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Sideshow Symphonies

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(15 Reviews)

Metal Album Reviews[RSS]

  • If you want an album that’s as good as La Masquerade and Sham Mirrors, you won’t be disappointed. This album is certainly in the same vain as their last two, and while it isn’t as technical as Sham Mirrors, they do have some good solos, and it’s taken a bit of a turn towards the atmospheric. Unlike Sham Mirrors, vocals are ever-present on this release.

    For whatever reason, Garm is no longer with the band, and in his place is Simen, the man who sung on “the Chaos Path” from La Masquerade and who does clean vocals for Dimmu Borgir. His vocals are more piercing and he has a higher range than Garm but he lacks Garm’s power and depth. Garm is also something of a musical and lyrical genius, and Simen’s deficiency in these areas, particulary with regard to lyrical content, are apparent in this release.

    Bottom line: buy it, but not before La Masquerade Infernale and Sham Mirrors.

    Posted on March 8, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • “Sideshow Symphonies” reminds me more of “La Masquerade Infernale” than “The Sham Mirrors”.
    It’s a wonderful piece of eclectic black progressive metal. Vocals from Hestnaes are reminiscent of old with some terrific talent displayed. Hellhammer’s drumming is beyond human capability as always, guitars from Moren and Valle are all over the place. Mingay’s bass is turned up a notch on this album, with some really impressive work here, and the keys of Johnsen provide the characteristic cosmic atmosphere of Arcturus.
    My favourite songs on here are “Shipwrecked frontier poineer” and “Evacuation code deciphered”.
    This is a brilliant album, possibly Arcturus’ best, and by the time the end of the year comes this will remain fresh in people’s memories, and may well come top of many album polls, if there’s any justice!

    Posted on March 8, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • Arcturus’ new album is another amazing piece of work, which could only be expected by a band consisting of so many uniquely talented musicians. Even though their longtime vocalist Garm decied to step down in order to fully concentrate on his own band Ulver and some other side projects, the band managed to find a replacement whose vocals fit the music on Sideshow Symphonies like a glove. As a matter of fact, like many other Arcturus fans, I didn’t believe it possible to fill the shoes of someone as charismatic and unique as Garm, but when it was announced that Spiral Architect vocalist Oyvind Haegeland was recruited, I was ecstatic, Spiral Architect being one of the godliest bands in the universe. It sure would be amazing to hear Haegeland on another progressive release, but as fate would have it, Haegeland moved to Sweden, thus making it impossible to stay in the band. So the band once again started looking for a new singer…

    Enter Simen Hestnaes of Borknagar and Dimmu Borgir fame, but older Arcturus fans will also remember him with his work on Arcturus’ second album La Masquerade Infernale where Simen sang lead vocals on a track and did back-up singing on two others. I was sceptical until the last minute, but the moment I heard Simen’s deeply moving voice on “Hibernation Sickness Complete”, the first track, I was convinced that no one else could have done a better job. Granted he sounds completely different from Garm, Sideshow Symphonies seems like it was especially designed for his voice where he has the freedom to change between harrowing whispers to grittier raw vocals or to downright dramatic passages dripping with sheer emotion. The timbre in his voice gives the tracks a very dark feel which ultimately matches the flow of the album. I would say Sideshow Symphonies is a lot darker and moodier than their amazing The Sham Mirrors record. Perhaps not as adventurous and experimental, this album is still a monumental effort in the avant garde meets prog metal field with blazing synths, keys and piano by Steinar Johnsen and Hellhammer’s trademark drumming. It could be easily argued that Hellhammer is the best drummer from Norway along with Spiral Architect’s Asgeir Mickelson. That said, I feel his drumming isn’t as revolutionary and mind-bending as it was on The Sham Mirrors, though it certainly is the most pronounced instrument on the album after Johnsen’s ever-present keyboards. He still puts his impressive rhythmic intensity on display though. On “Shipwrecked Frontier Pioneer” and “Demonpainter”, he has some great fills marked by fast and precise double drum work. The former track also stands out with its odd keyboard tones, Simen’s brief black shrieks and evil laughter, some female back vocals, and a terrific guitar and keyboard solo laid down over a symphonic passage. Unfortunately, there is a very annoying burp sound at the end which suggests the mastering of the album is way sub par. Some songs are louder than others and the production is simply disappointing compared to their back catalog. Regarding the guitars and bass, I feel they decided to reduce them a bit, in order to generate a more sombre atmosphere throughout, utilising some string work, female vocals and atonal guitar parts that seem to be underlying the vocals, keys, and drums respectively.

    Considering Simen’s theatrical laughters in several songs and how they are worked into the mix together with cinematic background voices, groans and effects, Sideshow Symphony has also a more visual aspect to it. On “Evacuation Code Deciphered”, Simen delivers the lyrics in a spoken-like style, but actually sings them and it really could make for a great soundtrack. The depressing synths, distantly heard spoken parts that seem like an excerpt from an obscure movie dialogue, and exceptional female vocals that could give the best female-fronted bands a run for their money eventually evolve into a hypnotic synth solo and striking vocal melodies by Simen. “Nocturnal Vision Revisited” also expands on the creepy mood with delicate piano notes falling on a slamming barrage of heavy guitar riffage as dissonant yet pretty avant garde motifs are detected shortly before the song is finished abruptly. More progressive elements are heard on the electronically enriched “Moonshine Delirium” where Simen’s whisphers may give you goosebumps and guitarists Tore More and Knut Magne Valle venture into a rather drawn-out instrumental section. There is also a brief yet highly challenging dual guitar harmony going on “White Noise Monster” littered with tremelo-picked guitars, dense synth lines and powerful drumming. The strings at the end are really a great way to end an otherwise punishing cut. Simen really diversifies his vocal lines on this track with what I assume to be an intended heavy accent, which then can be heard in another language (Norwegian?) on the final cut “Hufsa”. Last but not the least, “Reflections” could be considered an instrumental effort save for the wordless chants sung sadly above a peaceful piano melody. There is also a great drum solo on this track.

    Sideshow Symphonies is an excellent disc and very highly recommended. Arcturus are truly talented when it comes to crafting songs, technical ability, and also lyrical content. Its only problem is the poor mastering job and the less competent production. That said, fans of Ulver, Winds, Solefald, Age of Silence, and Garden Wall should check this album out anyway.

    Posted on March 8, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • Honestly, When I heard Garm had left Arcturus, I thought this album would be crap. But I was so wrong. Simen “ICS Vortex” Hestn├Žs (ex-Borknagar, Dimmu Borgir) is the perfect replacement and fits perfectly with Arcturus’ dark-celestial-avant-garde-neo-classical-experimental-atmospheric-theatrical-nightmare-black-metal theme perfectly. The resonance of his voice is smooth, yet shrilling, and his singing style just has that wacky, insane feeling to it, without going totally off-the-wall and sounding stupid. Garm did the same thing; Simen just fits to the rest of the band ridiculously well. He even has that wicked, creepy cackle he does once in a while. I honestly keep thinking of phantom of the opera when I listen to this… a dark, twisted, modern live musical gone horribly wrong.

    Compared to previous Arcturus releases though, this is a bit more calm… not so much double-bass, heavy guitar riffing, black metal-style vocals madness. It’s much more progressive and experimental, but a good portion of Arcturus’ music has always been like that so it shouldn’t be surprising or disappointing to dedicated fans. The song structures and lyrics are brilliant and creative as always. There are lots of pianos and keyboards with several different tones, string instruments, and various celestial swirling noises and rhythms, not to mention the incredible drumming by Hellhammer as always. It seems like the guitars and bass are a little less prominent to emphasize the many other aspects. There are a few angelic female vocals (by Silje Wergeland) here and there, and quite a bit of Simen harmonizing with himself to give even more of that evil-theatre feeling.

    “Hibernation Sickness Complete,” is possibly my favorite song; it begins with the most gradual and eerie opening, for 30 seconds or so, before Vortex’s phantasmal vocals break through and don’t hesitate to send chills down the listener’s spine, with cosmic keyboard tones and melodies quivering beneath the brilliant guitar riffs. After a while, a sudden, unexpected rupture of heaviness terrorizes the flow of the song with inhumanly fast drumming and nightmarish piano chords atop distant synth melodies. The song ends with the some of the only death vocals on the entire album.

    “Evacuation Code Deciphered” is probably my second favorite, starting with orchestral violin plucking among more low-pitched strings, the vocals are somewhat half-talking, half-singing, moving through many different experiments in between verses, including a barrage of evil laughing, breakdowns to emphasize many different keyboard melodies and solos, or guitar riffs, eventually getting to the deathly beautiful harmonization of Simen and Silje. “Reflections” is almost an instrumental that focuses on the absolutely stunning drum work of Hellhammer a lot, containing some haunting chanting near the end.

    I’d say if you like your metal extremely experimental, and if you liked previous Arcturus releases, you will almost certainly enjoy this gem.

    Posted on March 8, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • I got into Arcturus simply because of Hellhammer, THE premier drummer in all of metal. And while I’ve enjoyed thier previous efforts (the first releases over The Sham Mirrors and Masquerade-still quality albums in their own right) I was not expecting to love this album right off the bat, as each Arcturus release has taken a while to get me hooked.

    Displaying more prominent guitar riffs than ever before, and mixing the sounds so that the vocals and drums are at the forefront, Sideshow Symphonies finds Arcturus treading new waters while still maintaining that signature Arcturus sound which justifies the oft-applied avant-garde dark metal label. It may be these same guitar riffs which make this album immediately accessible, but this addition is simply another bragging point for this refreshing band, and in no way an indication that they are going soft.

    Another welcome change is the vocals of Dimmu’s Simen. While many, including myself, were worried that a new vocalist would mar the sound of this progressive band, Simen charges out of the gate, proving all naysayers wrong, as he displays an array of vocal styles and moods during the opening track “Hibernation Sickness Complete”. Skeptics should throw their worries right in the dumpster; this man is the perfect replacement for the seemingly irreplaceable Garm. In fact, I’m not sure I have ever heard a metal vocal performance that so carefully selects lyrical content so that when it is coupled with the vocal delivery, it creates an instrument of importance which matches that of the drums, guitars, bass, and keyboards.

    The ultimate selling point for this album, though, must be the songwriting. Where The Shame Mirrors and La Masquerade were impressive in their eclectic qualities, Sideshow Symphonies features what might possibly be the most cohesive songs in the band’s career. I was seriously hesitant about expecting too much from this new release, but I cannot get over the focus and purpose of these tracks. Instead of focusing on the avant-garde, Arcturus wisely focus on the songs themselves, and allow the avant-garde, black metal, and gothic influences to remain just that: influences.

    The end result is an album undeniably Arcturus for all those who know the sound. The bonus is that this well-deserving band has figured out a way to match the songwriting genius of its individual members’ other projects (Winds, Dimmu Borgir, Borknagar, etc.) without sacrificing a single ounce of the twisted soundscapes which have made this band one of the most respectfully original outfits in the modern metal scene.

    Posted on March 7, 2010 - Permalink - Buy Now