Imagine yourself as a little kid watching a magician for the first time - sitting there in absolute awe, mouth probably hanging agape - not understanding what is actually happening but still loving every second of the performance. That essentially sums up my reaction to this album - I don't fully understand the wizardry that holds this show together and I don't much care, I'm just happy to soak it all in. Taking pages from Opeth, Sigh and his own past work in Emperor and other bands, Ihsahn has written an impressively consistent album considering the diversity in mood and texture throughout. This turns out to be one of those wonderful outings that actually earns its title as progressive metal - by no means is this simply technical noodling masquerading as "progressive." How one manages to tie together black metal, free form jazz, and more groove-based doom and make it work is far beyond my ability to comprehend but I'll chalk it up to wizardry. Well, wizardry, impressive songwriting and excellent production.
To say that Ihsahn is an incredible songwriter is to state the exceedingly obvious, but even considering his incredible back catalogue, After seems like quite a stride forward. Both lyrically and musically, After is a much more complex and mature work than anything he has done before. Take, for instance, the riff work on "A Grave Inversed" - the main verse riff gives the feeling of falling through some sort of vortex and that sensation is only heightened when a masterfully incorporated saxophone comes into play. Really, this is the pinnacle of that wizardry I've referred to on multiple occasions - Sigh is the only other band I can recall adding sax to metal with any success and this well surpasses what they have been able to achieve in that realm. Honestly, I'm not quite willing to name this as the best album that Ihsahn has had a hand in during his career, but the mere fact that I'm willing to mention it in the same breath as all-time masterpieces like In the Nightside Eclipse and Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk is pretty impressive for a solo work this deep into a career. Given the strong conclusion to his solo trilogy, I'm very interested to see what comes "after" for Ihsahn. (Oh please, you didn't think you were going to get out of this without the obligatory pun, did you?)
Best Tracks: A Grave Inversed, Frozen Lakes on Mars