Despite its heavy metal pedigree, Arcturus is a progressive rock band, full stop. Cut from the same cloth as Dream Theater but with a sense of humor (at least in photo shoots) that calls to mind the great Jethro Tull in its heyday, this Norwegian-born outfit returns for its first full-length go-‘round in over a decade. Like any beast waking from a long slumber there are signs here that Arcturus is turning up a little disoriented, unsure of its place in this new decade. If not everything here fulfills the outfit’s initial promise, rest assured that there’s more than enough here to recommend and more than enough to appreciate.
The opening rumbler “Arcturian Sign” brings up to speed, reminding us of glories past and although there’s some impressive stick work from Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg the track often sounds like a collision of disparate influences scrambling to find their way within a single song. There is power and awe within the five short minutes of this turbulent introduction but it’s only with the second tune, “Crashland” that the group finds its footing and the melodies and individual parts manage to peacefully co-exist. And with that song one is reminded fully of the majesty that this band has at its disposal.
It’s also on that tune that ICS Vortex delivers some of his best performances to date, landing squarely beside the space-is-the-place “Warp” and the astounding “Pale”, which marries the group’s collective dark metal roots with its most progressive ambitions. There’s still plenty of dirty guitar, ornate keyboard runs and tricky drum maneuvers to keep stalwart geeks on the edge of their seats.
But Vortex’s performances can’t save everything. “Game Over” could be the album’s centerpiece. There are gorgeous keyboard and guitar passages that call to mind the most epic moments of the lost art of symphonic black metal and the timbre of the instruments is as mighty as the hammer of that certain Viking god. But it never quite goes for the gusto, never really bangs its way into the skull of the mountain king and tears the heart from the listener the way that it seems to want to, bluesy guitar runs be damned. And though the group rarely wants for imagination the Nine Inch Nails-influenced “Demon” finds ICS taking the easy route lyrically while the rest of the group opts for a slapdash arrangement that is a few millimeters short of the group’s reputation.
But “Pale” manages to glide to an unqualified victory, striking fear into the hearts of the mere mortals who attempt to understand its symphonic intricacies and pagan rhythms. It is epic and cinematic in every sense of the word and no doubt will stand as one of the tracks that remains in the group’s live performances so long as Arcturus and its audience both shall live. That tune, like the best material here is evidence of the group letting its imagination run wild. Guitarist Knut Magne does this with his layers-upon-layers on “The Journey” and the aforementioned “Crashland” and one wonders at times if, as mentioned before, the group isn’t being just a little trepidatious about all this, a little reluctant to fully embrace the all-out weirdness that seems encoded into its DNA. You have to wonder if the band couldn’t have benefited from an outside producer who could oversee this affair a little more closely and help steer the ship with valor and fortitude. It’s so often almost there, that it seems unfair that neither the band nor its audience gets to witness the full possibility of the glory.
Keyboardist Steinar Sverd Johnsen should not go unmentioned in this conversation as it is his sense of composition and performance that remain two of the greatest elements this band has to offer and, one suspects, if given a bit more guidance this collective could become a global leader in its particular brand of heavy darkness.
As happens so often in our times the disc comes with a bonus round of remixes but one wonders if it hadn’t been a better idea to just make the core of the album all that more impactful and save the remixes for another time and another place. When all is said and done, though, it’s great to have this band back and although this isn’t the great album that Arcturus still has in its core, it’s a decent step toward that. If the moments of greatness don’t always follow one another directly here they’re also not so far apart as to suggest the whole plot will fall through.