Sideshow Symphonies

Over the course of their entire career as ‘the’ black metal supergroup and especially in the last few months prior to the release of this album, the Arcturus project (or Project: Arcturus for you Simpson’s fans) have taken a bizarre pride in throwing a wrench into the works of both the genre in general and into the internal workings of the band as well. Starting with a cold, mythic sound on early releases, the band built up to the mindblowing neo-Faustian cabaret mastery of La Masquerade Infernale, before taking some time off to return with the sleek black limosine metal of The Sham Mirrors. With the departure of Garm (aka Trickster G, Chris Rygg) from the line-up and a sudden resulting urge to take the show on the road, the band made a hasty and poor choice of pulling Oyvind Haeglund from Spiral Architect into the fold, but luckily for anyone with a working set of ears, booted him before this recording, replacing him with Simen Hestaenes a vocalist who not only has a history with Arcturus, but also a history of joining bands that Garm has quit. Following all these shake-ups, the band did the strangest, most unpredictable thing in their career to this point, and made an album that while not mediocre or bad by any stretch of the imagination, hardly sets the imagination and spirit on fire as did their previous efforts.

Simen’s transition back into the band is pretty fluid, he adopts certain Garm-isms like the ghost voice but also brings alot of his own weapons to the table, one of which is his noticably bigger and fuller voice. Unfortunately the band is largely in a holding pattern from the last album and this is where Sideshow Symphonies ends up being more than a little disappointing. While the songs here draw from the vast resevoir of the band’s previous output, there isn’t even a hint towards advancing the agenda creatively. Basically alot of the time this album plays like one of those “What If?” comic books, in this case “What if Garm quit after La Masquerade Infernale and Simen stayed on to make The Sham Mirrors?”

So basically this works on a nostalgic level, and the album is not without its pristine performances or brilliant inspiring moments. That these performances and moments combine to deliver less than half an album’s worth of truly great songs is unfortunate with the filler being sometimes interesting, but never satisfying. The humor that Garm injected into the band is pretty much gone, replaced by a more stale generic epic vibe that wouldn’t be out of place on the newer Borknagar and Dimmu stuff or the neoclassical sleeping pill known as Winds. While the songs might work on the aforementioned nostalgic level, even that can come off a bit too clumsy and contrived and giving the listener the impression of hearing a half-baked medley of past glories rather than new songs that are vital and memorable in their own right.

Don’t lose all hope for this project though, it is possible they simply jumped the gun here in putting out a half-assed release, stretching an E.P.’s worth of quality material into an album’s worth of underwhelming. An obvious, and surprising misstep but not a fatal one as all the elements of the band’s greatness still survives and are clearly present at times throughout the record. Once Simen is worked into the group more thoroughly perhaps the band will stride forward again on new and maybe even better legs.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by John Gnesin
September 26th, 2005


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