Arcturus – La Masquerade Infernale (1997)
For those of you who don’t understand what I’m going for in the image text joke, please watch this. I suggest you do so AFTER reading this through to avoid some spoilerage.
Anyways, this has been labeled “post-black metal” by a few people. Since that’s essentially a meaningless term, I’d have to assume they’re idiots. They did, however, get one thing right – pretty much all the Norwegian black metal is gone from this album. Compare to Aspera Hiems Symfonia, which was frankly rather underwritten and underproduced. You can’t really excuse unfocused songwriting by calling it “atmospheric”.
This, on the other hand, is fairly direct. The production is sharp and clear, and has some degree of reverb, notable in the drums. Also stepped up from the last album is the overall aggression – the average song is more forceful (Consider how Garm’s voice changed from incantory chants on early Ulver and the Arcturus debut to the operatic, manly stuff on here), the guitars are more active, Hellhammer’s drumming is faster and louder, etc.
The songs here are very well written – they take a great degree of elements and tie them together in a logical fashion. Remember that you are listening to a concept album about some of the BMers’ best friend, Satan, and that this album was originally going to be called The Satanist. The current title is subtler, but not by much, unless you don’t know the meanings of “Masquerade” and “Infernal”, in which case you need to be hit with a dictionary. This is clear from the first song onwards, where Garm’s vocal lines are at their lowest pitch, and the mood is relatively restrained. Simen Hestnæs (AKA ICS Vortex) provides some guest vocals here, all in the high tenor range to Garm’s bass/baritones.
After that, it’s basically rising action (for the most part) into increasing frenzy. Of most particular note on such a path is “The Chaos Path”, which is not only the most accessible song on this (relatively accessible) album, but home to it’s best vocal performance, courtesy of ICS Vortex taking the spotlight from Garm. Probably the single of the album, it’s been noted by many for its “circus” feel. I blame the keyboard rhythms. “Alone”, though, takes the grand prize for mania, from the lone blastbeat on this album at the beginning, to the ever growing tension that is sparked off by the appearance of the strings in the middle. All of this is in contrast to its topic manner – a straight retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem of the exact name. The second half of the album is somewhat more restrained, although it does reach similar peaks of intensity at times (a third of the way through ‘Painting My Horror’ and the entirety ‘Of Nails and Sinners’). ‘The Throne of Tragedy’ is apparently based off a poem by John Henrik Svaren, and has some of the most anthemic riffs and phrases off the album. I’d say it’s my favorite of the bunch, because it manages to implement so many ideas with relative restraint.
Anyways, this one comes quite recommended. The next two albums are subtly different, but mostly follow the heavy metal/symphonic progressive rock that this one did. Their debut is too haphazard for me to really recommend.