At well under 15,000, the Norwegian city of Notodden has a population about the same as the house across the street from me but, when it comes to music, it punches insanely above its weight. It's apparently the blues capital of Europe, host to the annual Notodden Blues Festival, and it's also a pivotal location for black metal, as Ihsahn founded Emperor and wrote Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk there.
Mortiis, who was briefly in Emperor too, is also from Notodden, as are prog rock/metal band Leprous. Ihriel, who also records as Star of Ash and was a major part of avant metallers Peccatum, is yet another Notodden native; she is also Ihsahn's wife and the sister of Leprous main man Einar Solberg. This is my third review of a Notodden band in only fourteen months, which may be more than San Francisco or Seattle.
And, as tends to be the case with Ihsahn, it's a fascinating release, albeit a brief one because Telemark is a five track EP, two of which are covers. It will apparently be followed soon by another, this one more of a black metal-infused release and its successor more prog in nature. Of course, while the auteur behind these EPs may well shift along a line from one to the other, I seriously doubt that we won't hear both aspects on both releases.
There's the bleakness of black metal in opener Stridig even before it finds its legs and gallops onward at pace. Ihsahn sings in Norwegian here, and I'm assured by Google Translate that Stridig means "unconstitutional". It's more prog to me than black but it combines the harsh riffs and vocal shrieks with a melodic saxophone and martial drums. There's a real atmosphere to this one with much of the song dedicated to building that, the rest of its effort in finding arty and often jazzy tones within a vaguely black metal framework.
I don't need to translate Nord, which is more led by vocals than music for a while. There's torment in Ihsahn's voice here and melancholy in the backing vocals, which I presume he also provided, given that he's effectively a one man band in the studio nowadays. I like the sax here as well, because it's a darkly playful creature, always hinting at John Zorn-esque insanity but not once going there, instead adding an experimental tone.
Best of all is the title track, Telemark, another name that I don't need to translate because it's the region of Norway that contains Notodden. It does everything I've already mentioned but at longer length and with other sounds to elevate it further. I'm not sure what Ihsahn is actually playing early on but it sounds like bagpipes and a hurdy-gurdy. It gets proggy. It gets dark. It gets intricate. It's patient but eventually builds and delivers with wild density. At points, it almost seems to want to smother us but we're totally on board with that.
And then, having established a tone for this release, Ihsahn goes and shifts on a dime to throw us a couple of cover versions that we might not expect an immortal of black metal to take on. The first is Rock and Roll is Dead, one of the songs Lenny Kravitz was Grammy-nominated for. It's an odd selection I can't grasp. It isn't bad but it doesn't seem to add anything to the EP and I'm at a loss as to why Ihsahn chose to cover it. Maybe it's a message.
The second cover reminds us that the original black metal musicians couldn't be influenced by black metal because they were busy inventing it. They took their influences from bands like Iron Maiden, making Wrathchild an enticing song to take on. Ihsahn chooses to play it relatively straight, with the way he growls the vocals the biggest difference from the original. Well, and the sax. It feels odd to hear a sax on an Iron Maiden song, but it sounds pretty fine. Musically, this is close to the original, especially with the melodic guitar lines and the prowling Steve Harris style bass. It's fun.
I enjoyed this EP a lot. It runs under twenty-five minutes and a third of it points the way to what he's able to do nowadays apparently effortlessly. An entire album built on the ideas that sit behind the title track would be an album to camp out to buy the moment it's released. The other original songs are solid, if not quite up to the same level, and the covers, even Rock and Roll is Dead, are interesting. Bring on that second EP!