Norwegian metal icon Ihsahn has always been one of metal’s boldest idea men. As the co-founder and primary songwriter of Emperor, he helped transform black metal from its underground, primitive origins to a genre capable of symphonic bombast (not to mention critical and commercial success). His Peccatum and Hardingrock projects folded post-rock and Norwegian folk tropes into Ihsahn’s long dark cloak, respectively; even when his experiments yield less-than-inspired music, it’s still easy to appreciate the ambition and craft that go into them.
That’s definitely true of Ihsahn’s second solo album, angL. The press photos for the disc have him dressed him in the finely tailored black suit and slicked hair of a seedy mafia don. It’s a good look for a guy who’s cornered the black-metal market with songs that are equal parts fury and melody. “Misanthrope” and “Malediction” peddle evil to the people in true Emperor form, swathing drum blasts and layered screams in melodic tremolo picking and piles of keyboards.
Ihsahn’s massive arrangements are his trump card, and the biggest songs on angL are easily the best — killer shredding and wailing falsetto vox amplify the massive hook at the center of “Emancipation”; the aptly named “Elevator” is girded by dueling chromatic guitar lines that drag the song downwards in epic fashion. Ihsahn struggles a bit when he’s focused on subtler textures and ambient passages, and occasionally he goes overboard with the keyboard tinkering. It’s usually redeemed by a superpowered bridge section or perfect guitar solo.
The rhythm section from Norwegian prog-metal band Spiral Architect plays simpatico with Ihsahn’s ornate arrangements, and “Unhealer” vaults to the head of the class with a magnificent lead vocal cameo from Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt, one of the finest vocalists in all of metal. There’s a reason that angL is credited solely to Ihsahn though. It’s an album as much about composition and vision as it is about heavy-metal showmanship. Even if angL lacks the pagan fire of Emperor’s early classics, it shows that Ihsahn’s still got plenty of great ideas up his newly cufflinked sleeves.