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Simen Haestnes is widely known as ICS Vortex and a former member of Dimmu Borgir, Borknagar and Arcturus. His usual duties were bass and vocals, both clean and extreme. In 2011 Vortex has released his first solo work called Stormseeker. Those who've listened to the above bands should remember Simen's nice lyrical singing manner. As for me, it was the main reason to get familiar with Stormseeker: I pretty much like Haestnes' baritone mixed highs, although they lack epicism in comparison with the best heavy and power metal singers and expression by contrast to vocalists generously gifted by nature like Serj Tankian.
Being a very capable and experienced musician, Simen has managed to perform not only his usual bass and vocals, but, due to simplicity of that new stuff, also the guitar parts. For performing drum parts and three guitar solos ICS Vortex saw right to invite a couple of his previous bandmates. On this record Haestnes doesn’t use extreme vocals like he did in some of his former works, and this decision can hardly be considered reasonable because of decreasing emotional variety of the album and giving nothing in exchange as a consequence.
While listening to Stormseeker, you can easily notice some weak but tangible imprints of Vortex’ black metal past: the record sounds in a bright and lightweight vein of prog-metal, yet some tremolo riffs and grim chords can occasionally be heard. Even so the album’s vibe is rather aetherial and soothing than dark: the author’s inclination to progressive rock/metal overcomes. Therefore, the black metal insertions aren’t so much efficient, unlike the stronger Scandinavian-Baltic feel that truly determines an atmosphere here and there (some Celtic themes have only arisen in «Skoal!»). These folk melodies supplemented by vocal and synth pathetics and particular riffs (in «Odin’s Tree», «Dogsmacked», «When Shuffled Off») sometimes make you feel something like hearing mid-to-late Bathory albums. Undoubtedly, Vortex can’t compete with Quorthon’s austere, as if carved in stone, skaldic images: the Norwegian’s inner Norseman isn’t that strong, but you can anyway perceive strong emotions of that kind in «Aces» and «Stormseeker».
But I should suppose that Haestnes’ general idea wasn’t to create that Bathory feel, but what then? Telling us the story about himself as a rebellious sailor searching for a storm? Yes, the musician has succeeded in creating a romantic sailing mood in the last third of the album, but there is little or nothing of any kind of metal here. Instead, this mood was created by means of progressive and blues-rock; the title song even reminded me of Jethro Tull in some fragments. But what about a storm the author was seeking for? I don’t know: either he wasn’t striving hard, or it was not on the cards. The scene drawn on the album cover exists only there and the music is only represented by its pale gamut: mostly calm can be heard and felt throughout the 45-minute longplay, with no storm or shipwreck eerie sounds.
So, it just happens that I'm a massive fan of Borknagar's 1998 LP The Archaic Course, which was quite divisive for its time, driving away a number of the fans who had likely hoped for a more vicious and streamlined evolution in the vein of their s/t debut. I mention this, because it just might be my favorite album ever to feature the soaring, avian howls of bassist/singer ICS Vortex. A beautiful mesh of streaming, oft jarring folkish melodies and progressively textured compositions, it's one of those rarities that grew considerably in my estimation throughout years of listening, despite an initial, lukewarm reaction. Since then, Simen Hestnæs has been through the Arcturus years, all of the later Dimmu Borgir drama, worked within a number of smaller projects, and for certain cemented his inclusion in the rogues' gallery of Norwegian musicians to watch.
I mentioned The Archaic Course, because this new solo effort, Storm Seeker is about the closest he has come to that sound. Hestnæs vocals are the central focus here, and he really strains the pipes, with one of his wildest and higher pitched performances. He's joined here by a number of well regarded musicians, including drummer Asgeir Mickelson (Spiral Architect, Scariot and more) and lead guitarist Cyrus (Susperia), and has since turned this into a full band. The riffs here range from slightly less involved barrages circa The Archaic Course ("The Blackmobile" or "Odin's Tree") to a lot of slower, measured fare. In truth, Storm Seeker casts its nets more in the progressive rock field than metal, and while it might not possess the same variable nature as his fellows in Arcturus, there seems to be a lot of exploration here, or 'feeling out' where he might take the project in the future.
So this is pretty damned diverse. You've got a pure synthesizer prog piece in "The Sub Mariner", for example, or a number of post-hardcore inflected emotional rock pieces like "Oil in Water" which make use of an undercurrent of gleaming dissonance, but in a friendlier context than some of his Borknagar stuff. You've got straight, heavy handed prog rockers like "Windward" or "When Shuffled Off" that reek of Rush and Yes influence, and a few super flowing pieces with only tinges of metallurgy, like "Flaskeskipper" and "Dogsmacked" (I take it the latter is a play on words that mocks a certain American band...but I cannot be sure). The vocals and guitars do feel a mite overprocessed, but not so much as the sample I heard months ago, and since Vortex does a lot of the writing and recording himself, it's not such a big deal.
He's got some catchy as hell chorus bits strewn about this debut, often redolent of Solefald, or Kristoffer Rygg's work in the band Headcontrolsystem, and yet at other times he seems to wail out of control. Overall, I liked the production and the style he was taking, the range, and the layering of organs, rock guitars and Mickelson's dynamic percussion. No two songs here totally feel the same. But then, at the same time, there's a margin of disjunction that falls somewhat short of breathtaking. Storm Seeker is an interesting listen, sure to prove to fans of The Archaic Course or Sideshow Symphonies that the guy has landed on his feet, but it's not the striking sort of album that I felt I needed to repeatedly experience.