Originally written by Erik Thomas
How do you follow up landmark albums like La Masquerade Infernale andThe Sham Mirrors? I mean, seriously. Well in the case of Arcturus, you don’t. You just bring in the only other voice in metal capable of replacing Garm or whatever the fuck he’s called nowadays, Simen Hestnæs, the vocalist who replaced Garm in Borknagar, (I bet Vintersorg is the next Arcturus vocalist), and stick to your formula. You let main song writer and co-founder Steinar Sverd do his synth thing and other co-founder Hell hammer/Von Blomberg/Jan Marius do his thing and you have an Arcturus album.
It’s impossible to compare this to the perfect majesty that was The Sham Mirrors, and I won’t hesitate to say this doesn’t come close to being that good, but that being said, this is still an Arcturus album, so by default it is downright superb in its own right; creatively challenging, unpredictable, vocally stunning and undeniably Arcturus.
First off, I’m just glad to hear Hestnæs doing full time vocals again, he’s wasted in Dimmu Borgir. His voice is a perfect complement to Arcturus’ stargazing, avantgarde, epic metal. Though not as utterly mesmerizing as Garm, he brings the same level of celestial operatics to Arcturus’ already unique sound. If anything, he’s also less playful than Garm’s often Circus-like tangents, even delivering a few black metal rasps into the mix. We knowArcturus kissed black metal good bye after the seminal Aspera Hiems Symfonia, but there are a few hints of it here that give Sideshow Symphonies a more menacing, less artsy feel. Second, the production onSideshow Symphonies as with The Sham Mirrors is spellbinding. The ballyhooed fancy digital whajamacallit production/mastering techniques listed in the CD will be the bane of all musical elitists as Sideshow Symphonies sounds like you are in the depths of space itself, having the album siphoned directly into your inner ear.
Song wise, Sverd seems to have found the formula for The Sham Mirrors, and stuck with it, there’s not the level of progression found between the prior albums; spatial, ebbing, artistic, cerebral metal with grandiose arrangements and a fluid delivery from top class musicians. The obvious focus is on Hestnæs and Sverd with Hellhammer providing a recognizable backdrop and the guitars being merely superficial to a point. Though not as drawn out or classically orchestral as related bands Winds and Age of Silence, Arcturus is still lucidly atmospheric with the ambience of nameless stars and endless space.
“Inbernation Sickness Complete” kicks things of with what can only be described as ‘classic’ Arcturus; delicate build, supine climax and a hint of black metal, it gives an early show of Hestnæs’ range and presence. “Shipwrecked Frontier Pioneer” feels like Borknagar on valium, not just because of Hestnæs’ voice, but the song’s trippy, psychedelic vibe. From there on, the album kind of hits a wall of sorts, with the meandering “Deamonpainter”, that while ominous in gait, never peaks or fulfills the song’s undulating mood, instead ending abruptly. “Nocturnal Vision Revisited” is kind of a filler track that despite a nice vocal refrain, saunters by with a surprising lack of character. “Evacuation Code Deciphered” with a guest performance from Silje Wergeland of Octavia Sperati, delivers a far more dramatic, theatric opus that seems to a bit more schizoid and carnivalish like La Masquerade Infernale but to be honest, it’s the last outstanding moment of the album. “Moonshine Delirium” isn’t quite the cosmic madness that the title suggests though it does have a nice solo. “White Noise Monster” while charismatically quirky, the song just isn’t a high quality. The instrumental “Reflections”, while a required part ofArcturus’s repertoire, doesn’t make sense to me to cut out the high point of the band, Hestnæs, for the sake of having an instrumental track. The native tongue “Hufsa” drags on and ends the album with a languid end note that seems to indicate the band lost interest and/or steam at the album’s end.
All things being said, Sideshow Symphonies is a classy, high quality and expectedly creative album that while not as good as prior albums, is still a recommended listen for all you space navigators, celestial engineers and alien translators out there and even more so for fans of Simen Hestnæs, as he once again shows why he must be considered one of the best vocalists in any genre.