Review Summary: A classic of avant-garde metal - one of the few albums I could ever give a perfect score.
Arcturus was a supergroup of sorts featuring the renowned vocalist, Garm. Unfortunately they have recently disbanded but they've left a legacy of four albums and a DVD release. Like one of Garm's bands, Ulver, Arcturus' roots lie in black metal, but unlike Ulver, they did not delve into electronica. Instead they chose to march forth with their musical mastery into avant-garde territory. And indeed, there is no band which sounds like Arcturus - I feel they would be best described as theatrical evil freaky symphonic circus music.
La Masquerade Infernale is the second album and crowning achievement of Arcturus, a follow-up to Aspera Hiems Symfonia which is a symphonic black metal release. As Ulver did, Arcturus abandoned black metal, and took a wild turn and a deep plunge into untouched waters with this album. The piano and synths are the most important instruments here and are managed very well by Sverd, who is the primary composer for this album. Garm is also a critical part of the album - his vocal delivery varies greatly throughout. He goes from inane muttering to operatic vocals to whispered madness to reciting poetry. Garm is coupled with Vortex on several tracks, who would later go on to join Arcturus as a permanent vocalist. This isn't intended to downplay the instrumental contributions of Hellhammer, Skoll, Valle and the other guest musicians either - they all perform extremely well. What is clearly prevalent throughout La Masquerade Infernale, is the theatrical component of Arcturus - this is better conveyed on their Shipwrecked In Oslo live DVD. Garm comes across as an evil conjurer surrounded by his band which plays captivating and spellbinding music.
01 - Master of Disguise:
Master of Disguise opens with some creepy synths and unsettling samples which wouldn't sound out of place in a horror film, and they are backed by what I call 'sheep vocals'. Then the song moves into a section with a guitar riff overlayed by dual vocals and steady double-bass drumming in the background. A 'cooldown' period follows featuring only a 'dirty' sounding bass riff with sound effects in the background. Following that enters some of the most enthrallingly seductive piano I've ever heard - if there were to be theme music for Eve being tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, this would be it. The middle section consists of trade-offs between that same bass riff, verses and solo sections. The second solo is more of a catchy guitar riff rather than a traditional solo. Of particular interest is the way in which the keyboard chords are seemingly haphazardly thrown down in the background of the last two solos - it gives a chaotic feel to it... it's pure genius! The song finishes with the remaining verses and a stunning closing instrumental section with more beautiful pianowork and spine-chilling violin. This is most definitely the creepiest song on the album.
02 - Ad Astra:
As if to counterbalance the pure madness of the last song, Arcturus wrote Ad Astra, which is truly an amazing song and arguably their most prolific. Like the preceding song, it is chilling, but in a completely different way. Ad Astra opens with a sombre three note melody and gradually adds on a couple of layers before an 'electronica sounding' drumbeat enters and the violin adorns the song with a very classical sounding riff which upturns the mood of the song. Still yet, more orchestral layers are added and some are stripped away. Hellhammer's drumming here is incredibly tight. At 3:50 the entire song comes to a stop and a lone piano is introduced. As the string backing returns, the piano solo grows in complexity and beauty, unfolding its wings in flourishing elegance. Up to this point, the song is instrumental but it picks up its pace here with more conventional metal drumming and a couple of verses of unintrusive vocals. The song finishes gloriously with some swift soloing from the guitars and synths. This is a piece of neo-classical brilliance, and when I call it neo-classical, don't be discouraged, for this is what neo-classical music should be. Words don't do this song justice and it has to be heard to be believed.
03 - The Chaos Path:
The Chaos Path opens with a sumptuously evil sounding keyboard riff punctuated by the odd guitar harmonic. Vortex enters on vocals soon after as Sverd comes in with a carnival riff - you might want to pay attention to how brilliantly the guitar backing fits here. Following the third verse at around the 2 minute mark, the opening riff rears its ugly head with some kind of wickedly twisted and distorted instrument in the background. This is probably the least varied song on the album as a lot of emphasis is place on Vortex's vocal performance from verse to verse, which is excellent. Listen to the vocals from 3:45 to 4:00 and it will be clear that he is throwing his heart and vocal acrobatics into this song. Following this section, there is more of the majestic piano-playing which has presented itself already. The song concludes in a somewhat unusual way, with Hellhammer playing a kind of trip-hop beat.
04 - La Masquerade Infernale:
This self-titled track is a short one consisting of a simple piano melody, Garm's commentary, some swiping sounds as percussion, and the bass as lead instrument. It is a pleasant interlude and is presumably intended to act as the calm before the storm (Alone).
05 - Alone:
The opening to Alone is the closest on this album that Arcturus would come to their black metal roots as seen on Aspera Hiems Symfonia - we have speedy drumming with a synth riff and odd rhythmic guitar noises over the top. Garm enters as the song slows a little and it isn't long before the familiar hypnotising piano enters. The synths play an integral role in this song and lay the base for the fascinating guitarwork which comes in at around the 2 minute mark. It may be apparent to some that the lyrics of this song are actually from the poem, Alone, by Edgar Allan Poe. And somehow Garm manages to work them in with everything else that's going on, and it does not sound cramped at all. In fact, the following bass riff which gradually ascends in pitch heightens the song and serves to amplify Garm's delivery as the poem itself becomes more intense. The song concludes with Garm shouting "Of a demon in my view!" in his bizarre accent.
06 - The Throne of Tragedy:
The Throne of Tragedy opens with eerie synths, faint acoustic guitar in the background, and haunting breathy vocals which all mingle to give it a very atmospheric feel. Garm and the guitars kick in and there's some pretty cool stuff happening there. There are some two note backing vocals and as drawn-out synths start to dominate the song, the backing vocals are partially replaced by guitars playing two notes. If you listen hard (and perhaps I only notice this because I play bass), the guitar rhythmically complements the bassline very well... in fact, this song is rhythmically interesting in general. Also, listen to the way in which trippy synths smoothly interrupt Garm's verse at 3:52 and go off in another direction. The last verse is delivered rather emphatically and the lead guitar in the closing section is slightly peculiar - it sounds as if it's trapped in a bottle and escaping in small erratic spurts.
07 - Painting My Horror:
Painting My Horror starts out innocently enough with a rather unassuming bassline but frankly just becomes more and more confusing as it goes on. There's so much going on here... so much interplay between instruments and so many things happening. The song winds itself up and grows ever more wildly until everything stops in the middle of the song. A bizarre carnival keyboard riff enters and the song takes a strange turn. Garm with his lower operatic voice and Vortex with his higher pitched and more tenuous voice are singing as one here until what sounds like an electronic sitar comes in. Repeat, and the song closes with what sounds like a musical distress signal.
08 - Of Nails And Sinners:
Like the Throne of Tragedy, Of Nails and Sinners starts out more atmospherically. We have some bouncy synths complemented by catchy drumming and some piano interplay. Garm embarks upon his verses accompanied by drawn out epic synths, menacing church organ and backing vocals. This is the music one would hear if Dracula was welcoming you into his castle lair and inviting you to take part in some entrancing ritualistic ceremony with his vampire buddies. The song breaks down a bit with a lush organ melody, and a guitar solo and takes off again as the song ends with guitar/synth solo sections.
It is easy to see why La Masquerade Infernale is a revered album within the avant-garde metal community. It screams pure originality, innovation and quirkiness. It will most likely require multiple listens for you to appreciate the album and tolerate Garm's vocals. But do be mindful of the fact that this is avant-garde and Garm's brilliance shines through in unorthodox ways. Garm's delivery and the carnival themes in general might make you feel slightly uncomfortable and confused, but at the same time, La Masquerade Infernale is a mature and complex album. Garm's ambition, Sverd's finesse on keys and their mutual love for classical music are the primary proponents of this masterpiece. La Masquerade Infernale is a challenging listen at first, but will reward you if you can see the genius within. It is albums like this, full of fresh originality and replete with brilliant songwriting, which invigorate the musical scene.