blast beats and black metal to almost pure pop songs [laughs] but … still kind of reflecting different angles of the same core atmosphere. That is the overall goal. And in previous work I’ve done tend to explore rather grandiose or theatrical themes, using strings and horns, this time I want to take it more intimately, in a way, and I kind of indulge in my fascination for analogue synthesisers and go for a totally different production style, because I am consumed by how things sound, how it affects atmosphere. I’m kind of proud actually that I followed through on many of these original ideas.”

With Àmr, Ihsahn has turned his gaze inwards. How do you feel that you have addressed these ‘intrinsic’ themes musically? “At the heart of what I do, for most of the time, it will contain some sort of distorted guitars and screaming vocals [laughs] for all the years, I mean, if there’s a music language for me, that is my ‘mother tongue’ when creating music, my most natural form of expression, But of course I hope to kind of experiment, and have the excitement of changing everything around and push myself in other directions. It’s not really for ‘shock value’, but it’s a base … for not endlessly repeating yourself, and really just a simple rule for myself that I need to keep myself super excited and enthusiastic about the process, to hopefully create something that people can be excited about with me too.” 

Has writing this album has challenged you creatively? “I think…[pause]…I always bring some experiences from the previous albums into it, and with the previous albums I tried to focus on more traditional songwriting, almost like a pop/rock tradition if you will, where you have a very clear identity that each song has, you have a verse, a chorus, you have a bridge, that’s traditional form, … I challenged myself to this craftsmanship of traditional song construction, and course then tried to make those three-to-five minutes interesting. I kind of kept that idea of that format for this album as well but the challenge was really just to connect to different sounds, a different landscape, and I would say that out of all my solo albums this is probably the one that sounds and feels most diverse, and bringing influences from totally other genres …  there’s a lot of deep, deep subsonic information in here…in essence extreme metal in any capacity has the wall of sound, there’s a lot of energy, its really just packed with energy, but I guess I just want to explore that in a different way.”

Ihsahn has managed to capture a strong sense of latent darkness and melancholy even though the songs are so different and unique. How was this achieved without being necessarily bound by the classic black metal formula? “Again…Because to me, that sort of black metal…what it means to me… a very kind of…almost like a primal feeling…I still have no problem labelling my music as ‘black metal’ because its essence, I would argue, is as uncompromising as the early Emperor records …and on a personal level, the driving force for me to do this and the ideal of what I want to achieve, the emotional goal that I strive for…those are constants, and they’ve been constants throughout my creative life, and every album, every song, is another attempt at reaching … to that abstract ideal. So that’s what attracts me to the form of what many people may associate with black metal in the first place … black metal … there is such a vulnerable point…its almost romantic, in essence.  Because black metal, the way I see it, it can be just as dark, decadent, and aggressive as other genres but it can also be kind of heart breaking, and desperate, kind of ‘on your knees’. So as a means of expression it’s versatile. Its still very dark…we could exchange ‘dark’ for ‘profound’, like, to reference some of the lyrics on the album, for example ‘Marble Statues’, that can express …desperation…in a human being but its kind of formed into a marble statue, and of course a human in that kind of distress is a horrible thing but when presented as an artwork it is suddenly something immensely beautiful. Its connecting these profound, existential questions, I think, and I don’t think its easy to explore this kind of dark scenario rather than something more lightweight …”

There is certainly a lot of beauty, and sincerity, in darkness. Is Àmr laced with your own vulnerability, or introspection? “In this respect I don’t think it differs much from my previous albums, as I come from a very much the same place, I even read into all lyrics from the early days, and I see I come back to dealing with the same dilemma and thought pattern, but then you kind of revisit them, revaluate all these things in different ways. My previous album, Arktis, was really one of my more positively laden albums lyrically. I always write very, very personal, but I always write very metaphorically, so that I never had intentions of imposing myself on other peoples’ experience of this music because as a fan I am always much more consumed by my own experience of a piece of music rather than what necessarily might have been the artist’s intention. Almost as a way of protecting myself. It is very delivering, and its heartfelt, but at the same time you’re not making it, like, that personal…its not about me…because in essence it’s a very personal, profound thing that are translatable to most humans, I would say. In that regard I would say this albums speaks to the same thing, in general perspectives I think that in the lyrics there are three main ideas that go through it. One of them is, of course, an almost god-like perspective. In the opening track, ‘Lend Me The Eyes Of The Millennia’, this kind of fascination with …’freeze time’…as I mentioned also the marble statues as well, I mean, if you take really horrific events – it could be a battle – and some artists will make a beautiful painting of this…and its suddenly a piece of art, whereas being a soldier in that battle of course immensely horrible. And the same thing with our experience of our lives and all the importance we put on it, and of course in a historic perspective – give it a hundred years – and it matters as a side note of history … A different part of that, taken from the title ‘Where You Are Lost And I Belong’, how we all individually have this perception of the world of our lives…I have friends who are deeply religious, and we see the world in such different ways, I would be totally lost in there, I cannot understand, I cannot relate to that way of viewing the world and conversely, it is impossible for them to understand the world and my life in the way I see it. Which I think is very interesting, of what is real and how we perceive it. It is very individual.”

…And the third theme? “Ah yes, [laughs] the third theme, I think I touched on it…it’s the juxtaposition of horrible things made into art…frozen in time…like the slow-motion section of a movie that makes the whole scene more emotional, or capturing an expression on a portrait…when you stretch time [laughs] It just changes thing entirely which I find fascinating. From doing what I do, I express myself through imagery and words and scenarios which for most people are horrific things, dark and very distant from them…”

As well as the four albums created for Emperor during the first two decades of his musical career, Àmr is Ihsahn’s seventh solo album. Is being a solo artist preferable to being a member in a band? “For me, it was the only way to go really. At the end of Emperor’s career, I wound up doing the entire last Emperor album [Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise, 2001] more or less on my own… I like to think that I’m really easy-going, but obviously I just have to admit that when it comes to music I’m so strong-headed, such a huge ego [laughs]…its not by intent, but its so hard for other people to get through it. I know this. And if people play something wrong, it gets on my nerves…its horrible.  I’m horrible to be around. When I got to that point, I just had to take the consequences, and go solo.”

Ihsahn will be touring in Australia for the first time this year. So, what can his Australian fans expect this May? “Hopefully a show that is just as honest and heartfelt and as genuine as I tried to be in my album, I am just very much looking forward to it.”


IHSAHN with guests performing at:

May 4th - Brisbane, Crowbar

May 5th - Sydney, Max Watts (Direct Underground Fest)

May 6th - Melbourne, Max Watts (Direct Underground Fest)

May 7th - Melbourne, Max Watts (SOLD OUT)

May 8th- Perth, Amplifier Bar


Ámr is out 4 May 2018 via Candlelight/Spinefarm