I’ve been putting off writing this review for a long time. I like to give an album time to soak in before I review it, in case I give something a low review and it ends up growing on me, or a high review and it ends up boring me to tears after a few more listens. For some reason, though, “Sideshow Symphonies,” the latest release by Avantgarde Black Metallers ARCTURUS, just won’t soak in. I listen to it again and again and I just can’t say whether or not I love this album or am severely disappointed by it. At this point, I’m leaning more toward the latter.
First off, there are a few things you should know about this album. Former vocalist Garm (ULVER) has left the band and filling in for him is ICS Vortex (BORKNAGAR, DIMMU BORGIR, LAMENTED SOULS). Now, Vortex is no stranger to filling Garm’s shoes, having done so when Garm left BORKNAGAR many years ago and has also contributed a good deal of vocals to “La Masquerade Infernale,” including singing lead and penning the lyrics for “The Chaos Path,” everyone’s favorite ARCTURUS song. Needless to say, Vortex knows the ropes here and he fills in perfectly. This is not to say that the tone of the band has stayed the same – gone is the sinister, brooding feeling given off by Garm and in place is an airy, mournful atmosphere similar to Vortex’s work in LAMENTED SOULS.
The second thing you should know about this album is that it sounds like the band is reaching backwards a bit, combining the sounds of “The Sham Mirrors” and their magnum opus, “La Masquerade Infernale.” “Sideshow Symphonies” wouldn’t have sounded out of place coming between those two and sort of bridges the gap between what I felt was a huge jump in style. The problem, though, is that this album just doesn’t capture the same intensity that both of those albums had. “Sideshow Symphonies” is much more subtle and subdued, but in the end, this works against the band. While there are moments of absolute brilliance here – the second half of “Shipwrecked Frontier Pioneer,” the middle of “Nocturnal Vision Revisited,” and pretty much all of “Moonshine Delirium” – the majority of the material falls a bit flat. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that even the best songs on “Sideshow Symphonies” don’t even come close to the worst songs on “La Masquerade Infernale.” Nonetheless, this is a good album. It’s a very good album, even, just not anywhere in the league of the band’s past work – “Aspera Hiems Symphonia” included. Ah well, apparently a new album is being planned already, so maybe this was just a warm up.
You should probably also know that there are some production errors on this disc. “Shipwrecked Frontier Pioneer” is mixed much lower than the rest of the tracks and has a very loud and noticeable click at the end of it. Apparently, “Demon Painter” was supposed to fade out as well, rather than end abruptly. Supposedly Seasons Of Mist is going to fix these errors and reissue the disc, so if you don’t have it yet, you might want to hold off. (Online January 12, 2006)