“My headless six-string is the color of Hannibal Lecter’s couch… and I have an Oxblood Red model inspired by his office!” How Ihsahn combined horror scores, blastbeats and space-age guitars for a black metal album to eclipse ’em all

Heavy metal and classical music may appear to be diametrically opposed, but there’s a lot to be said about the shared kinship between them. And few understand this as well as Norwegian musician Vegard Sverre Tveitan – the man better known as Ihsahn to his army of fans around the world. 

As the founding singer/guitarist of Emperor, whose 1994 debut In The Nightside Eclipse is widely considered to be ground zero for symphonic black metal, he was able to layer orchestral sophistication into some of the most twisted noises ever conceived by the human mind, daring to delve deep into the baroque to further intensify the gothic qualities within his own compositions. 

In 2006 he embarked on a solo career which has seen him thrive in the progressive leftfield, pairing extended range guitars with synths, soundscapes and even saxophones. 

On his new self-titled double concept album, however, he’s revisiting some of the musical concepts that kickstarted a new wave of cinematic extreme metal, once again finding ways to link the contrasting worlds of six-string aggression and classical finesse. 

The dualities at play are further emphasised by the two versions of each track – one led by distorted guitars and another reimagined in full orchestral form. Bearing similarities to the final Emperor album, 2001 masterpiece Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire & Demise, it’s undoubtedly one of the finest metal releases you’ll hear this year.

You grew up worshipping heavy metal acts such as Iron Maiden and King Diamond. But where does your love for classical music come from?

“I really appreciated the musical language and use of harmony on the soundtracks I grew up with. It was composers like Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams and Bernard Herrmann. I loved all that stuff, which is why I put keyboards into my music from the early days.

“And though it’s also elevated proportionally to my experiences in adult life, this new album is me stylistically going back to my roots and basic core elements. If you boil it down, it’s a black metal band with all the guitars, blastbeats and screaming plus a traditional symphony orchestra.”

I’m not even trying to intellectualise this, because my gateway into orchestral music was through horror movies!

Much of your discography proves that metal and classical have a lot more in common than just Ritchie Blackmore, Yngwie Malmsteen and the harmonic minor scale…

“Exactly. I find they go together very well because they try to achieve a lot of the same energy and emotion. There’s a lot of classical music that’s very serious, for instance. And I’m not even trying to intellectualise this, because my gateway into orchestral music was through horror movies! 

“I found the eerie atmospheres of those scores came from the same kind of emotional landscape as a lot of metal – a lot of dark textures and minor stuff. So that’s why I ended up doing two versions of this album. It’s pretty much exactly the same music arranged and performed through different ensembles, but both versions are trying to achieve the same thing.”

The chord progressions feel unpredictable, which – again – can be said of many a classical piece…

“I had some dogmas and rules going into this, like writing the whole album without any traditional diatonic chord progressions. Instead I focused on all the harmonic colours I associate with those older soundtracks, like outside scales and Messiaen modes. They sound so eerie. 

“I didn’t have much of an understanding of it early on because I’m self-taught and not big on theory, but I started to look into what system Jerry Goldsmith was using to get these colours. Extreme music lends itself well to experimental arrangements. You don’t need big catchy choruses. You can be more adventurous, I guess.”

Extreme music lends itself well to experimental arrangements. You don’t need big catchy choruses. You can be more adventurous

Extreme metal is well-known for being technically demanding. You recently shared a play-through of new track Pilgrimage To Oblivion and it’s quite relentless on the alternate picking front…

“I’ve just started rehearsing for the live shows and I’m now realising it’s really hard! Most of it written as a piano short score and then I would arrange it from there. And because it’s not diatonic, I have no muscle memory for this shit. 

“Some of the voicings and progressions are insane. They make no sense from a traditional guitar playing perspective. I do sometimes end up regretting writing this stuff because later I have to play it and sing at the same time. Pilgrimage To Oblivion is so fast!”

What kind of exercises helped you get up to those speeds?

“What helped was playing that way… a lot! When I started out, it was mainly fast stuff. You can hear it on early Emperor albums like In The Nightside Eclipse and Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk. But it’s different these days – we make records in a studio and then have to teach ourselves how to play it live. Back then, the songs came from us being in a rehearsal space playing these songs over and over again. 

“One thing I’ve noticed is that I have a very loose wrist, especially when I’m strumming chords. It’s a shaking motion and I fan out my fingers almost like a pendulum. 

“I tilt my wrist downwards, because dangling it that way is a much easier movement than the typical writing motion which is more sideways. I also tilt my pick forwards, so it slants down and doesn’t get caught in the strings. Though with single notes it’s less pronounced because I need to dampen the other strings.”

You’ve been using Aristides guitars since 2016 – a boutique Dutch company best-known for using their own ‘Arium’ composite instead of conventional body woods like mahogany, ash and alder…

“They have a patented material to simulate a perfectly sustaining piece of wood. It’s so consistent. I guess it works differently for other people – some might enjoy the excitement of playing and sounding differently on a Strat compared to a Les Paul or a chunky neck Tele. I like to mix and match instruments but have my playing style remain exactly the same. 

“And in terms of practicality, as a touring musician, I love how Aristides instruments are not affected by temperature or humidity. I can fly to Japan and when I take my guitars out of the cases, they’re all in tune and play exactly how they did at home. They’re an amazing company. 

“I have all of their models, from the classic Telecaster- and PRS-style ones to other sixes and sevens, plus eights with slanted frets. Ergonomics is another bonus. I always feel at home. Even the ones with extra strings feel as comfortable as a regular guitar. I love the headless models. I even have one of the nine-strings!”

So which one did you use most on the new recordings?

“I think 90 per cent of the album was recorded with my headless six-string. It has deer antlers as inlays around the 12th fret, and its Mint Blue finish was inspired by the Hannibal television series, which I’m obsessed with! I’ve been borrowing colours from that show – that shade of blue is the colour of Hannibal Lecter’s couch and I also have an Oxblood Red model that was inspired by his office! 

Maybe I’m getting old, but I don’t like my distortion to be too dense. I like as little gain as I can get away with

“I used an eight-string on one song. Using Aristides makes trying out different pickups so much fun, because the consistency of the material is very dependable. You can really hear the quality of each pickup you wire in, it all shines through! I predominantly use Bare Knuckles, but those new headless models have Lundgren pickups, which also sound amazing. I currently have Fishman Fluences in my Tele models. 

“This is actually my first album entirely in drop C. I’ve done things like drop D and drop A in the past, but I’d never done drop C, which is like an in-between range. It was a perfect match because my guitar had the same tuning as the cellos! That made it easier to imagine how everything would work together. There was a practical purpose to it.”


(Image credit: Andy Ford)

You’ve used Blackstar amps a lot over the years, and we’ve seen you posting about plug-ins made by Neural DSP and Bogren Digital. Would we be right in guessing it was a blend of both worlds?

“Yes, it was a mix of analogue and digital. I did bring out my old tube heads: there was my Blackstar Artisan 100 which is built like an old Plexi, some vintage Marshalls, the Engl Savage 120 and an Orange Tiny Terror with pedals like the [Misha Mansoor-owned] Horizon Devices stuff. 

“One thing that was new for this album was this high-end tube amp made by MLC in Poland, which had been recently sent over. It sounded amazing so I ended up using it for nearly all the rhythm guitars. It looks very modern but has a very Marshally quality to it, with a little more oomph.”

It sounds like you definitely have a lot of gear at your disposal!

“I’ve been fortunate in having so many guitars and amps. But it was never really that practical before, getting connecting to cabinets, having to crank everything and choosing mics. But the Two Notes Captor X really helped with silently tracking my real amps. Then I’d use the Nolly GGD cab sims, mixing and matching microphones as I pleased. It sounded great and was so easy to use. 

When you’re one person doing everything, you don’t want to be distracted by mic placements while creating

“For leads, I used a lot of Neural DSP technology. I tend to record my DIs with a generic sound and then put on my engineering hat for all the reamping later on. When you’re one person doing everything, you don’t want to be distracted by mic placements while creating.

“As for the chimey clean stuff and ethereal leads, I used both the Neural DSP and Bogren plug-ins. Maybe I’m getting old, but I don’t like my distortion to be too dense. I like as little gain as I can get away with, because I want the definition and punch from the strings. Separation is key!”

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