Intentional or not, the title of the long-awaited fifth Arcturus album is pretty fitting. It was probably meant to have some deep meaning about the stars or something, but on the surface, it’s just a great way to describe the album. At its most basic (as if there is ever anything basic about Arcturus), this sounds like a combination of all of the band’s past sounds. From the symphonic black metal of their early days to the charismatic avant-garde work of La Masquerade Infernale and everything since, Arcturian sounds, well, Arcturian. Most of all, you’d never know that it has been almost 10 years since they dropped Sideshow Symphonies, because these boys haven’t missed a beat.
Perhaps more than ever for the band, there is a ton going on here. Guitars range from soft electric, acoustic, and even classical tones to cold black metal and warm, shreddy leads. Hellhammer’s drumming is as deft and nuanced as ever, and is spiced with touches of electronic and techno beats. But it is really the keyboards where Arcturus gets extra bonkers, emulating everything from chamber piano and string ensembles to harpsichord and Theremin.
Then there is the man that we call ICS Vortex, Simen Hestnæs. While it’s easy to view him as a bit of a journeyman – replaced Garm in two bands, currently shares vocal duties with Vintersorg in one of those bands (Borknagar), provided Dimmu Borgir some of their greatest moments – he is so much more. Put simply, he is a truly spectacular vocal talent, and we should celebrate the fact that he continues to add his fearlessness and spectacular melodic sensibilities to extreme(ish) metal. And yeah, he’s absolutely dynamite here, providing as much variety as the instruments.
Because it’s all grounded in great songwriting, the wide array of tones and techniques never feels overindulgent. If anything, it merely helps to give each song a unique character. Opener “The Arcturian Sign” is that great conglomeration of everything Arcturus, from the electronic intro through to the soaring melodies and touches of heightened black metal. Later, “Angst” takes the symphonic black metal aggression to new levels, sounding like a track from Aspera Hiems Symfonia written by an older, wiser, and angrier Arcturus. The ultra-slick “Warp” is almost like Thy Catafalque in its space tones (influenced by the band they influenced, perhaps?); “Game Over” shows a drifty and sorrowful beauty; closer “Bane” ups the maniacal nature to near belligerence. Most importantly, the band commits to every change in mood, shift in aggression, and punctuation of drama.
If one aspect of Arcturian will cause contention, it is the production, which is less punchy than it is almost blended in a way. It is an interesting approach, to say the least, and one that benefits certain moments (such as when multiple guitar and key tones are all working in unison on a big impact) and works to the detriment of others (when it just needs to be heavy). In the end, it’s certainly less than ideal, but once the meat of the album worms its way permanently into your brain, any gripes ought to be long, long gone.
Still, there is a bit of a learning curve to this one, but it has more to do with the slow reveal of the songs than with the production. Arcturus still specializes in the big, the outrageous, and the maniacal, but these aspects are only the surface, and supporting the circus is a deep richness of detail. Everything is in full service to the compositions, chemistry, and wild escapism.
For the long time Arcturus fan, that escapism will feel like an old friend, while the weirdness is just comfort food for the bizarre. It’s nice to know that a very part-time band such as this can get back together when they choose and remain as dedicated to excellence as they were during their groundbreaking days. If anything, Arcturian might pull back the veil a bit on that era; there’s a good chance Arcturus was never out to tear down walls to do anything particularly new, but that they were just always a group of oddballs with serious chops. Years later, they’re still a group of oddballs with serious chops, and that’s a truth worth celebrating.