Review Summary: Thanks in part to the remastering, Aspera Hiems Symfonia stands confidently among 'similar' works, and offers a unique voice in a crowded sub-genre.
The mid 90's saw a slew of quality black metal releases from Scandinavia. Several of the most critically acclaimed and groundbreaking of these were released within months of each other in 1994, including Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse; an album that simultaneously helped define the second wave's pinnacle of excellence, and in some ways undermine expectations for what was possible (or permitted) within the genre. It is no surprise then, that Arcturus' 1995 debut, Aspera Hiems Symfonia was overshadowed by the previous years' output. Listeners were perhaps still fawning over or even coming to grips with the transcendent power that was unleashed upon them only months before. AHS is comparably a much more overtly melodic and less abrasive album, though in hindsight, is arguably more progressive than other, more commonly cited examples of what came to be known as symphonic black metal.
That's not to say AHS was without its flaws. Unlike in Darkthrone or Burzum's case, the lo-fi sound was not an aesthetic boon to support the atmosphere; rather, the unbalanced mix and half-baked production smothered and nearly marred the beauty and majesty underneath. In addition to this, Garm, who had previously lent his still maturing vocals to the excellent Bergtatt, was perhaps overreaching with this one, and the result was an uneven, if highly ambitious performance.
In 2002 the album was remastered and released as Aspera Hiems Symfonia/Constellation/My Angel, with the latter two releases (a promo-CD and an EP respectively) being served on the second disc.
Aspera Hiems Symfonia
Abruptly, the album bellows forth in true form with 'To Thou Who Dwellest in the Night,' in which the opening riff and screeches present the barrage of sound one would expect from the genre, only with uncommonly accentuated melodic phrasing highlighted by keyboardist Steinar Sverd Johnsen. Like the other tracks on this album, the song shifts dramatically at points, offering a dynamic and progressive structure with heavily contrasting instrumentation and varied vocalizations. Compared to the original release, the difference in sound quality is staggering, with the vocals now accompanying rather than overpowering the mix. The updated sound is even more pronounced on 'Wintry Grey,' which stands as one of the album's highlights. The rerecorded clean vocals perfectly compliment Tidemann's quasi-neo-classical guitar riffs, all of which is supported by Hellhammer's flawless and varied drumming.
Arcturus' debut is generally not considered their first true foray into avant-garde territory (see La Masquerade Infernale), but such a distinction is misleading in light of the copious amounts of experimentation on display. From the oddly fitting vocals in 'Whence & Wither Goest the Wind,' in which Garm's shrieks and spoken words are recorded entirely backwards, to the faintly psychedelic keyboard solo in 'Naar Kulda Tar' (which sounds like the product of Emerson Lake & Palmer transmitting the fury of an ice storm), the album showcases a variety of musical techniques and melodic ideas that work miraculously within the framework of each song. The interplay between the guitars and keys in 'Fall of Man,' the album's apex, demonstrates a truly remarkable instinct for songcraft, all the while invoking Vivaldi's ghost amidst folkloric tales and wondrous snow-capped peaks.
Constellation and My Angel
The second disc contains all of the bonus content, with Constellation beginning the set with B-sides 'The Deep is the Skies' and 'Cosmojam,' followed by early versions of material found on AHS. Along with the aforementioned B-sides, the demo versions of tracks like 'Raudt og Svart' and 'Du Nordavind' stand in sharp contrast to their more evolved and refined counterparts, but are enjoyable nevertheless.
The EP My Angel comprises the last two songs on the disc, and interestingly enough, is the absolute highlight of the bonus material. The sound and mood of the title track violently clashes with the previous songs, and is akin to an unlikely joining of blackened doom metal and Pink Floyd. Likewise, the collection ends with the dungeon dwelling 'Morax'.
While certainly better known for their later works, Arcturus' debut is nevertheless an excellent and important addition to the symphonic black metal canon. The remastered set corrects the faults of the original release, and is thus a must own for Arcturus and black metal fans alike. The collection contains absolutely no filler in the main course, and offers a few oddities for longtime fans in the bonus content. As with most of the band's releases, Aspera Hiems Symfonia has enough experimental touches to make it stand out from its contemporaries, but it also demonstrates the songwriting necessary to match its lofty aspirations.