Pharos by IhsahnRelease date: September 11, 2020
Label: Candlelight Records
Progressive metal maestro Ihsahn has been having a bit of an identity crisis of late. On the one hand, as lead vocalist for reunited black metal titans Emperor, he’s performing some of the darkest, heaviest music known to man. On the other, with his increasingly eclectic solo output, he’s incorporating calmer, more accesible elements into that sound, whether it be melancholic odes or catchy pop tunes. Now, the Norwegian has completely severed those two identities, releasing two EPs that each showcase a different side of his musical personality. Having returned to his frostbitten black metal roots on Telemark earlier this year, Pharos presents the lighter side to his musical oeuvre – a far more accessible, if still dark and moody slab of downbeat rock.
As with its predecessor, Pharos comes equipped with three new songs and two intriguing cover versions. The new tracks are an interesting mix – showing off in full the ear for a tune that Ihsahn has developed over the years, these songs are much more than leftovers from previous albums. The sweeping, gradual build of ‘Losing Altitude’ is the pick of the bunch, mixing a country twang with gentle piano sounds, before building into a triumphant violin ending. ‘Spectres at the Feast’, on the other hand is a more straightforward track, a simpler, if still very evocative rock stomper. The title track is a different beast, with a slower, more miserable feeling. There are occasional heavy drums, but the track is restrained, never quite kicking in as it threatens to.
It is the covers that really intrigue here however, and they are an odd pair. Portishead’s ‘Roads’ is transformed into a melancholic dirge – funky, but with the Norwegian’s trademark morose delivery still intact. A cover of a-ha’s ‘Manhattan Skyline’ is perhaps the most out there selection, as the Norwegian pop group seem like an odd choice of sparing partners. It somehow works however, with Leprous’ Einar Solberg providing his strained vocals to give the track a poignant feeling. It somehow manages to feel very Ihsahn while not straying too far from the original.
Ihsahn has been in excellent form lately, releasing a string of excellent albums such as Ámr and Arktis. Pharos is not on that level – it is obviously meant as a counterpoint to Telemark, the two releases complement each other superbly, in much the same way Opeth managed with Damnation and Deliverance. However, unlike those records something feels lost in the effort here – the Norwegian thrives on unpredictability, on the merging of the heavier and softer sides of his nature, and separating those sides leaves Pharos feeling a little diminished. The record would be worth checking out for the two intriguing covers alone, in particular the beguiling version of ‘Manhattan Skyline’. However, the original material won’t live long in the memory when compared to the rest of the Norwegian’s work. It’s almost like an identity crisis can be a good thing.