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‘Thus one shall go to the stars.’ It is probably the most apt phrase that comes to mind as the spacey textures of opening “transmission”, ‘Kinetic’, ushers in the beginning of this, the third opus in the acclaimed Arcturus back catalogue. For anyone familiar with their previous recordings, the differences should be both immediate and apparent, though not too unexpected, considering the highly experimental nature of the band.
Evident from the outset on this release is Arcturus’ far more liberal use of strange and atmospheric sound effects, often evoking visuals of vast machinery and extra-solar phenomena. In the hands of a lesser band, the use of such tools could have easily worked to the detriment of the music, but with musicians as expertly talented as these, they serve to draw the listener in and push the effectiveness of the musical concepts presented. This comes through particularly well in the densely atmospheric mid sections of ‘Nightmare Heaven’, which conjure up images of a great stellar void; dark and desolate.
Adding to this are the stunning vocals courtesy of Kristoffer Rygg (aka Garm). Gone are the blackened screams and snarls that characterised much of their earlier material (only to reappear on track 6, ‘Radical Cut’, courtesy of Emperor’s Ihsahn). Sticking to clean vocals throughout, Rygg’s versatility and talent as a singer, if not already apparent before, is now unequivocal when heard through the variety, and masterful delivery, of the vocal performances herein. Suiting the music and atmosphere perfectly, the varying styles employed make for both an interesting and highly engaging listen, with calming ‘ooh’s in the softer sections transitioning, almost too naturally, into the maniacal howls that can be found in some of the darker passages.
It is that signature darkness in their compositions that ties The Sham Mirrors back to their earlier releases, though the approach has changed greatly. The third track, ‘Ad Absurdum’, opens with a thickly distorted guitar vamping heavily through a particularly menacing chord progression. A sinister thread is held throughout as the band moves through each passage until reaching a brilliant conclusion featuring some ghostly, choir-like ooh’s over a haunting piano figure.
Moving from the transfixing melancholy of the ‘Ad Absurdum’ finale, a shrill string motif gives short warning of the percussive onslaught to follow. Complimenting the music beautifully up to now, ‘Collapse Generation’ is a chance for Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg to really let loose, with some particularly powerful bass drum work - the blasts reminiscent of the black metal style he’s most well-known for - setting the stage for some bombastic, almost apocalyptic passages featuring heavy synthesised string ensembles along with a piano that brings that extra touch of desperation and excitement to the beautifully choreographed chaos raging around it.
The word ‘atmosphere’ has recurred quite a bit so far in this review, and for good reason. It is an important aspect of this record that has been superbly maintained by all musicians involved. Guitarist Knut Magne Valle, like Hellhammer, has a great talent for complimenting, and enhancing, the music as a cohesive whole; knowing when to pull back as well as when to rage forward in a fury of technicality and musicianship. Similarly, Dag F. Gravem adroitly handles the low frequencies on his first, and only, Arcturus release, with some interesting bass lines running throughout; the one obvious aside being ‘Radical Cut’, which sees a return from the band’s long time bass player, Hugh Mingay.
And so, this brings us to the subject of the mastermind behind Arcturus, keyboardist Steiner “Sverd” Johnsen. In addition to his formidable technical abilities, Johnsen possesses a compositional skill and clarity like few other modern musicians. His ability to capture emotions so potently, particularly in his piano interludes, is tremendous. The most obvious, though no less effective, example of this can be found in the introduction to ‘Star-Crossed’, which starts off in a wonderfully baroque manner that culminates in some beautiful arpeggiated runs before taking a decidedly darker turn with the arrival of the first verse.
Accompanying the music exquisitely throughout, the lyrics are another highlight as they freely, and collaboratively, evoke the same mood and imagery of the music while remaining wonderfully abstract, open, and always poetic.
Ending this modern masterpiece is the epic ‘For to End Yet Again’. Taking aspects from those leading up to it, ‘For to End Yet Again’ weaves in a few tricks of it’s own over the course of it’s more than ten minute long runtime before proceeding on to a magnificent instrumental section that proves a fitting close to a very extraordinary record.