The Sham Mirrors

Albums like The Sham Mirrors completely justify why I still listen to metal. While my tastes have shifted and widened considerably these past few years, I still find myself defending this often-tired genre.

Bands like Arcturus re-energize my lifelong passion for extreme music and demonstrate that vibrancy, experimentation and unyielding talent do still exist in the scene. For some extreme metal fans, news of a new Arcturus album brings trepidation, whereas for others, like me, it brings passionate curiosity. Those in the scene, open-minded enough to see the genius 1997’s La Masquerade Infernale presented, even with its murky, undeveloped or overdeveloped sections, found themselves in a state of bliss upon announcement of the album’s release.

 In hindsight, their last body of work, the unbalanced Disguised Masters remix album, seems overbearing and boring (much like Ulver’s similar in-between-periods Metamorphosis EP). Three years is a long time to grow and re-think your musical approach, especially when a once burgeoning avant-garde metal scene has all but disappeared.

 However, it was Garm’s tasteful and blossoming progression with Ulver that took place primarily on the dark ambient masterpiece Perdition City and the accompanying Silence and Silencing EPs, which offered the truest hope of an invigorated Arcturus in 2002. I’ll be damned if The Sham Mirrors disappoints, because this thing is a masterwork. For those fearing a metal-less, trip-hop crash scene, your godless prayers have been answered. What we have here is an intense, beautiful, coherent, grandiose, symphonic crash scene, filled with a plentiful palette of punishing metal!

Opener “Kinetic” combines dazzling cosmic musicianship and full experimentation of trip-hop beats with a penetrating flirtation of melody and lyricism. Garm’s powerful and surprisingly well-developed vocals wallop the listener and guide the song to new fantastically catchy realms. Garm is amazing throughout, carrying the weight of each song confidently upon his shoulders, as his falsetto exploration reaches searing new heights. Two words sum up this album, if you must: smoothness and balance. Nothing ever feels forced or slight, instead the album flows in a linear fashion like an abstruse river of metallic soundscapes. At the same time, a careful balance is achieved between La Masquerade Infernale’s experimentation and Aspera Hiems Symfonia’s soothing, celestial guitar flurries and wistful percussive attack (which set the benchmark of classiness for all black metal).

Hellhammer’s percussion is relentless, yet full of breath and life – again recalling balance. At times a blurred line is drawn displaying both an electronic, machine-like precision, and a passionate organic patience (evidenced most on the epic closer “For to End Yet Again”). So, Hellhammer’s offering is impressive and Garm is amazing, but let us not forget Sverd’s show-stopping performance. As far as I’m concerned, this guy can do no wrong. Suffice to say, The Sham Mirrors is his most accomplished and diverse body of work to date. His neo-classical presence is ubiquitous, diving through dark empyrean seas en route to a blistering crescendo (Again, the closer “For to End…”).

Particular attention should be given to this 10 and a half minute soul-searching journey, which is easily the band’s finest hour. Sverd owns the middle movement of the song as he glides dark classical piano toward a black cosmic tar of David Lynchian ambience – think of Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive’s darkest, eeriest moments. Grand is one of many ways to describe guitarist Knut M. Valle on this record. Coming into his own, he finally sounds comfortable enough to flirt with the blinding, clean approach of former axeman, August, while still maintaining his own devious bag of tricks. Assuredly, he musically propels “Nightmare Heaven,” as he grabs dark trip-hop beats (think Portishead or Massive Attack’s “Angel”) with emotive, searing guitar leads that fill the listener with whimsical yearning. Later in the song, all elements of Arcturus meld together, as his spiraling, hypnotic George Lynch swells cry out from the thick, molten accident of sound. It is totally appropriate and fitting that Emperor’s Ihsahn would show up for this spirited symphonic occasion, in order to lend his blistering vocals to “Radical Cut.” The merging is perfect, even if the song is heavier and discordant with the rest of the album.

If Arcturus didn’t keep you guessing then that wouldn’t be Arcturus, now would it? Simply put, the song decimates and demonstrates with a competency, emotion and focused direction that Dimmu Borgir (and almost all symphonic black metal bands, save Emperor) should have been pursuing the last 3-4 years. Sverd, like Ihsahn with Emperor, shows why the keyboard should be used as a compositional tool for the genre, not just a simplified drone or one-dimensional soundscape. The song is furious, gorgeous and black to the core in one broad stroke – perfect execution. Certainly, this term adequately applies to the whole of this masterpiece.

I think its safe to say that I could recklessly go on and on about this album. Hell, I’ve barely begun! So, I’ll stop now and leave you with a simple explanation and description Garm gives in regards to the album. “This is a classically-engendered synthesized rock/metal to vaudeville/cabaret-tinged progressive rock conceptuals on to a myriad of deformations into jazz, trip-hop, synthpop, experimental/AI electronics, jungle, etc.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself. Everyone should own this album. Now that’s simply put.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jason Hundley
April 22nd, 2002


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