2012's Eremita did a fine job of pushing the experimental envelope that Ihsahn so dearly loves to push, but Das Seelenbrechen bulldozes the poor bugger down an escalator and lords over it with a pointed finger while hysterically cackling.
Good news? Sure, if you're the type who thoroughly enjoys being consistently challenged by your favorite artists. Not so much if you were hoping this release would find Ihsahn ambling back toward the more straight-forward asskicking laid down with 2010's progressive paragon, After.
The most glaring difference between Das Seelenbrechen and its predecessors lies in the fact that it's clearly the least metal of the five albums offered under the man's solo banner. But despite the largely mellow slant, the blanketing emotion here still manages to produce a more dismal complexion compared to previous works, particularly following the relatively animated clip in which opener "Hilber" bounces from the gate.
The proggy but elegant "NaCl":
It's a moody, stripped and often pretty "dismal complexion." The onset of "Regen" before it eventually drifts into a terrifically majestic climax; the dark electronic tone at the heart of "Pulse" (sounds like a reawakened Paradise Lost One Second B-side); the grim and stark simplicity behind "Rec" and "M" (which eventually lifts to a bona fide Pink Floyd salute); and the brooding stroll of "Sub Alter" – it all whiffs of an off-kilter nod to the creepy, mellow side of modern Scott Walker, an influence Ihsahn made a point of publicizing as one of the notable design motivations behind Das Seelenbrechen. And if you haven't had the (grisly) pleasure of dipping your toes into Walker's unorthodox approach to unsettling, I'd suggest at least a cursory investigation of his infrequent work from 1995 and up.
Where we're likely to stumble across some unholy bellyaching (and by Hell, if there's any one thing metal fans love more than stumping peers with absurdly arcane shirts, it's bellyaching) is when the noisier, more improvisational angles bubble to the surface. Previous efforts still managed to hold on to some semblance of black metal, but Das Seelenbrechen approaches cruelty from a noisier, more jarring slant. "Tacit 2" and "Tacit" land directly in the middle and summon a torrent of unease with nine minutes of mostly percussive racket, and the stretched "See" closes out the album on a very unsettling note through seven minutes of scraping, improvisational creepiness punctuated by ghoulish howls of being "held under water." And although sixteen minutes of bedlam makes up for a relatively small slice of the comprehensive trek, it's the melding of this noise with the rest of the album's fluid moodiness that gives the full picture an impression of the darker, mellower side of latter era King Crimson/ProjeKcts 1-X, and that's bound to raise a few folks' hackles. Yet it somehow manages to work under the signature Ihasahn stamp. Sure, it ain't outwardly heavy, but it's a compelling brew that really delivers once it gets a proper chance to breathe.
Ihsahn has made a point of stressing the impression that this record represents "a sidestep before continuing [his] solo work with a full-on metal album again." While I can certainly appreciate his willingness to clarify his direction, it's unnecessary. Artists of this caliber who've spent years challenging boundaries are exempt from eccentric motive resolutions. Hell, everyone should be. Something I've come to learn over the years: the outright classics are obviously easy to revere, but there's an entirely different level of bliss involved when an off-color work finally manages to wriggle into the marrow. I suppose time will tell whether or not Das Seelenbrechen fully reveals itself as one of these gems. Right from the chute, I'd call it a compelling, peculiar digression that's certainly worthy of multiple returns.