A solo album in the truest sense of the word, The Adversary has Ihsahn playing all instruments except the drums and doing all kinds of vocals from his harrowing deep growls to incredibly grim screams and fantastic clean vocals. Unlike the earlier Emperor material such as In the Nightside Eclipse and Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, Ihsahn’s vocals are upfront on The Adversary as with Peccatum. Not to say the guitar work is subdued here, but the vocals are certainly not behind the guitars as on his early works. Though all Emperor material is more violent and wicked than this disc, The Adversary is by far his most progressive work. Never before did he explore more creative rhyhmic tangents, blending a multitude of vocal and musical styles, and providing such intense vocal harmonies.
It is impossible not to mention Emperor when reviewing The Adversary. After all, the songwriter of both this band and solo record is the same musical soul. Those who are disappointed with this album are the ones who were expecting him to break new ground and re-invent the wheel. I doubt that was Ihsahn’s goal upon writing these songs to begin with. The material presented here borrows from all of his musical phases. There are clear nods to his earlier Emperor material where crushing guitars blend with hypnotic keyboards and maniacal screams on “Invocation”, a great album opener. The tremelo picking on this piece is nothing short of stellar, especially during the part they disappear under a soaring synth motif. Complete with enchanting acoustic passages and also Ihsahn’s expressive clean voice, this is easily one of the album’s best songs.
Besides the heavy and punishing material, there are also references to his past with Peccatum and Prometheus meets IX Equilibrium period Emperor as well as his main influences from way back. All of this is kept within a wide spectrum of avant-garde style progressive signature; thus calling the album merely “black metal” wouldn’t do it justice. There is simply more to it. Remarkable diversity is achieved on the unexpectedly melodic “Called by the Fire”, a song that sees Ihsahn paying a little tribute to the great King Diamond using his unique falsettos atop spattering cymbals and energetic guitar rhythms. This is arguably Ihsahn’s most melodic vocal performance in his career, where each line becomes instantly memorable, as he alternates between layered clean harmonies and effective shrieks. There is a fantastic guitar solo in the climax of the piece as well. “Citizen” recalls Arcturus, for its use of non-standard metal ideas. Following fast, tremelo guitars and powerful blast beats from Asgeir Mickelson, Ihsahn delves into a beautiful piano solo before ripping screams are filtered through chunky guitar harmonies.
The guitar tone on the album is amazing. Though a bit dry from a production standpoint, it serves its purpose perfectly. On “Homecoming”, sung by Ulver’s Garm with his incredible mellow voice, the clean guitar riffs are indelible. The tone is thick and intense, surrounded by ominous keyboards and sporadic bass lines. This song is written to perfection and far more progressive than anything Ihsahn has written before. “Astera Ton Proinon” and the final track “Pain Is Still Mine” both boast classical explorations that recall the heavier parts of Peccatum, with the former being formulated by soothing acoustic guitars, choir effects, and vocals that change from calm, clean vocals to tortured screams. “Pain Is Still Mine”, on the other hand, contains more elaborate piano work, with harrowing whispers and cinematic elements lending it a theatrical vibe, much like Arcturus’ Sideshow Symphonies.
Spiral Architect’s Asgeir Mickelson proves once again that he is Norway’s best drummer. His fills on the Emperor-like “And He Shall Walk in Empty Places” add to the song’s intensity, particularly because of Ihsahn’s unusually brutal growls and screams. “Panem et Circenses” also offsets corrosive, blackened thrash parts a la Mercyful Fate, juxtaposing blazing classical synths and pulverizing fretwork. Both tracks are masterfully arranged and recorded.
One of the most creative and important names of 90’s black metal, Emperor’s Ihsahn, has released a more than satisfying first solo album, which, in many ways, is a testimony to his greatness. I am absolutely in awe with this disc. Most, if not all, Emperor fans should love this disc.