Now considered by many to be a living legend in the metal community, Ihsahn’s artistic trajectory has been one of the most impressive in all of modern music. With Emperor, he transcended the early lo-fi and Satanic trappings of black metal to create a coldly symphonic and refined version of the genre. Since then, his solo career has seen him further exploring beyond the boundaries of metal, incorporating industrial and electronic, jazz, and straightforward rock & roll, making him one of today’s truly progressive artists. With the Telemark and Pharos EPs released in 2020, Ihsahn presents something of a breakdown of his musical personality, the dichotomies of light and dark, the aggressive and melodic, moving forward while paying tribute to the wide assortment of his artistic roots.
With Ihsahn brandishing his most virulent and demonic vocal tone and full of thrashy and dissonant riffs, fans of his heavier material will delight in the three original tracks on the Telemark EP, with the name taken from his home county, and for the first time in his career lyrics sung in his native Norwegian. With saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby returning, the ascending phrases and searing arpeggios of “Stridig” possess a darkly fanfare quality that recalls the sounds of past albums like angL and After, while the relentless atmosphere of Ihsahn’s beastly howls and speedy tremolo picking is vaguely reminiscent of the finest moments on Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. The same can be said of “Nord,” the noisy walls of scratchy distortion and guttural vocals offset by sparse keyboards and harmonized choir seemingly reaching back to the cold Nordic sounds of In the Nightside Eclipse, while the title track like a sweeping epic passed down by firelight moves through an ebb and flow of angular guitar passages that gallop like the ancient Viking hordes on a vicious campaign. Closing things out are covers of Lenny Kravitz’s “Rock and Roll Is Dead” and Iron Maiden’s “Wrathchild,” both performed quite faithfully and showcasing the youthful rocking exuberance of Vegard Tveitan before he took on the mantle of Ihsahn.
After such an onslaught, the Pharos EP might come across as more lightweight and, dare I say, poppy by comparison with songs like “Losing Altitude” with its lush vocal harmonies and interlocking layers of lithe guitar and piano, and “Spectre at the Feast” with its jazzy melodies befitting a smoky nightclub offset by a darkly soaring chorus. “Pharos” follows suit in almost symphonic fashion as the chiming guitars and pianos play upon waves of keyboards and offbeat rhythms that play like the soundtrack to a twilit fantasy; before long, the track ascends to a monolithic display of roaring guitars and deep choirs, and the results are nothing short of majestic. Like the preceding release, Pharos features two covers to close things out, with the deep wavering tremolo effect on the guitar mirroring the Fender Rhodes that was so prominent on Portishead’s original version of “Roads,” Ihsahn taking his voice into an uncharacteristic tenor range and more than doing justice to Beth Gibbons. In a final nod to his home country, the EP ends with a cover of a-Ha’s “Manhattan Skyline,” the wintry feel of the synths and the operatic croon of Leprous’ Einar Solberg recalling the electro-pop balladry of the original as the addition of rhythmic chugs and an incendiary guitar solo gives the chorus a weightier gravitas that only accentuates the often overlooked strength of a-Ha’s songwriting.
One can easily recognize the wisdom of separating the two EPs, for while the airier and more ambient tonality of Pharos matches the viciousness of Telemark, the contrast is taken to such extremes that it would make for a somewhat fractured experience should they be combined. However, listening to them back-to-back can conversely offer a more dynamic insight into Ihsahn’s artistic evolution, demonstrating the breadth of his musical knowledge and abilities, while also providing a lesson in keeping one’s mind open to different styles and influences.