One thing that is safe to say is that whenever EMPEROR's Ihsahn is involved in a project/band, he definitely does NOT do one thing: Take the safe road. I think that neither EMPEROR nor PECCATUM (God, no!) nor his solo project could be categorized as mass-compatible mainstream, so when his latest endeavour HARDINGROCK came around the corner, it was pretty clear before even hearing anything that this would not be an easy album. This time around him, his wife Starofash and renowned Scandinavian violinist Knut Buen are taking on Norwegian Folk, but once more not the straight forward kind that we are treated to every now and then, but it, too, has that certain Ihsahn twist to it.
Now even though the relative simplicity of the songs already hints at the material being a little easier to digest than the brain warping (dis)harmonies of PECCATUM, "Grimen" still is not an easy album to get into. We get narrated passages (in Norwegian, of course), sometimes sparse instrumentation, unusual melodies and violin lines, vocals from clear over spoken to harsh, with three narrated tracks, two instrumentals and in the end five regular songs, which already raises the question, if it would be worth your money, but more on that later.
If "Grimen" is one thing, then it is a mood album, as in if you are in the wrong mood, this album will be a book with seven seals, so consider yourself warned already. I frankly am not sure, if I was just not fully in said right mood or if this album indeed has the issues that I encountered while listening, because despite some flashes of brilliance it seems to be lacking in several departments. The narrated passages on the one hand add to the overall character of the CD, but at the same time also alienate it, as they surely seem to have a reason to be there, but unless you understand Norwegian leave you pretty much out of it. The music itself, well, the Folk passages are dreamy and nice, evoking images of the Norwegian forests and mountains, everything nicely clear and also vocally variable (in "Fossegrimmen" Ihsahn unleashes his trademark shriek at us), but if you're looking for the gripping and unique character to take you under its spell and not let go, that's where the main problem of "Grimen" lies, it shows that there is a lot of potential, but it seems as if it couldn't fully unfold, in the end leaving you hanging.
Obviously we can never expect what Ihsahn is going to sound like in any of his musical incarnations and it has to be lauded that he is not afraid to take risks and leave any boundaries behind, but so far he always managed to come full circle and actually deliver a complete package from top to bottom (even though I still can't stand PECCATUM, but that's a wholly different story), which HARDINGROCK does not. A nice album, but "nice" is not enough...
(Online January 16, 2008)