Arcturus are one of the first names that pop into one’s mind when avant-garde metal is mentioned. The brain-child of keyboardist Steinar “Sverd” Johnsen, the band has been home to many prominent artists in the Norwegian black metal scene, including Ulver, Mayhem, Borknagar, Emperor and Dimmu Borgir. All four of their previous releases are unique and regarded as hallmarks of the genre by many. Of course, when the band got back together to release a new album after 10 years of relative silence, expectations were high. Thankfully, Arcturian, Arcturus’s fifth studio album is just as ambitious and creative as their previous works. Many comeback albums after such a long period often fail to hit the mark and simply go to show that the band doesn’t have “it” anymore, but in this case, the band are boldly stating that they have “it” more than ever.
Even though Arcturus got its start with Garm of Ulver on vocals, Simen “ICS Vortex” Hestnæs has performed guest vocals on their second album and is generally associated with the band due to having been their frontman when they broke up in 2007 after doing a live DVD. He’s back at the helm for Arcturian, and he is just as ethereal and inimitable as ever. His off-kilter stylings might be a bit hard to swallow for first-time listeners, but once the taste is acquired, it’s undeniable that he is one of the most talented vocalists in metal. Really, this review could simply be one of Vortex’s vocal performance. Most listeners will know him as “the guy who did the awesome clean vocals in Dimmu Borgir”, but the man has proven himself time and time again, be it in Borknagar, his solo project or even Ved Buens Ende. Not only does he have incredible range, he also uses his fine-tuned control of his voice to create vocal lines that are extremely varied both in pitch and timbre in rhythmically unique ways that only he can execute. Suffice to say, the vocal performance on the album is incredible, just like any other project he’s involved in.
But simply singing praises to Vortex would do the rest of the composition disfavor. The majority of the writing is conceived by keyboardist Sverd, who has been the only constant in the band alongside drummer Jan Axel Blomberg, better known as Hellhammer (who has been involved with so many bands that it’s not possible to talk about it). The sound of the album is a mixture of the band’s previous works, taking the theatrical and over-the-top stylings of La Masquerade Infernale and combining them with the more introspective and dreamy sound of Sideshow Symphonies and the retro-electronic stylings of The Sham Mirrors, all with subtle black metal undertones. Except for the sparingly-used 80’s styled synthesizers, everything on the album was recorded with acoustic instruments, including a whole string section. The band have decidedly went for a very authentic sound, they’ve even recorded their solos improvised on the spot, and as a result the mix sounds like they’re jamming right there in the room with the listener. While this leads to a very full-sounding record, the more muted and unprocessed drum sound might be off-putting to some listeners who are more accustomed to carefully processed and sampled drum tones that many bands employ nowadays.
Regardless of the production, the songwriting on the album is astounding. Arcturian’s approach can be described as taking a core sound of progressive black metal then compounding it with various dramatic shifts, a symphonic section, Vortex’s angelic yet bizarre singing and Hellhammer’s lightning-fast drumming; then completely throwing the playbook out of the window. Songs take unexpected twists, with melodic shifts that suddenly take guitarist Knut Magne Valle’s chord progressions into directions that put a different spin on the ongoing melody to change the viewer’s perception of what the riffs were doing so far. While the album has a lot of “moments”, it’s better characterized by an overarching sense of otherworldliness. Melancholy, atmosphere and introspection are the tools that Arcturus employ like it’s second nature to them. While there’s a lot of variety among the songs in terms of texture and character, most of them have a generally moody and deliberate pace, which makes the album an intense listening experience that’s not easily appreciated in a casual spin through. The journey that Sverd and co. take the audience on is best appreciated when one’s “in the zone” and fully attuned to the intricacies of the thick soundscape. While this is par for the course for bands that make music that indulges emotions, it’s especially relevant here because the eccentricities and directional shifts are more effective when attention is being paid to them.
With all that being said, Arcturian is the quintessential Arcturus album. It takes all the talent the band have displayed over their career and presents it in a singular, powerful package. With yet another benchmark-setting vocal performance from ICS Vortex, an authentic sonic assault that’s so thick it’s palpable, and songwriting that is strong yet subtle, Arcturian shows that after ten years, Arcturus is stronger than ever and is yet another hallmark of avant-garde metal.
Arcturus – Arcturian gets…