Sound — 9
The musical path that Arcturus have traveled was always prone to serpentine, and they've not only handled it with grace and intrigue, they've strived for it. Originally starting as a symphonic black metal outfit (primarily displayed in their debut album, "Aspera Hiems Symfonia"), their black metal skin would shed substantially when their lead vocalist switched from a growling style to a singing style in their follow-up album, "La Masquerade Infernale." Moreover, they invested more upon synthetic qualities, which resulted in more elaborate keyboard sections, as well as dabbling with electronica infusion, even introducing a tiny precursor to the dubstep-tinged metal that's so prevalent today. Their third album, "The Sham Mirrors," would further stretch out in style, both reaching a Dream Theater-esque progressive metal while also having a foot in their fleeting symphonic black metal side.
Arcturus' lead vocalist, Kristoffer Rygg, would leave the band after their third album, and would be replaced by Dimmu Borgir's bassist and clean vocalist, ICS Vortex, whose higher-register voice would make the band's fourth album, "Sideshow Symphonies," feel even more synonymous with Dream Theater. With Vortex primarily being committed to Dimmu Borgir, Arcturus wouldn't be able to last, and disbanded in 2007, but after Vortex was kicked out of Dimmu Borgir a couple years later, the possibility of Arcturus reuniting began to grow. They would officially reform in 2011, and though it would take a few years of occasional performances to get their bearings back, Arcturus have now released their fifth album, "Arcturian."
Having been a decade since their last album, one might assume that the musical goal of "Arcturian" would be to get the band back into form from all that time ago - an assumption that's even stronger when regarding the semiotics of the almost-self-titled album name. But instead, "Arcturian" contorts itself into reaching more sonic territory than any other Arcturus album, which essentially breaks the progressive metal style seen in their previous two albums (no song on "Arcturian" clocks in at over six minutes), allowing for more variance and curveballs. Electronica influences oftentimes begin as industrial-influenced sparks, like the Sister Machine Gun-esque intro of "The Arcturian Sign," but branch off into more styles: the primarily-industrial style of "Demon" wields bits of dubstep buzzes, as well as co-opting drum patterns from trap, moombahton and drum 'n bass; and the trance-style arpeggios that begin "The Journey" soon hand the baton to a fingerpicking acoustic guitar melody and violin lead, which are snugly wrapped in blankets of thick synth layers, ultimately making the song feel like shoegazing folk.
The other imperative change seen in "Arcturian" is an exponential rehashing of Arcturus' black metal side. From the blastbeat and muddy tremolo sections that successfully blacken symphonic metal tracks like "The Arcturian Sign" and "Angst," to the hazy, lo-fi mixdowns prominently heard in "The Arcturian Sign" and "Bane," the black metal characteristics here are even stronger than those heard in "Aspera Hiems Symfonia." Even Vortex, whose righteous singing voice makes other metal cuts like "Crashland" and "Warp" feel like power/folk metal, brings forth a hefty amount of growling vocals in "The Arcturian Sign," "Angst," "Demon" and "Pale."
Lyrics — 6
As opposed to the spanning concepts that made up "Aspera Hiems Symfonia" and "The Sham Mirrors," the lyrical matter of "Arcturian" is fairly scattered. The parable of mental illness in "Warp" ties back to the post-modern subject matter that "Sideshow Symphonies" was mainly concerned with, and the doomed-to-fail relationship depicted in "Crashland" ends up being a first for Arcturus, but Arcturus make sure not to forget the black metal themes, and "Pale" hits peak satanic on the album. "Game Over" and "Demon" also stand in the realm of the occult, but are both weaker moments on the album lyrically, with the former drumming up an inadequate theme of video games, and the latter being the band's nadir of wit ("Out of luck / I don't give a f--k / So beam me up or suck my c-ck").
Despite not making "Arcturian" a whole concept within itself, Arcturus do manage to continue the otherworldly lyrical concept that has been going on since "The Sham Mirrors," inspired by the star the band is named after. The distress articulated in "The Arcturian Sign" connects with that heard in the "Sideshow Symphonies" song "Shipwrecked Frontier Pioneer," possibly being a prequel to those events, and "Archer" portrays the aftermath of the shipwrecked reckoning, loosely analogizing the lone protagonist to the Greek god Apollo.
Overall Impression — 9
Any regular return album from a band that had been away for so long would either choose between recalibrating its expected style and reinventing itself. "Arcturian" enigmatically chooses both options, and accomplishes everything it needs to and more with flying colors. From the instrumental prowess to a firm grip on its root style, the album is sure to satisfy those that want the meat-and-potatoes sound of Arcturus, and with its material that pushes the band's stylistic boundaries into new territory, the album continues to hone the band's penchant for experimentation and progressing forward. "Arcturian" doesn't only make for a triumphant return of Arcturus; it plants the band's avant-garde flag higher than it's ever been before.