It’s always a bit of a drag when you come across a “but” album. You know—the kind of album that’s completely enjoyable, except for one quality that drags your final impression down a bit. (Or, on the opposite side of the coin, the kind that you’re totally ready to rip to shreds, but for one awesome track that redeems it slightly.) Don’t worry, Arcturus fans: Arcturian, the avant-garde collective’s first full-length in ten years, falls pretty securely in the former category. It’s a mostly solid comeback, but one whose shoddy production ends up betraying some truly terrific compositions.
As you might expect, Arcturian is all over the place—even by the band’s own lofty standards. Take the first track, “The Arcturian Sign,” (the guys don’t seem too enamored with their band name, do they?) which opens with an electronic, almost darkwave-y pattern, before introducing rapid-fire guitar riffs, orchestral swirls, and damn-near-robotic double-kick work from drummer Hellhammer. It’s not something that should work—at all—yet it winds up being the album’s most infectious offering.
The band throws stylistic shifts out there like a pitcher throwing curveballs, centered in many cases around electronic styles. (Not to mention the bonus content on the album’s deluxe edition, which consists entirely of remixes) Even after almost 25 years as a band, it’s still kind of amazing that any of these experiments work as well as they do. But Arcturus uses them to its advantage, exploring both upbeat (“Warp”) and introspective fare (the latter portions of “The Journey”) with the same levels of gusto.
The unifying force behind them all is vocalist Simen Hestnæs, (a.k.a. ICS Vortex) who turns in a completely spellbinding performance. Calling Hestnæs a virtuoso doesn’t quite do his work justice; he’s more like a mad scientist that’s been given control of an enormous laboratory of sounds. He’ll captivate you with a sorrowful croon on a song like “Game Over,” then pull a sinister, sneering delivery out of his bag of tricks on the very next song, “Demon.” And then, there’s what feels like a metal version of one of Michael Jackson’s vocal mannerisms move, which he drops during the refrain of “The Arcturian Sign.” The guy can pretty much do it all, and it shows on Arcturian.
And that makes the album’s production issues all the more disappointing. While Hestnæs may shine throughout, he’s the only one really given the chance to do so. The rest of the instruments end up blending together into a kind of muddy stew, all but void of dynamics. Arcturian has no shortage of compelling passages—passages that could and should have been articulated clearly—yet all too often, it can be a struggle to distinguish them in the mix.
Which is a shame, as aside from that, the album’s quite enjoyable. It’s the kind of trip you never quite know what to expect from, and one certainly in keeping with the band’s boundary-pushing side. In short, it’s really good. But think of what might have been…
Keep it heavy,