Archive for the ‘Arcturus’ Category

Arcturus — The Arcturian Sign

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

The exact date is lost; but, there is one day back in 1996 that will always live in memory until it decays beyond recognition. Going out to check the mail at my house on Stirling Street, I found a single envelope, which contained a promotional CD. It came from a label I had not had prior contact with, Ancient Lore Creations. It would turn out that this label was linked to Misanthropy Records, who had been releasing Burzum’s records, run by Tiziana Stupia whom I was regularly in touch with at the time. I had never heard of the band, called Arcturus. The leaflet that came with the disc advised that this was their first full-length studio album, Aspera Hiems Symfonia. Ulver’s Garm was on vocals, with Mayhem’s Hellhammer on drums. That was intriguing, to say the least. I put the disc in my player. The next six minutes and forty-six seconds after that blew my brains out. It took some time before I was even able to hear the second song. To that date, it was the most amazing record I had heard come out of Norway. Behind the Mirror’s listener poll for that year (which, at the time, was certainly no small thing) had four songs from the album in the ten best songs of the year. It was an explosive musical event. Yet, it was barely imaginable even then how amazing and unique amongst European extreme metal the following albums would turn out to be.

La Masquerade Infernale and The Sham Mirrors are regarded as two of the very best avant garde metal albums ever made. The technical ability of the band was astonishing, displaying musicianship that was virtually derisive of Arcturus’ peers. The demented jester character of Garm personified in his distinctive vocal delivery placed Arcturus firmly in experimental territory, preventing the blazing lead breaks and virtuoso instrumentation from bogging the band down in a prog singularity trapping them in the niche of tech nerdism. Songs like “Ad Astra”, “The Chaos Path”, “Kinetic”, and “Radical Cut” were the peak of metal at their time, even if ‘the market’ may have not said so. “Ad Astra” was almost certainly the first black metal song played on RTRFM’s Out To Lunch, which in 1997 was an astonishing concept.

After The Sham Mirrors, Garm left Arcturus, with his musical direction well and truly having departed metal for good at that point. With that, 2005’s Sideshow Symphonies was inevitably Arcturus’ most divisive album. Simen “ICS Vortex” Hestnæs’ vocal performance was outstanding; however, he was always bound to be subjected to ferociously resistant criticism when stepping into the shoes of such an enormous creative personality. Despite its quality, the album did, in all honesty, lack the more bizarre elements of Arcturus’ 2nd and 3rd albums. At a concert in Melbourne, Vortex greeted the audience with the words “Welcome to the last Arcturus concert, ever!” Not long after that, the band confirmed that this was true, with the band breaking up.

Around 2011, the net began to buzz with rumours that Arcturus were reuniting. By September of that year, it was a reality, at least in the live performance sense. Three years later, the band announced that they were recording new material. The news was greeted with a mix of skepticism and people absolutely losing their fucking minds.

So, nearly ten years after their previous album, Arcturus are finally back with Arcturian, out through the German label Prophecy. Reunions are often a lottery, with nostalgia often clouding the judgment of even the best musicians. In Arcturus’ case, they have judged their position very well.

Arcturian begins with the fan base wholly wrong-footed, much like the secret track at the beginning of La Masquerade Infernale or Hallucinogen’s In Dub album. A passage of nu-skool breaks shows that Arcturus have lost none of their warped sense of humor and capacity to toy with their audience, magnified in this context by their full awareness of the trepidation over a reunion and the debate over their last album. Within half a minute they have exploded into their unmistakable sound. In metal, it is a matter of great difficulty to sound unlike any other. When you hear Arcturus, you know exactly who it is. “The Arcturian Sign” announces that this new album shall be no different.

So, with it having been over a decade since Garm left Arcturus, one would hope people are well and truly over the expectation that the band should sound like Garm is still the vocalist. It’s metal; so, we all know this will never be the case. You can’t make everyone happy. Vortex really steps out and well and truly makes the role his own on this new album. Like a deranged drunkard space pirate, he traverses an enormous range of styles, shifting in and out of deftly executed prog vox into berserk intoxicated off-key wailing and then ferocious black metal insanity.

There is a rawness and wild nature to the sound of Arcturian, perhaps not as rigid and polished as the first four albums. I have read that the recordings are of live performance in the studio, avoiding the tricks of digital sterilization that can often leave so many metal records sounding mechanical and devoid of anything organic. This may unsettle those determined in their preference of the pronounced sheen of previous albums. Alongside the vocal delivery of Vortex, it feels a wholly apt decision to go for something more alive and less processed.

Across Arcturian, there is a kaleidoscopic sound in the songs not present since the band’s second album. With the band having formed out of the mind of keyboard player and principal composer Steinar Sverd Johnsen, electronics have always played a big part in the band’s sound and remain ever present with greater stylistic diversity. Those wonderful strings that first appeared on “Ad Astra” provide, as ever, some of the great highlights of the record, such as in the cases of “Crashland”, “Pale”, and “Bane”. And, as always, the musicianship is of a level as though everyone else is just playing a game. These guys are heroes without the usually associated deluge of fromáge.

What Arcturus has managed to do with Arcturian is make, by far, their best album in nearly 20 years. It should be taken as a good sign that this is a band that causes arguments amongst metalheads, and this album will be no different. It is a testament to their uniqueness, established so long before American darlings were heralded as taken the genre to “new levels”. Arcturian shows the star will continue to burn brightly for some time still. Welcome back!

Arcturian is out now through Prophecy.