Aspera Hiems Symfonia

Arcturus - Aspera Hiems Symfonia ©1995 Ancient Lore/Century Black
1. To Thou Who Dwellest In The Night
2. Wintry Grey
3. Whence & Whither Goest The Wind
4. Raudt Og Svart
5. The Bodkin And The Quietus (... To Reach The Stars)
6. Du Nordavind
7. Fall Of Man

If one is to believe the publicity surrounding a lot of Scandinavian blackish metal releases, most of them thar bands are "supergroups" featuring a few "famous" members of other "elite" bands. This is no exception, with folks from Ulver, Mayhem and Ved Buens Ende. Fortunately, Arcturus is an exception amid the world's supergroups - the chemistry actually works.

The music is slow, bombastic, keyboard-driven dark metal, with Garm's black metal screeches and then-trademark harmonized monkish aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah's and eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh's. The production is a tad demo-ey, with somewhat cheap-sounding keyboards and rather flat drums. But it is mostly Garm's clean vocals, arguably not the most technical in Scandinavia, that give this record its alluring personality, with remarkable songs like "Du Nordavind" and "Wintry Grey".

While not on a par with its extraordinary follow-up, La Masquerade Infernale, this is an excellent debut full-length that should be owned by all.

Review by Rog The Frog Billerey-Mosier

Review date: 06/2001

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La Masquerade Infernale

Arcturus - La Masquerade Infernale ©1997 Misanthropy/Music For Nations
1. Master Of Disguise
2. Ad Astra
3. The Chaos Path
4. La Masquerade Infernale
5. Alone
6. The Throne Of Tragedy
7. Painting My Horror
8. Of Nails And Sinners

Enthralled by Arcturus' first album, Aspera Hiems Symphonia, I had very high expectations for their second CD--and I wasn't disappointed, as this album is probably the most elaborate, musical and compelling album ever released by a dark metal band. I call it "dark metal" mostly because the traditional black metal screeches and song structures found on the first album have been replaced by complex compositions with a strong emphasis on highly melodic vocal performances and chamber music arrangements. Gone also is Garm's trademark Gregorian-chant style, which some may deplore. However, his low-register clean singing is excellent, and he is aided by the incredible Hestnaes' madman vocals on three tracks.

One of the most fascinating features of this album are the atmospheres it creates, as in "The chaos path," an incredible semi-operatic number evoking scenes from turn-of-the-century theater. The instrumental performances are also top-notch, with impressive drumming (is it a real double bassdrum??), keyboard parts reminiscent of Dream Theater's less pompous moments and fitting string quartet arrangements ("Alone"). Finally, the lyrics are on a par with Arcturus' musical ambitions, with the use of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe and remarkably written original texts which eschew hackneyed demon-worship and successfully avoid bloated pomposity.

In a nutshell, this is the most extraordinary metal album I have heard in a LONG time, and it ranks in my top five ever alongside Bathory's Hammerheart, the Gathering's Mandylion and other masterpieces.

Review by Rog The Frog Billerey-Mosier

Review date: 05/1998

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Disguised Masters

Arcturus - Disguised Masters ©1999 Jester/Voices Of Wonder
1. White Tie Black Noise
2. Deception Genesis
3. Du Nordavind
4. Alone
5. The Throne Of Tragedy
6. La Masquerade Infernale
7. Master Of Disguise
8. Painting My Horror
9. Ad Astra
10. Ad Astra

With each release from Norway's Arcturus, my respect and admiration grows for this group. Each new album becomes a bigger upraised finger to the small, but very vocal elitists within the scene who try to place their demands on what black metal is allowed to be. In my opinion, that denies artistic right to the actual musicians who are the ones doing the creating. The fact that Arcturus dared to release something such as Disguised Masters proves that they are the ones who are in control of the scene, rather than beholding to a small group of narrow minded fans. If you caught any of the commentary on Disguised Masters, people screamed that Garm (who has undergone metamorphosis into "Trickster G." or something quite hilarious, most likely just to mess with the easily irritated fans) had betrayed black metal, sold out, or a dozen other vicious claims. "He raps!" they hooted. "There's techno beats!" they hollered. That makes me wonder what Arcturus could possibly owe these people. Is a band required to make albums that will please the fans? Or please themselves? If they were to make traditional black metal (not that Arcturus really has been traditional in my experience) just to appease the elitists, wouldn't that constitute a true selling out? Based on my observations, Arcturus is a band who does precisely what they want to do, regardless of what anyone thinks or says. That is keeping true to one's self, which essentially should be the black metal creed. Well, who knows. That sort of "lifestyle" seems based entirely on early Darkthrone interviews. But I digress. The point is those who immediately call Garm a "traitor" are not giving him or the other members of Arcturus the respect that is deserved. They don't necessarily have to like Disguised Masters, but the accusations to me are just whiny little brats thinking they are superior to the artists themselves.

Personally, I think Disguised Masters is all around a fantastic piece of work. Normally the term "remix" conjures up a lonely, pimply studio engineer taking precisely one riff, repeating it ad nauseum and inserting a ridiculous dance floor drum beat. Not so in the case of Disguised Masters. From the intro piece composed by When to the Legendary Pink Dot-esque violin/cello based "Ad Astra", the album is creativity personified under the banner of a more electronic music world. "Deception Genesis" is tripped out with eerie sound collages, but would have sounded perfectly at home on La Masquerade Infernale. The only harsh track is "Du Nordavind", which has a bit of Garm's screams and growls. Tracks like "The Throne of Tragedy" incorporate more techno-ish drum beats, somewhat in the vein of Orbital by way of Skinny Puppy. Of course, you have "Master of Disguise", which features Garm's so-called "rap", which comes across as an overtly dramatic recitation than Snoop Doggy Dogg (is it one or two Gs, or does anyone actually care?). The fact that so many people flipped out over this one track shows a lot of closed ears in the black metal elitist community. Don't like it? Hit the skip button on your CD player because "Painting My Horror" is an excellent ambient track with floating voices and haunting effects.

At the end of the day, Arcturus should be commended for taking back control of the music and putting artistic intention well ahead of scene politics. Garm and his Mad-Wack Crew are going to do precisely what they want to do. Why this comes as a surprise to people is beyond me. With the band having roots in Ulver, Ved Buens Ende, Mayhem and beyond, the composite of talent is going to take them down many strange avenues. It would be a shame if they didn't pursue any one avenue due to fear of reprisal from scene elitists. Disguised Masters is a great testament to honest musical creativity and demands a revision of prior ideals in a stagnating music scene.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 08/1999

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Aspera Hiems Symfonia/Constellation/My Angel

Arcturus - Aspera Hiems Symfonia/Constellation/My Angel ©2001 Candlelight
CD one:
1. To Thou Who Dwellest In The Night
2. Wintry Grey
3. Whence And Whither Goest The Wind
4. Raudt Og Svart
5. The Bodkin & The Quietus
6. Du Nordavind
7. Fall Of Man
8. Naar Kulda Tar
CD two:
9. The Deep Is The Skies
10. Cosmojam
11. Raudt Og Svart
12. Icebound Streams And Vapours Grey
13. Naar Kulda Tar
14. Du Nordavind
15. My Angel
16. Morax

Candlelight is known for their shady reissues of metal records, often within seemingly a calendar year of the original release. Sometimes they bait fans by including a bonus track, which forces the pathological CD collector to shell out enormous amounts of cash not once, but twice, in an endless endeavor to be a completist. The problem is that there honestly is no real need for many of these reissues and chances are it is a cheap way for the record company to inject a necessary cash flow to keep themselves afloat. However, even Candlelight will occasionally reissue something that is both well done and worthwhile for consumers. Case in point, the two-CD reissue of all of Arcturus' material through 1997.

Arcturus has never been known for being a steady group with constant output. Their first recorded venture was a seven inch, two song single called My Angel back in 1991. Their next effort was the very rare and sought-after Constellation in 1994. Their first full length project came in 1995, called Aspera Hiems Symfonia. Many regard this as one of the premiere metal albums of the 1990s and it showcased the remarkable collective talents of Garm, Hellhammer, Sverd and Knut Valle, impressing many. But despite the remarkable songs, the album wasn't particularly well produced, sacrificing much of the low end. Moreover, some of Garm's attempts at clean singing and chanting were, shall we say, a tad difficult to sit through. Nevertheless, the album went on to become a minor classic of Norwegian black metal.

In 2001, Candlelight kindly provided the world with a much needed reissue of Aspera Hiems Symfonia with a second disc comprised of the band's early material as well as a couple unreleased bonus tracks (one of which, "Cosmojam", sounds a lot like Jean-Michel Jarre). The most notable thing about the reissue, new astrally themed artwork aside, is the stunningly powerful new sound quality. Within the first four seconds of "To Thou Who Dwellest In the Night", your ears will perk up at the inclusion of something amazing and revolutionary: bass. The remastered and doctored reissue of Aspera Hiems Symfonia actually has a deep, resonant low end to the production and it makes the album considerably more powerful and impressive. The band admits in the liner notes that a little bit of tidying up and re-recorded vocals were included, which rids the album of some of the less impressive clean singing.

The second disc includes the older material, as noted earlier. My Angel has been heard on the True Kings of Norway, but for most, Constellation has either been heard through the bootleg Reconstellation or through extensive MP3 searches online. While the music was considerably less developed and molded, Arcturus fans will rejoice and revel in the chance to hear the formative stages of this band.

On a whole, this is by far one of the best reissued albums I've come across. The improved quality of Aspera Hiems Symfonia actually makes it more necessary than the original version and the second disc of older material only enhances that.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 09/2002

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The Sham Mirrors

Arcturus - The Sham Mirrors ©2002 The End
1. Kinetic
2. Nightmare Heaven
3. Ad Absurdum
4. Collapse Generation
5. Star-crossed
6. Radical Cut
7. For To End Yet Again

The beautiful thing about the Norwegian metal scene is that the incestuous nature of the involved bands does allow for hypothetical "what-ifs" to be answered in all good time. Certainly there are many of you out there who spend many nights wondering what Borknagar would currently sound like had Garm remained the band's vocalist. The good news is that this ponderous query has been answered on the new Arcturus release, The Sham Mirrors. This record may act as a ray of hope for those disappointed in Borknagar's latest release, Empiricism. However, for those Arcturus fans who enjoyed the maniacal carnival-of-horror atmosphere on their 1997 release, La Masquerade Infernale, The Sham Mirrors is a bit conservative, dry and safe.

In the five years since Arcturus' unleashed their minor classic La Masquerade Infernale, we have seen Garm steadfastly and possibly deliberately alienate the ultra-conservative black metal audience with the direction of the remix album Disguised Masters (also brilliant in its own right) and with the completely new direction of his main project Ulver. The Sham Mirrors finds Garm hasn't completely abandoned metal music and harkens to the symphonic luster of Borknagar's area of expertise. Keyboardist Steinar Sverd Johnsen has also returned from a few years of a very low profile to add his considerable talent to the record. If nothing else, Sverd's abilities are one of the most impressive aspects of The Sham Mirrors. The second most notable achievement is Garm's ever-improving ability to sing convincing melodies without falling into offkey, pseudo-dramatic blubberings. In fact, in the years since La Masquerade Infernale, Garm (or Trickster G. Rex, as he is credited here) has found his range and can deliver with remarkably precise passion.

The Sham Mirrors is the type of album that takes some time to assimilate. While the songwriting is fairly conservative (by Arcturus standards, at least), the music is well constructed and obviously very well thought out in advance. As a result, multiple listens will evoke new layers within the songs and grow on you like that old mutt you adopted from the shelter. Although I somewhat wish the band had chosen to completely go into leftfield with this release, the fact that the album is so well conceived and executed makes me overlook my personal hopes. The Sham Mirrors is simply a strong record that only solidifies Arcturus' reputation.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 04/2002

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Sideshow Symphonies

Arcturus - Sideshow Symphonies ©2005 Season of Mist
1. Hibernation Sickness Complete
2. Shipwrecked Frontier Pioneer
3. Demon Painter
4. Nocturnal Vision Revisited
5. Evacuation Code Deciphered
6. Moonshine Delirium
7. White Noise Monster
8. Reflections
9. Hufsa

Finally resurfacing after a period of instability, Arcturus has provided a follow-up to 2002's The Sham Mirrors. The last album was a bit of a letdown, possibly due to some disinterest on part of contributing members. Since 2002, Arcturus has resumed their revolving door policy regarding membership and has seen not one, but two vocalist changes. Original vocalist Kristoffer Rygg, a.k.a. Garm, has shown himself the door to concentrate on Ulver. Arcturus responded by bringing in Øyvind Hægeland from Spiral Architect and he lasted long enough to never appear on any recordings. Finally, Simen Hestnæs, who appeared on 1997's La Masquerade Infernale before joining Borknagar (and subsequently ditching that band to play bass in Dimmu Borgir), reemerged to provide vocals, but not bass, for Arcturus. The band also picked up a second guitarist named Tore Moren. And somewhere during all this member transition, mainstays Steinar Johnsen, Knut Magne Valle, Jan Axel Von blomberg and Steven James Mingay found time to write music to follow up the brilliant The Archaic Course.

Whoops. I just realized I'm not listening to a Borknagar album. A thousand pardons.

Just for the record, no pun intended, Sideshow Symphonies has very little in common with early Arcturus music, such as Aspera Hiems Symfonia or Constellation. Already I can picture black metal diehards throwing their inverted crosses down in disgust. These same black metal purists should at least be glad that Sideshow Symphonies doesn't sound like Dimmu Borgir. I know I'm particularly pleased about that. Instead, this album is very much centered around the keyboard constructions of Steiner Johnsen with an emphasis on a somewhat murky atmosphere. There are tie-ins to older Arcturus in the softer instrumental passages that at least retain the feel of what this band has supposedly been all about. On the flipside, there is very little of the madhouse insanity that brought attention to the band on La Masquerade Infernale.

On a performance level, Simen's vocals are a welcome addition. It should be noted that he sings in his unusual clean voice almost exclusively throughout the album. The remainder of the band is top notch, as expected. The production is remarkably good, letting all the instruments have their space and not sound cluttered.

In summation, Sideshow Symphonies is indeed the follow-up to Borknagar's The Archaic Course that never was made. In fact, one might almost call this Borkturus since this album brings the two outfits together with their styles. Maybe it's actually the same five people making all the metal albums in Norway. I have my suspicions.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 09/2005

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