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3 stars Pharos is the second of two EPs released by Ihsahn this year. Here Ihsahn delves deeper into the more atmospheric and melodic elements of his music. Clean vocals, minimally distorted guitars, synths and electronic beats dominate the album, which however does not dispense with occasional bursts of rawness in some of the tracks. With lyrics in English and a sound that feels modern and poppy, this is deliberately a very different beast than the other EP Ihsahn released this year, Telemark. However, despite the lighter musical approach, the atmosphere remains dark and somber, at times even doomish ? bringing to mind the recent works of bands like Leprous (whose singer, Einar Solberg, guests on one track here) and Ulver.

In keeping with the structure of its companion EP, Pharos also features a mixture of originals (three songs) and covers (two songs), for a total of nearly 25 minutes. The three originals offer a slightly more experimental version of the sound that Ihsahn has previously delivered on tracks such as "Sámr" and "Twin Black Angels" from his previous album Ámr. It's deceptively easy-listening music, where the light, spacious arrangements and clean melodic vocal lines are contrasted with dissonant guitar arpeggios, ominous sound effects, dark choral vocals, and unexpected bursts of chugging distorted guitars. The vocals are melodious but retain a dark, cold undertone and the melodies, while poppy, are never too catchy. The result is music that is easy on the ear, but surprisingly difficult to assimilate and relate to. It's only with repeated listens that I came to appreciate the full depth of the arrangements and the beauty of songs like the title-track "Pharos" and "Losing Altitude". The title-track is easily the highest point of the EP, featuring a mesmerizing contrast between the sweet, melodious waltz of the pre-chorus and the dark, ominous choral vocals of the chorus. I was less impressed with the other original song, "Spectre at the Feast", that feels somewhat more run-of-the-mill to me.

The two covers are the true surprise of the EP, though. On Telemark, the covers disappointed me, feeling awkward and out of place. On Pharos, they are simply spot-on. Portishead's "Roads" has exactly the same dark, subdued atmosphere that permeates on the three original songs of the EP. Musically, the song rests on a dark, distorted guitar arpeggio, treated and delayed to create a hauntingly beautiful, hypnotic effect. Ihsahn's slightly strained falsetto vocals might catch off-guard at first, but it beautifully conveys the fragility of the lyrics. The other cover, "Manhattan Skyline", is a song by Norwegian synth-pop band A-ha. Ihsahn's arrangement does not stray too far from the original (extravagant synth sounds included), although it provides more punch and drama on the explosive chorus. In this song, however, the scene is stolen by Einar Solberg's magnificent vocals, starting sweet and mellifluous in the verse to swell dramatically in the chorus.

Overall, Pharos is a satisfying EP that offers five diverse but consistently high-quality songs, and achieves what it promised to deliver: push the boundaries of the more melodic, progressive and experimental elements of Ihsahn's music. As in the case of its companion EP Telemark, the push is however not too hard, and Pharos does not fall in radically different territories relative to Ihsahn's previous output. What is remarkable, though, is how Ihsahn managed to create grim atmospheres using a musical palette that is largely comprised of poppy, light-colored tones, showcasing once more his outstanding talents for composing beautifully dark and dramatic music.

(Originally written for The Metal Observer)

Report this review (#2453877)
Posted Monday, October 5, 2020 | Review Permalink
kev rowland
Honorary Reviewer
3 stars What we have here is the second of two linked EP's, the first being 'Telemark', but while that was deliberately darker and heavier, here we find Ihsahn taking a quite different route. As with the other EP, this contains three originals and two covers, yet no-one would imagine a musician who formed the mighty Emperor at age 16 would show a love for A-Ha and Portishead! Recorded at his home studio, additional drums were provided by Tobias Solbakk, with Ihsahn providing everything else. He says that opener "Losing Altitude" is "a song about choices. Whats worth holding onto and whats just weighing you down", while "Spectre At The Feast", is described as "a fly on the wall perspective on the somewhat superficial aspects of society and all its fictional problems and fragilities." The title cut itself brings together the likes of Radiohead and Elbow, with wonderful clear vocals and is about "finding guidelines, direction, goals and hope. The potential of being a beacon; what and who will you attract to your shores."

The first cover, "Roads", fits in very well with the rest of the EP, both sonically and musically with some nice orchestration, and unless one knew the source one would never imagine that the singer is the same person who delivered 'Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk'. One can only imagine the shock of anyone not knowing his history looking into his back catalogue. This is music which would sit happily on the radio, and that is the case again with "Manhattan Skyline". Here Ihsahn has handed the vocal duties over to Einar Solberg (Leprous), and there is no doubt that this is the highlight of the EP. The vocals are wonderful, almost operatic at times, while Ihsahn provides just enough crunch on the guitars to show what this could be turned into if played fully metallic while staying true to the original.

This may not be what I would imagine when thinking of Ihsahn, and is generally not a style of music I would play a great deal, but one must admit he has done a wonderful job here and given he no longer cares what anyone think of him, if he ever did, then mission accomplished.

Report this review (#2582789)
Posted Saturday, July 31, 2021 | Review Permalink

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