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If any of you have been following the progress of this project over the years, you'll probably know what to expect from this release. Ten tracks, without titles, spanning some forty minutes, in a neo-classical (or would that be pseudo-classical?) vein from Emperor's front man and main composer Ihsahn. The title of this work is meant to instruct you on how to interpret it: 'Somnium' is Latin for 'dream', and this work, much like a night reverie, meanders through many different styles, paces, tempos, and musical soundscapes before it finishes. I'll be honest and say that at first a lot of this didn't really strike me as being top-notch material, as you would expect Ihsahn to release (especially given the immense delay in putting this out - he has been working on it, supposedly, for almost ten years), and it really sounded to me like most of it was composed recently, because it reflects in no small part the keyboard/synth/classical motifs that are now present in Emperor's sound since their last album. But I found that it grew on me, slowly, and it is almost always multi-layered and technically complex, so that it easily rewards multiple listenings.
I didn't know at first if this project was the result of Ihsahn's individual vision for a completely different sound outside of Emperor, or if this was really just a series of riff-snippets and out-takes culled from the Emperor cutting-room floor. At times I felt like both possibilites were valid - it is original, and often moves in directions that Emperor wouldn't be able to follow, but it also often evokes Emperor's particular brand of neo-classical melodicism.
The first track is somewhat misleading, as well, as it sounds like Mussorgsky or Grieg (read: dark carnival music), and it doesn't really give you an adequate picture of what is coming later. The second and third tracks are much slower, darker, and patient in the unfolding of their motifs, and once I got used to their shadowed melodicism I found this record fulfilling some of the expectations years of hype had planted in me. Track four, for example, is an interesting piano piece that seemingly transpires in a locked attic, where the voices of the dead call out over and under the running melodies... it's very effective in establishing an individual mood. Of course with the next track that mood is shattered and left behind as the dream moves forward into a new realm.
As you would probably expect from a musician who has risen from the black metal scene, a lot of this music is epic in intent (if not always in scope or realization), seemingly always reaching towards bombast or glorious refrains echoing off the sky - thunder to shake the throne of God, as it were - but this records also contains many quiet, introspective moments that I found particularly enjoyable. It would be interesting, I think, to hear Ihsahn compose something more in that style - say, closer to Burzum than Bathory: minimalistic, fragile, echoing, eternal. However, I am left satisfied knowing, at least, that he does have a interest in that kind of subtle, quiet melodicism, and that he is able to create moods or atmospheres with his music outside the grandiose slash-and-burn aesthetics of Emperor. While this record is often too militaristic and Wagnerian for my taste, I wouldn't hesitate to say that it is also very interesting, and contains a number of melodies, movements, and themes that I found strangely relevant or evocative. You can rest assured that this isn't anything like Mortiis's litanies of slow boredom, for example, and neither is it just a collection of intro-pieces from Emperor songs that never made it completely into existence. It is an individual work, and as such it stands on its own and must be understood as something outside Ihsahn's other musical endeavors. I wouldn't recommend this to everyone, but for those of you who are interested in neo-classical music, or who find themselves strangely stirred by Emperor's symphonic side, this might prove uniquely enjoyable.
I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this disc. It's essential, to be sure - the even stronger neo-classical/symphonic leanings of Emperor's Prometheus obviously stem from Ihsahn's work on this album, and one gets the impression that both in terms of the synthesizers used and the compositions on that Emperor album, Somnium was a kind of testing ground. I consider it essential at least to Ihsahn's musical progression (as was the particularly odd Amor Fati by his now-main band, Peccatum) - one would imagine what kind of expression would have appeared on Prometheus had Ihsahn not had those two albums as an outlet.
Anyway, those familiar with the extremely bitchin' intro to The Eruption will be on familiar ground, here. Most of the music is synthesized neoclassical composition, with varying effects and an occasional guitar sound thrown in to make things sound even more apocalyptic and weird. For the most part, things are well done on this album, although there are some moments that seem to be thrown in to test the technology rather than to stay in tune with the rest of the compositions. Hopefully Ihsahn will continue to write music for this project, as what's here is promising, and what he's done since show a definite upgrade in his neo-classical compositional skills. What's here is definetly promising, just not characterized by the calculated genius Ihsahn is capable of.