|Greg Northrup||11-August-2002||Overview and La Masquerade Infernale|
Arcturus was founded originally as a side project for members of various brutal Norwegian black metal bands such as Ulver, Emperor and the notorious Mayhem. Their first release was a 7" single put out in 1991, entitled "My Angel", which created a significant underground buzz in the burgeoning Scandinavian metal scene. By 1993's mini album, Constellation, Emperor's Samoth and Ulver's Garm joined founding member Hellhammer (of Mayhem) to establish the band as a real "supergroup" of sorts. Again, this album continued underground fervor, and scored the band a record deal with Century Media. Both of these recordings are exceedingly rare and I haven't heard them, so comparing them to their later stuff is somewhat beyond my scope.
Their first proper release surfaced in 1995 in the way of Aspera Hiems Sinfonia, albeit without Samoth, who was serving time for burning down a small wooden church in rural Norway. However, it was by this point clear that this was a good deal different than your run of the mill black metal bombast. The creepy keyboard melodies, lurching atmospheres and down tempo rhythms provided a more symphonic approach while remaining squarely in the black metal realm. Despite the minor innovations of this album, nothing would prepare metaldom for what would come next. 1997's La Masquerade Infernale is a progressive metal maelstrom that jars loose any possible genre linkage, veering uncontrollably from operatic fervor, swirling keyboards and dramatic, utterly unconventional song structures. Conceptually structures upon anti-Christian and/or Satanic themes, yet literary and profound in its delivery, the album is definitely a work of paradox, subtlety and blinding brilliance. Today, its still an album that still stands without imitation or equal, unequivocally unique, possibly one of the finest metal-related albums ever released. Apparently they may have sold their souls to Satan in exchange for the moment of collective brilliance, as little has been heard out of the Arcturus camp in a few years, aside from a "remix" album entitled Disguised Masters, which met with a tepid response at best.
La Masquerade Infernale (1997)
Strangely this album is somewhat unknown in progressive rock circles, perhaps this is because Arcturus is generally known as a "black-metal" band. However, this album is a dark, unique and incredibly symphonic, complex masterpiece. The album is what a modern progressive rock album should be. Uncompromising in its vision, distinctive, meticulous, and perhaps most importantly, managing to sound like prog rock without ripping off any of the 70s luminaries. The album is fairly independent of any of the usual influences; this is very original stuff. The closest comparison I can make would probably be to Devil Doll, except much more eclectic and certainly less redundant. Even this only sort of shows you where they come from in very vague terms; dark, dramatic, very theatrical and very symphonic.
The album is performed as something like a satanic opera. Dark melodies, mock carnival-like synths, and dynamic arrangements are accompanied by the powerful, operatic and passionate dual lead vocals. The vocals usually tend to trade off with one another, giving the sense of some sort of dialogue taking place. The lyrics (though totally brilliant) all seem to regard Satanism in some manner, though lead vocalist and lyricist Garm seems to take a literate and philosophical approach to the whole thing. Regardless, this will likely be offensive to the very religious, though it's difficult to actually understand the lyrics without the lyric sheet anyhow, due to the highly operatic singing style. Those fearing black metal growls need not be scared off, as the band has apparently dumped that element, revealing a surprisingly expressive "clean" vocal style.
It's hard to find something truly original being created under the banner of "progressive rock" these days, which is why a band like Arcturus is so remarkable. Perhaps growing outside of the traditional sphere of influence has contributed to why this stunning album even exists, and why it's so deserving of your respect. In my opinion, a masterpiece of the highest order, though very heavy and very dark.
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