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Avant-garde metal is a label given to a wide range of artists, each presumably pursuing their music from a different angle. One thing that all who earn the avant status have in common however, is that the music is 'weird' to some extent, and aims to challenge our perceptions of what music (or metal, specifically) can do. Arcturus is one such band that comes up very often in discussion regarding avant-metal, and perhaps their most recognized achievement is 'La Masquerade Infernale', a diabolical trip through hellish carnivals, and realms of the psyche that are best left alone. Featuring some very well- acclaimed individuals from the Norwegian black metal scene such as Krystoffer 'Garm' Rygg (of Ulver) and ICS Vortex (of Dimmu Borgir), the listener is in for a memorable, and strange ride with this one.
Like quite a bit of avant-leaning music I have heard, Arcturus derives some of the weirder portions of their sound from circus music. Arcturus is one of those bands that exploits our common childhood fear of devilish-looking clowns and surreal contraptions. With vocal duties being shared both by Garm (for the lower, more evil sounding parts) and Vortex (for his trademark operatic pitch), Arcturus is able to paint a pretty convincing mental image through their music, and it's something otherworldly at that. The instrumentation is eclectic, although it has a fairly steady base in the instruments one find typically find in gothic metal; being eerie sounding keyboards, guitars, and what have you. On top of the usuals, there are violins, carnival organs, and even a fair sum of electronic tweaking to give Arcturus an added edge. The samples and electronic additions are quite unexpected at first, and contribute to the eerie atmosphere, although not nearly as much as the vocals themselves. Although there has been some meticulous attention obviously paid to the instruments, the real highlight here are the vocal performances. Vortex warbles and shrieks like an ecstatic madman here, and Garm contrasts that with a deep and ominous drone quite unlike how he sounds with Ulver.
The songwriting here is clever and dense, although I found the challenging nature of the album eased somewhat by the pleasant shock of the eerie atmosphere; felt best on the most memorable track, 'The Chaos Path'. There is a very distinct style that runs throughout the album, although for some reason, the record peters off without much of a climax; it's as if there is a song or two missing from the finished product. The carnival eerieness that drives 'La Masquerade Infernale' is very powerful, although I will say that the album rarely extends beyond any emotion besides quirky fear. Even so, this is a fantastic album from one of Norway's most innovative bands, and it's an incredibly engaging album for any listener ready to enjoy it.