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Like Sideshow Bob but with less malice. - 79%

bluberry, January 23rd, 2006

The first thing you should know about Sideshow Symphonies is that the rumors about its production quality (or lack thereof) are true. I appreciate the great dynamics, I really do, but even ignoring blatant mastering errors like an inconsistent volume level and a disconcerting click at the end of "Shipwrecked Frontieer Pioneers", the guitars just aren't prominent enough in the mix for the album to be very intense. Knut is one of metal's most underrated guitarists in my book, but that doesn't mean much when you can barely even hear the guy; he's shredding away like a pro in the aforementioned "Pioneer", but sadly, it's almost inaudibly buried beneath everything else.

I'd also like to whine about how Sideshow Symphonies is neither as consistent as The Sham Mirrors or as wildly inventive as La Masquerade Infernale. I don't think anybody expected another LMI, but the fact that they couldn't at least make every song work is a disappointment. It's sort of reminiscent of Aspera in that regard. You'll get two awesome, intense (for Arcturus) tracks, but then you get a boring and generic tune like "Raudt Og Svart" that's only worth noting for something hilariously bad like the nun scream--or, in this case, a boring and generic tune like "Deamon Painter" that's only worth noting because some guy burps right in the middle of a slow part.

All that being said, don't kid yourself. This is Arcturus, and even if you're not getting a timeless classic with this one, you're still in for a bit of a treat. Despite being in every other band that hails from Norway's hilariously inbred metal scene, for instance, drummer Hellhammer is a blast to listen to whether or not the song he's playing in is up to par. He can wail on his kit at ~4589 BPM, he can tack a catchy groove on when nothing else is around to pick up the slack, and on songs like the catchy album opener "Hibernation Sickness Complete", he even does both at the same time. Even better is how this part doesn't have any singing, so Knut's great riffing can actually bubble up to the surface and compliment the savage drum blasting.

Surprisingly, new vocalist Simen Hest├Žs is also really good--his performance here is never quite as delightfully demented as it was on LMI's brilliant "The Chaos Path", but he's a fantastically unique vocalist who's more than capable of filling G Wolf/Trickster G Rex/Fiery G Maelstrom/Homie G Dawg's massive shoes. He's definitely got variety going for him: he opens "Moonshine Delerium" with a series of hoarse whispers, but then breaks into his trademark crazy voice and belts out some of the catchiest vocal melodies this side of the almighty Garm himself.

A decent portion of Sideshow Symphonies is rather blah, yes, but every now and then, it all comes together perfectly. The slow instrumental "Reflections" again has Hellhammer and Knut playing off each other to perfection, for instance; this time, though, Simen gets to join in with some ominous chanting toward the end, and Sverd keeps the opening interesting by tactfully stealing a keyboard melody from "Ad Astra". The two part "Evacuation Code Deciphered" is another favorite of mine. The first half has catchy keyboard melodies and Simen doing everything from operatic-style singing to maniacal laughter, while the second part has some cool riffs and backup vocals from Octavia Sperati's... I don't know her name, but she's kind of hot. Good show.

The production is pretty daft, and it's not my favorite Arcturus album regardless--actually, it's my least--but there's no denying that this is still a solid release. Everybody's at the top of their game, and a good portion of the album really works even in spite of the weak sound. Sideshow Symphonies wouldn't be their strongest effort even if you could hear the guitars, as it sort of feels like an EP of great mid-tempo metal stretched out to album length by all the filler, but it does an admirable job of persuading me that Arcturus' best work isn't necessarily behind them just because Homie G is.