It’s really no secret; I fucking love Arcturus. There is nothing that can be done about this fanboyism of mine and I don’t care to fix it. Since the first time I heard The Sham Mirrors in 2002, I have not only loved them, but find Mirrors to be one of my favorite albums ever. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me and, again, I’m not going to fix it. Sadly, bad things started to happen for the band after that release. Garm (or whatever the hell his name is) was replaced by I.C.S. Vortex in 2005. The same year the band dropped the disappointing Sideshow Symphonies. They broke up (and broke my heart) in 2007, and there hasn’t been any sort of release from them in ten long years. But now these lovable Norwegians are finally back. After a songwriting and recording process that lasted nearly four years (cut them some slack or we won’t be getting anymore Borknagar and Mayhem albums), 2015 brings us their new opus, Arcturian. Does this mean Arcturus will reclaim their rightful place at the head of the avante-garde table? Is this the comeback album of the year? Are there more ridiculous band photos this time around? Did Hellhammer actually eat Dead’s brains? All legitimate questions but let’s just focus on the first two.
Before we begin, let me be clear about something. My issue with Sideshow Symphonies is not the addition of I.C.S. Vortex. I absolutely love I.C.S. Vortex and own every stinkin’ album he ever appeared on. My issue is the lack of that indescribable beauty that makes Arcturus who they are. Without the passion and splendor in their sound, it becomes run-of-the-mill ambiance. Thankfully all is forgiven (mostly) and I can sleep easy again (seriously, this is why I haven’t slept in ten years). While not as grand as The Sham Mirrors, Arcturian does well to guide Arcturus on the right path after the aforementioned misstep. The weirdness of old Arcturus is present once again and Vortex’s confidence is through the roof as he finally gets the chance to be himself in boots once sported by Garm. And it’s oh so good. Vortex is on top of his game and in command of everything from his malicious rasps on “Demon,” his mid-range Peavy Wagner-isms on “Angst” and his ball-busting shrieks on “Pale.” There’s even some “yodeling” in “Crashland” and falsettos in “Warp.” No more comparisons to Garm need be made; Vortex fucking owns Arcturian.
Another player that – not surprising – leaves his mark on this release is Hellhammer. I don’t even need to look it up to know that this relentless beating is the result of the thunder feet of this BM god. The way he manipulates his four (?) limbs does just as much for the signature sound of Arcturus as the creepy carny shit that finds its way into every release since La Masquerade Infernale (I direct your attention to Arcturian closer “Bane”). Vocals and drums accounted for, the orchestrations and keys soak this outing in an atmosphere so thick, no amount of sunshine would ever break through. Be it the soundtrack-like qualities of the outro in “Crashland,” the ridiculously catchy X-File-esque melodies of “Warp,” or the industrial machinations of “Demon” and “The Journey,” the mind-fuckery of Arcturus has survived and now wreaks havoc on Arcturian with full support from the other instrumentation.
However, the brain warping has mellowed out since the days of Masquerade and Mirrors. Arcturian (much like its predecessor) is more accessible than releases of old. However, the biggest difference between Arturian and Sideshow Symphonies is that the band brought along that old spark to ignite this new record. Spontaneity and flow is abundant as Arcturus tosses clean-guitar licks into “Game Over,” acoustic pluckings in the semi-instrumental “The Journey,” and some ethereal violins for “The Journey” and “Bane.” And if that wasn’t enough, you’ll also get an end-product dressed with a respectable DR7 rating and a solid balance in the instrumentation. The drums are crisp, the vocals are out front, and the guitars get to choose when to be muddled in the atmosphere or make their way to the surface as the electric axes are substituted for the acoustic ones.
Overall, we have a winner here that most disgruntled Arcturus fans can enjoy. Not to the levels of La Masquerade Infernale or The Sham Mirrors, but we can’t always get what we want. If this were to be Arcturus’ swansong, I wouldn’t lose sleep over it.