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.