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3 weird 5 u - 96%

Valfars Ghost, January 13th, 2017

Once the black metal scene got going in Norway, it didn't take long for the genre to mutate and evolve in several different directions. While Emperor was a few years into their campaign of adding a sense of classical grandiosity to their own contributions to metal's history and Enslaved was infusing their music with folky, Viking-inspired ideas, Arcturus was going in a much more unconventional direction. With influences from all over the place, from the off-kilter skip of Captain Beefheart to vocal strangeness inspired by Magma and whatever the world’s weirdest opera might be, prominently displayed, La Masquerade Infernale is still among the most unusual metal releases of all time.

This album is so bizarre for so many reasons that it's difficult for a reviewer to know where to start in an analysis. For an overall impression, it's probably best to begin by saying La Masquerade Infernale has an unsettling atmosphere, sounding partly like a haunted carnival, partly like a smattering of unorthodox baroque pieces, and partly like music commissioned for a scene in a movie where a character is exploring a haunted house. Instrumentally, there's practically no resemblance to the black metal Arcturus' members were performing with their other bands. There are no blast beats, no tremolo lines, and a general lack of speed and aggression. The main driving force here is the synths and keyboards, which are constantly busy playing odd, creepy patterns that weave in and out of the overall tapestry of sound here. Along the way different rhythms, themselves unusual, often coexist, forming an intricate whole. Occasionally, instruments not normally featured in metal appear, like the violin in ‘The Chaos Path’ and the flute in ‘Ad Astra’. Rarely do they take prominence. For the most part, these instruments find a humble place in the mix that completes each song’s cramped musical collage.

The metal aspects here are subdued, taking a backseat to the chaotic atmosphere largely built on its synths and keyboards. Sometimes the bass is easier to pick out than one would expect for something this keyboard-driven, providing a galloping pace when the music speeds up or an evocative background throb to complete the atmosphere in slower moments. The guitars are not a main factor in the music and, as such, are rarely a focal point, but everything else here is so brilliantly realized that you don't miss them.

The vocals here stand out the most, which is no easy feat in an album this unusual. They're certainly the most memorable of this album's building blocks. Just listen to 'The Chaos Path' and try to forget those over-the-top vocals with their operatic, strangely hypnotizing character. Truly Vortex, who wasn’t even a member of the band yet, is a one-of-a-kind singer, with his style managing to be both off-kilter and surprisingly smooth.

Despite its weirdness, its frequent use of dissonant progressions, and its habit of layering numerous passages over each other in ways that can be more than a little disorienting, there are a lot of solid, memorable ideas throughout. 'Alone' is a nice interlude of sorts, consisting mostly of a pleasing, simple keyboard melody. ‘Ad Astra’ has a satisfying and catchy break that appears throughout the song, a satisfying crescendo that comes after several different streams of bizarre atmosphere. ‘The Throne of Tragedy’, meanwhile, has a prolonged, stately keyboard melody, probably the catchiest one on the album.

Is this album weird for the sake of being weird? Maybe, but don’t ever let it be said that it doesn’t boast excellent, purposeful songwriting. This music is haunting, disorienting, and at times, sort of joyous. A unique work through and through, La Masquerade Infernale is something you absolutely have to hear if you appreciate innovation in metal.