Aspera Hiems Symfonia
(Century Media - 1996)
The cover on the CD says "... dark and severe symphonic art...featuring members of Ulver (Garm), Mayhem (Hellhammer) and Ved Buens Ende". In other words, an art-black-metal super-group, and given the output and musical approach of Ulver and Ved Buens Ende, this is something to get excited over. Although the Ved Buens Ende link is weak featuring only a live session keyboard musician, this is Sverd, who would later play for Covenant in the masterpiece 'Nexus Polaris' (which often sounds like Arcturus), and he is actually the star of Arcturus given that he is the primary composer. And the music here is chilling, majestic, fascinating, rich, colorful, dark, utterly unique and amazing art-black-metal. It is somehow melodic, 'symphonic', fascinating and artsy without losing the black and harsh, cold sound of Norwegian black metal at the same time. The keyboards are very prominent without resorting to the occasional cheesiness of Dimmu Borgir, with an obviously talented, creative, and tasteful musician at the helm. The music very often veers to atmospheric and gothic arrangements with a Classic Romantic influence, before soaring to another epic, harsh, ice-cold black-metal segment, sometimes even with a melodic guitar-solo, but all these sounds flow and merge with each other perfectly. Garm lends both his instantly recognizable clean Nordic chants as well as his glass-gurgling harsh rasps, and the vocals are often layered and chanted choir-style. In short, this a timeless and unique art/progressive/symphonic/dark black-metal masterpiece that never gets old, and it hasn't got a single boring minute in its full 40-minute running time.
La Masquerade Infernale
(Music for Nations - 1997)
Turns out that 'Aspera Hiems Symfonia' was only a warm-up, and even that album was a unique masterpiece. If any of you are getting tired of everything sounding basically the same, your ship has come home. This is an extremely original avant-garde masterpiece of undefinable dark music. One attempt at describing this music is: 'A combination of 20th century and 19th century masquerade ball, opera and auditory theatrical performance for vampires and demons'. The keyboards and sound samples have taken a leap into the experimental, and they have added operatic backing vocals as well as violin, viola, cello, bass, flute and clarinet, all of these used in unexpected and devilishly playful ways. The keyboards, drums and guitars are all still here and still metal, in a very loose sense of the term, though metal is here more in spirit than in sound. Some segments and songs feature more metal, such as the blasting 'Alone', but even that song morphs, splices and hybridizes dark art-metal and black-metal. But it's the rich vocal performance that strikes you first. The black-metal rasps have been chucked, and replaced with a bewildering array of vocal weapons and toys, in what could be described as a theatrical performance. Garm chants, drones, wails, sings, intones and belts with various timbres and sometimes distorted sounds, but it's Simen Hestnęs AKA Vortex who adds an inspired operatic madness to the whole proceeding on three of the tracks that truly stand out (in an album where every minute stands out). For some people, the very unusual, often forceful as well as playful vocals will be a hurdle. But for me, they worked very well. You will be transported to a secret thousand-year ball in a European dungeon with astounding creativity and musicianship stolen by the devil himself, with an atmosphere that is other-worldly. If this sounds challenging and out-there, then consider the fact that it clicked into place and became an instant masterpiece for me on the very first listen. And I only grew with admiration for it on subsequent listens. This is a mad-genius album of pure inspiration that will leave your mouth gaping with astonishment and musical pleasure.
Disguised Masters
(Jester - 1999)
I suppose it is natural for such an adventurous, experimental band, once it discovers the possibilities of electronica, to release an album that experiments in electronica and sound samples. Unfortunately, this is mostly trip-hop remixes with a lot of experimental dark-ambient or even dark-wave. So, first of all, a drastic mind-gear-shift is required. Now, I have enjoyed a couple of early outings by Mike Harris from Napalm Death in his electronica project Scorn, so I am not a complete stranger to this kind of dark electronica. But this album doesn't have the mastery of sound-shaping that those Scorn albums had, nor the feeling of a man in his element. This feels more like a man wandering into territory that is not his and incorporating other people's sounds, just to see what happens. It is also mostly remixes of tracks from La Masquerade Infernale, rather than original creations that would suit this sound better. I.e. it's people taking existing compositions and other people's sounds and then fiddling with buttons. Be warned however, some of the tracks are so re-mixed and re-sampled and re-imagined, they are unrecognizable. That said, there is one original on this album at the beginning which is miles better than the remixes: 'Deception Genesis', which sounds like an electronic, goth, doomy version of something from 'La Masquerade Infernale', and it's not bad. Unfortunately, one of the experiments include actual rapping on 'Master of Disguise'. There is also experimental ambient stuff on some tracks that reminded me a bit of 3rd and the Mortal (a good thing), but this is brief. One track is a mildly interesting but clunky atmospheric/electronic remixing of 'Du Nordavind' from the Aspera album. The last track features only classical string instruments playing 'Ad Astra' and that is interesting as well. However, besides the first and last tracks, none of this worked for me. It only made me want to run to hear the incredible originals again. Avoid, unless you are secretly into trip-hop when you aren't wearing corpse paint.
The Sham Mirrors
(Ad Astra Enterprises - 2002)
After the off-putting experiment of 'Disguised Masters', I was expecting avant-garde super-group Arcturus to go back to less electronica for this long-awaited proper release. With the first track, I thought I had gotten another remix album by mistake, seeing as it sounded like something from the Aspera album redone as space-metal-electronica with dark-wave crooning Depeche-Mode vocals. I also had to double-check that the vocal duties were performed by Garm, as this sounded like a completely different person with a higher-pitched vocal whom they grabbed from some 80s synth-rock or heavy-metal band. The second track sounded like a rehash of various bits and pieces from 'La Masquerade Infernale' which starts moderately nicely despite the same shocking vocals, but then suddenly veers to trip-hop electronica along with 80s synth-rock and clapping sounds, and a rocking high-pitched yell complete with a 'wooo!'. I was becoming extremely shocked and disappointed as it sounded like 'Disguised Masters' was more than just an experiment, and it had completely corrupted these people into making some space-electronica with heavy 80s-synth-rock and goth-rock influences. Granted, there were still some interesting aspects to this music since it is Arcturus we are talking about, but still... Good reviews for this album only made it even more confusing. Thankfully, the rest of the tracks greatly improved, albeit inconsistently: 'Ad Absurdum' is Arcturus back in form, the best track on the album, and much more 'art-black-metal' in spirit, merging the new goth-rock and space-metal sound with 'La Masquerade Infernale' without losing its way in commercialism. 'Collapse Generation' is part avant-garde space-metal, part cheesy Dimmu Borgir, but it is heavy and quite good. Garm should really avoid the falsetto range though. In this vein, things remain interesting-but-flawed space-black-art-metal for the final three tracks with some great moments and some weaker ones. Ihsahn performs the harsh vocals for a surprising throwback: the vicious and epic black-metal track 'Radical Cut' which gradually becomes more melodic, and it's a very good track, albeit out-of-place on this softer album. The last interesting track is ten minutes long and gets somewhat lost with a catchy 80s Depeche-Mode chorus, followed by lots of keyboards and Pink-Floyd-esque atmospherics, but it picks up in the superb second half with triumphant trumpets (!) and metal. In summary, this is a very varied album in terms of genre and sound, and with widely varying quality in the songs, and relatively a big step down from the first two masterpiece albums, containing too much electronica and deeply flawed, sometimes bizarrely upbeat vocals by Garm, and I can't say that the first two off-putting tracks grew on me. But, having said all that and despite all of these big flaws, it is still a good album overall with uniquely interesting and strong musical elements balancing out the poorer ones, and it further cements Arcturus as kings of symphonic avant-garde metal experimentation, especially when you need something different. As long as you skip the first two tracks, that is. But the first two albums were in a different universe of talent and inspiration, and this album can only disappoint when compared to those. I realize this review is the exact opposite of most other reviews, but there you have it.
Sideshow Symphonies
(Season of Mist - 2005)
This makes for five albums from Arcturus on five different labels, with five very different styles/genres. The first big change here is that Simen 'Vortex' Hestnęs, who performed so amazingly as one of the (operatic) voices on 'La Masquerade Infernale', has replaced Garm as vocalist. Except that here not only is he not always playing to his strengths (he tries raspy black-metal vocals and all kinds of strange singing voices), he is highly undisciplined and inconsistent with his voice-control and singing quality. In other words he has an enjoyably unique and clear vocal that often sounds a little higher than a tenor, but he also tries his hand at many different expressive timbres and pitches, as well as unusual vocal lines to make the performance more artsy and expressive, several variations of which are clunky, lacking breath control or otherwise amateurishly expressed, sometimes badly clipping his vocal lines. Frankly, he is the biggest hurdle on this album, even though I loved him on 'La Masquerade Infernale'. That said, most of the time he is quite good, definitely better than Garm's strange outlier performance on Sham Mirrors. And he is definitely an acquired taste, his voice growing on you until it becomes uniquely enjoyable and even addictive, barring the aforementioned unsuccessful and inconsistent moments. In fact, strangely enough, after many listens, his performance here has grown on me very very well and I find myself coming back to this album often. By the way, Silje Wergeland from The Gathering provides great backing vocals on two tracks. The music, thankfully, has mostly distanced itself from the too-heavy use of 80s-synth keyboards and electronica and is better balanced this time and much more interesting, although it is more moody and dramatic, as well as being much more 'art-metal' with a serious and less upbeat approach than the previous two albums. This approach, however, means that the music doesn't soar as often as previous brilliant Arcturus compositions, focusing more on making moody sounds and providing a background for the upfront eccentric vocals. Sometimes it made me think of Marillion with its emphasis on artistic vocals as the primary instrument, other times the many atmospheric keyboards and wailing guitars together with this vocal pitch reminded me of Pink Floyd, but, once again, this is a very unique and difficult-to-define sound from Arcturus. Despite all these flaws and criticisms, there are many undeniably strong brilliant songs and segments on this album, as well as some compositions that grow on you once you tune into Vortex's style, especially when he is on form and backed by powerful music that reminds us of the old Arcturus: 'Hibernation Sickness Complete' is an amazingly good track, and 'White Noise Monster' is a good, albeit simpler one that I also liked on first listen. 'Evacuation Code Deciphered' grew on me very nicely despite initial reactions to the strange vocals, and I now consider it one of the best tracks of the album. Similarly, 'Deamonpainter' grew on me very slowly and bizarrely until I decided it is a strange masterpiece. Then there's 'Shipwrecked Frontier Pioneer' and 'Moonshine Delirium', both of which remain deficient even after many listens due to the flawed vocals in the first 3-4 minutes, but I grew to love and admire the rest of these tracks so much that this eventually overshadowed the flawed sections. That leaves only two tracks which remain broken even after many listens. In summary, this is a grower and an acquired taste, but once you acquire it, it becomes an amazing album despite some flaws. Vortex's vocals are a hurdle, but also a uniquely enjoyable and rewarding experience. I was unable to overcome this hurdle for some tracks and segments even after many listens, but otherwise, I rate this album very highly in their repertoire and, like 'La Masquerade Infernale', it offers unique and gripping musical enjoyment, only this one requires an investment this time. It is definitely much better than The Sham Mirrors. Unfortunately, they broke up after this release.
Shipwrecked in Oslo (live)
(Blood Music - 2014)
After the breakup, this live release celebrates a reunion. Unfortunately, Vortex's lack of discipline and his inconsistencies in vocalizations and breath-control in the studio album are made much worse in a live setting. Six of the tracks are from the 'Sideshow' album, two from 'Sham Mirrors', four from 'La Masquerade Infernale' (they know what their masterpiece is), and only one from 'Aspera Hiems Symfonia' (probably due to the vocals), with a surprise inclusion of 'Deception Genesis' from their remix album, and a guitar solo. The Aspera track is instrumentally exciting but vocally eccentric and very broken, the majesty of the Masquerade tracks is lost here with sloppy vocals, even the ones that Vortex did originally. The best track from Sham Mirrors 'Ad Absurdum' is actually improved with Vortex on vocals, in the first half at least, but then he goes off into his own world again, and 'Nightmare Heaven' remains a bad track for me. Sorry guys but, although this is nicely done instrumentally, I simply can't enjoy such sloppy vocals. The primary reason to check this out may be the DVD with its theatrical/circus performances and costumes on stage.
(Prophecy Productions - 2015)
Unexpectedly, we get another Arcturus studio album. The first surprise is that it sounds like Vortex has taken breath-control exercises and his singing is much more consistent and strong here, without getting rid of his eccentric and wide variety of expressive vocals. This is a great improvement and gets rid of the primary obstacle in the last studio release, but whether one enjoys these eccentric vocals is still going to be highly subjective. The other surprise is that, to my ears, this is the first album where Arcturus doesn't switch to something completely new (they did that five times). Though this is a high-level observation and there are some new approaches to composition and some new elements within the music. In general, it sounds like an amalgam of the moodier, atmospheric 'Sideshow Symphonies' together with the bizarre but partially successful mix of Depeche-Mode or upbeat 80s-synth with space-metal electronica and harsh black-metal in 'Sham Mirrors'. There is also a light sprinkling of the dark playfulness from 'La Masquerade Infernale' on some tracks, touches of extreme dark black-metal, and a welcome return of a violin here, though this time the violin is much more folksy than classical or theatrical. So, once again, it is impossible to peg this album, since each track is different and there is a bewilderingly rich variety. The production mix suffers a bit like so many modern albums, boosting some ranges to over-loudness and partially drowning out important things like vocals, but it's bearable and only a minor flaw. Does all this work you ask? Well, it is definitely interesting, different and full of variety, and it requires a few listens if you are adventurous and not a metal purist. But you wouldn't and shouldn't be listening to Arcturus otherwise. My conclusion was that it is a mixed bag with both brilliant as well as failed or clunky tracks. It is both better than Sideshow Symphonies in terms of vocals and therefore more consistently good, but also has relatively fewer brilliant moments and more bad tracks overall. If you can extract/separate the good (6 tracks) from the bad, you will get a highly enjoyable, unique and fascinating album by the inimitable Arcturus, and it's definitely a worthwhile investment. Simen 'Vortex' Hestnęs is sometimes brilliantly different, but many times he is just trying too hard to be edgy and artsy without a solid musical instinct of what works and what doesn't. He is way out there, but this time he lands on his feet more often than he falls. He also uses a wild and sometimes out-of-control harsh screaming rasp that works 99% of the time this time around. As I said, this is an album too fascinating and enjoyable to miss. The excellent tracks are 'The Arcturian Sign', 'Archer' and 'Bane'. 'Bane' is actually Vortex at his most insanely brilliant with demented vocals that work and it reminds me of the Masquerade album and perhaps also the band Devil Doll, and it is quite a musical and emotional journey. Both 'Angst' and 'Pale' have some weaker moments and flaws but overall are very good as well. 'Crashland' is merely OK but nothing special. The other four unlistenable tracks contain too much cheesy 80s synth, electronica and/or clunky/awkward vocals. This album was also released with a bonus CD containing remixes purely for electro-heads and ravers.

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