Black metal. The dark side of the force. The friend that is around all too often.
You try to stay away from it, but it never stops taunting you. You can't escape. It constantly whispers "play that snare faster... make your vocals more high pitch... synthesizers will make this sound more evil or epic..."
Arcturus, whilst not as strong as Ulver, have still put in a pretty good effort in losing their black metal sound. Just listen to Star Crossed from The Sham Mirrors, or Ad Astra from La Masquerade Infernale. But there's a history... the symphonic black classic Aspera Hiems Symfonia. And in every album they've done you can almost literally hear it lurking in their minds, telling them they're not being "true" enough.
But they kept strong, always keeping that weird, spacey edge to them. Thanks to anti-conformist extraordinaire, Trickster G. His versatile vocals, sampling skills and production qualities are simply unmatched. What happens to Arcturus when he leaves?
Sideshow Symphonies was released on the 20th of September in 2005, presumably on Candelight records. The line-up is essentially the same (Sverd, Knut and Hellhammer) but with Skoll (played on Aspera, I think on Masquerade, and played for Ulver in their 'black metal' trilogy) returning on bass and Simon "Vortex" Hestęs (Borknagar, currently in Demon Burger) on vocals. Oh and there's an added rhythm guitarist whose name escapes me. AND there's some girl doing the occasional vocal.
Now, what does a line-up change like that mean?
What it means is that we get 5 people that have played together before (remember, Simon sang on La Masquerade Infernale) and one new kid. What does this usually mean? Yes, correct, it usually means they have a sought of instant chemistry most of the time. You'd assume they know what Arcturus is about; not sticking to conventions, but still keeping the metal edge.
Wrong, but also kind of right.
I guess I'll start talking about individual instruments to explain my point.
Sverd. MY MAN. He keeps the spacey and avant-garde edge to the music. I am his bitch, the guy is a genius. No one else could add piano to roaring black metal without sounding goofy. But what's wrong... oh you already know what I'm going to say. You don't? Well ok. PRODUCTION! MIXING! Sverd pops up sometimes, but most of the time you have to try to hear him. Which is a severe disappointment and nearly ruins the album already.
A good example is Shipwrecked Frontier Pioneer. If you were able to hear Sverd's keyboard during the really fast, uplifting and jolly section then it'd probably be the best bit of the album. But no, it just sounds, well, try-hard (saved by the vocals though, but let's get to them later). Skoll said in a Metal Maniacs interview that this is because of mastering troubles, and the band wishes to remaster it sometime in Winter. So we might see a significant increase in this album's goodness. Oh, and Sverd does sweet ambient intros to most songs too.
Now to the best thing about this album. You think I'm going going to say Vortex's vocals, don't you? Wrong there, my friend.
No, not Hellhammer either.
Now, no one seems to recognise how awesome the guitar riffing on The Sham Mirrors was. Every riff sounded completely different to anything else created. Awesome. They actually improve on this release. The new rhythm guitarist is actually very rock-influenced, and Knut is known for his great riffs, and thus we get a very guitar album. That's where it gets a little weird, Arcturus just sound awkward when they focus on guitar. And the tone is very bizarre. But after a while you get to know how awesome the riffs are.
Now that's what I was getting to. The guitars get very fast and distorted sometimes, which actually highly resembles a lot of death metal (Moonshine Delirium features some awesome death riffing). This is actually a good thing and keeps the avant-garde feeling. But the thing about this is that Arcturus keep shifting through being happy, epic space-pirates and evil black metallers. You get the beautiful Deamonpainter (best song on the album), but you also get the dark and evil White Noise Monster. It's just confusing and makes it clear that although these guys are very familiar with one another, they just don't know what direction they want to take this in. Makes the album feel very disjointed and all over the place.
Skoll... Skoll does some awesome lines, but I can never really hear him. Production. Still he's known as a legend of bass so I have to give him credit I guess.
Hellhammer doesn't need discussing, but the production of his kit does. Dear lord. You can't make spaced out, happy music with a cruddy sounding bass drum. It sounds like mud being thrown at a brick wall. The fast, death metal bits on this could've been so much better with good bass sound. But still, the guy has amazing, technical playing and doesn't show off. He keeps on giving. Oh, and the snare sound is very unique and I actually love it.
Vortex. Now apparently this guy is really versatile so I guess I have to describe how he sings on this. Sometimes he sounds very arabic, but he spends most of the time in this folky, Norwegian and operatic mode. He will take time to grow on you, he sounded craphouse to me for the first few weeks of listening to this but now I think his vocals are gorgeous.
Now, again; he does mess this album up a bit. The first track, Hibernation Sickness Complete, has a very awesome section with death guitars, brutal drumming and chaotic piano (which is brilliant, a highlight of Sverd's playing) and Vortex doing a sweet black metal screech over it. He ends the song like that, and begins Shipwrecked Frontier Pioneer the same way, but never does it again. I don't know why, it would've been cool if he'd kept it up.
Vortex's lyrics use very bizarre metaphors, but are still more emotion-based than Trickster's deep-for-the-sake-of-being-deep ramblings. I like them.
The female vocalist (I bet it's the result of her being with one of the band members and having a fight about "you never involve me in your band!") actually does pretty beautiful things, although she's only in two songs. Her solo in Shipwrecked Frontier Pioneer (yes I'm getting sick of writing that) nearly brings a tear to my eye everytime, and she sounds lovely backing up Vortex in Evacuation Code Deciphered.
So, to wrap this up, this band does not know what they're doing. Do they want to be a big spacey, progressive band? Do they want to be yet another band that swaps between black/death and epic metal? Do they want to be avant-garde? It seems like they're trying to do it all, and although it works sometimes, it just makes the album seem like a mess.
Best track, I said it before; Deamonpainter. It begins with an awesome combo of piano and clean guitar, and it has Vortex's best vocals. And it also has my favourite Arcturus guitar riff (the heavy one), next to the beginning one off The Sham Mirrors of course. It's just beautiful, it reminds me of something that would be on La Masquerade Infernale.
If you're going to buy this, wait until they remaster it. It might end up being heaps better. Before then, at least try downloading a few tracks, because I'm literally the only person in the world that thinks this has bad production, in fact everyone thinks it's the best thing about this release.
- Sweet riffage, the most consistent release in terms of guitar.
- The ever-present Hellhammer.
- The vocals.
- The funny, yet great promo photos.
- Dear lord the production reeks.
- The band doesn't know what they want to play.
- Feels very disjointed at times, like the band is unsure.
- It makes you fear that Arcturus are turning into a Borknagar clone.
END. Sorry, I'm tired, I drag on when I'm tired.