Arcturus – La Masquerade Infernale
Ever wondered what the soundtrack to a carnival in hell would sound like? Well, here’s your answer. Arcturus are one of the more unique bands to have come out of the Norwegian black metal scene. Now, don’t be put off by that label, in no way is this a black metal record. Even Arcturus’s first album, Aspera Hiems Symfonia, was barely black metal, containing a lot of avant-garde and experimental influences. By the time they got to making La Masquerade Infernale, their second album, most of that black metal tinge was completely gone. What remained is perhaps one of the most unique metal albums ever made, and its uniqueness is still evident even 14 years after its release. And of course, it’s a concept album.
Now, when you read ‘soundtrack … hell’ and ‘black metal’, you probably assumed this band sounded something like 1349. If so, you’re wrong. Don’t expect your ears to be hammered in, because the emphasis here is on ‘soundtrack’. Sometimes there’s not even a guitar track. The focus of the instrumentation is Garm and ICS Vortex’s vocals and the synths. Yes, you read that correctly. Garm, the vocalist for Ulver, and ICS Vortex, that guy with the amazing clean voice from Dimmu Borgir sing on this album. The drums are handled by Hellhammer, even though he doesn’t provide his usual hellish hammering. The rest of the members aren’t big names like these three, but they perform their duties well, especially Steinar Sverd Johnsen, who creates the ambience that makes this album so unique, on his keyboard.
Now, let me get it out of my system: I like Dimmu Borgir. But hey, that’s how I discovered Arcturus! I really like ICS Vortex’s vocals, so I was looking into who the guy was, and discovered that there were other bands where he sings, so I decided to check those bands out. Among those bands was Borknagar, which is also a good band, but that’s not why we’re here today. During my search, I discovered Arcturus. Unlike other bands Vortex had been in, in this one he was actually the main singer on an album, The Sideshow Symphonies. I checked it out on Youtube, and I was immediately hooked. The music was dreamlike, and Vortex’s angelic voice was perfect for the band. I was impressed, but not too much. The music was good, it was unique, but I wasn’t really into that kind of stuff back then, so I forgot about it after a while. Two years later, when Dimmu Borgir released their album In Sorte Diaboli, I was again reminded by the amazing performance of Vortex, and I quickly remembered Arcturus. I went back to The Sideshow Symphonies, and this time I really enjoyed it. I also discovered that Arcturus (obviously) had other albums too. Now, I was reluctant to check the previous albums out, because Vortex wasn’t the main singer, but I noticed that he sang several songs on La Masquerade Infernale, so I decided to check it out.
When I first heard the opening track, “Master of Disguise”, I was actually confused; I had no idea I was listening to. The track begins with an intro similar to a run-of-the-mill black metal song, but then suddenly breaks into a section with barely any guitar, where Garm sings with his infernal narration and Vortex compliments with his angelic voice, both complimented by slow drums and an ambient keyboard track. What abruptly follows is a break, which sounds like, for lack of a better description, walking towards a gate that leads to hell. Garm comes in, describing Satan. Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t your average “Drink the blood of virgins and rape farm animals” kind of deal. He describes the failings of man, the downward spiral leading towards oblivion. I’m not a fan of religious lyrics, neither positive (Christian) nor negative (Satanic), but these lyrics are not about religion; they are much more personal. The song is about temptation, weakness, and belief. Tackling such matters intelligently while trying to tell a story, all the while actually trying to make the music fit the theme, is not a thing that is done by many bands. This realization got me hooked in immediately, and as the song kept going, I actually felt like I was following Garm down the path to ruination. I used to be really into opera, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard this song in an operatic rendering of Goethe’s Faust.
The second track, is a progressive instrumental 7 minutes and 40 seconds long, and it is an incredible journey. There isn’t an official interpretation of the song, but the mood set by the musicians is one of desolation, melancholy and loss. Don’t let this fool you into thinking the song is a dreary and droning drag, it is actually an operatic piece that would be fitting as the soundtrack of a movie about Odysseus’s journey to Hades. I usually don’t like long instrumentals, but this one is special. It’s the beautiful violins, the masterful piano, the whole epic feel. Not epic in the 2000’s sense where everyone calls everything epic, but actually epic in the Homer sense. By this time, I have come to the realization that this album is a concept album about Hell, and one’s journey towards it. I don’t want to repeat myself, but this song feels so much like a soundtrack that I can actually visualize it.
Then comes in “The Chaos Path”. Now, this is one of the more traditional songs on the album, but this album is so far outside the box that even this song is light years beyond traditional, at least for metal. There’s still no distinctive structure or guitar line, and the song is mostly carried by vocals and the vocals. Oh, by the way, this song is all Vortex, so it’s amazing. ICS Vortex definitely deserves more credit, as he is one of the best and most unique vocalist in metal, if not in anything ever. The lyrics are layered and intricate, evoking an ominous chaos. The song progresses perfectly, from an insane and dark theatrical opening to an epic melancholy, and back to the madness, perfectly reflecting the internal struggle depicted in the lyrics. It’s better heard than described, so here you go:
The title track “La Masquerade Infernale”, is more of an interlude to set the mood than an actual song. An ominous piano melody, backed by hints of a disturbing conversation, and a weird looping sound, this track further unsettles the listener, if you hadn’t gone completely mad already. This album is Lovecraftian.
Following that is “Alone”, which is actually a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. The original poem is about Poe’s inner torment and how isolated he feels, and the song conveys the feeling adequately. Garm’s unique vocals are mostly what carries this track, and again this is a bipolar song like the previous ones, going between feelings of depressed melancholy and confused rage. Those two feelings are expressed very well on this album, and in my opinion there are few other albums that convey such conflicted feelings so genuinely.
“The Throne of Tragedy” is a more mellow track, sung by Garm as if he were Lucifer, speaking of his fall from grace. This is one of the weaker songs on the record in my opinion, but it still delivers a strong atmosphere and emotion. It’s not a bad song by all means, but it does not deliver the ambience like the other songs do.
Next up is “Painting My Horror”, whose lyrics sound like a Lovecraft short story again, talking about strange encounters within dreams, and the desolation that follows. As with the works of Lovecraft, this song perfectly conveys the sense of something being slightly wrong, something at the edge of your perception, lurking there, instilling you with a complete sense of dread. Of course, this song is bipolar too, and Vortex pitches in during the second half of the song, which again turns into a theatrical masterpiece of horror. This album feels like it is designed by madmen for madmen. In a good way.
To top off this strange masterpiece, “Of Nails and Sinners”, which, consistent with the theme of the album, is told from Lucifer’s perspective, reflecting upon his fall from grace, his desolation and regret. As a song by itself, it’s alright, but as the closer of this creepy masterpiece, it doesn’t have enough strength and staying power to finish the story being told. It’s kind of unfortunate, but I don’t really care because I’m lost in introspection by this point anyway. I’m feeling desolation and chaos myself, and this song kind of alleviates that and brings me back to the real world. So maybe that’s a good thing.
Overall, this album is completely mental. It pulls you into its world and doesn’t let you go, telling its insane story that is a mix of Goethe, Lovecraft, Poe and classical mythology. This is probably one of the best concept albums I’ve ever listened to, and one of the most unique. The vocal delivery of both Garm and ICS Vortex, complimented by the gothic and insane keyboards of Sverd, are the highlights of this album. Now, I know I’ve already posted “The Chaos Path”, but I have to show you this live video of the track, and perhaps you’ll better understand what kind of insanity this album entitles:
Also check out “Alone” and “Painting My Horror”:
It’s a shame that Arcturus broke up, but they’re doing some kind of reunion (no promise of new material yet) tour of North America this year with ICS Vortex doing the vocals, so if you have the chance, you must definitely see them live. Hopefully if there’s enough interest in them, they’ll release some new material. If not, there’s always Borknagar, and Vortex is going to be releasing a solo album with members of Borknagar and Arcturus. There will probably never be another album like this, because this is both about the theme and the interaction between Garm and Vortex, but if you want to confuse the hell out of yourself while listening to amazing ambient avant-garde gothic opera metal (I’m sure there’s a huge demand for that), this is definitely your fix. Even if you’re not into that sort of thing, you should check this out, as it is a weird masterpiece by a weird band.
P.S: If the insanity wasn’t enough, on the original 1997 printing of the album, which is what I have, there’s a weird hidden pregap track of someone talking over a D&B track… And to confuse listeners even further, the pregap track doesn’t exist in the reissue, so when you look in the pregap and don’t find anything, you’ll probably think you’re insane…