Arcturus - The Sham Mirrors (2002)Release ID: 2231
Theater of the Unknown
Given I began seriously diving into the deeper cuts of Progressive Metal more than 10 years after The Sham Mirrors was released, it's no wonder I never gave Arcuturus too much time of day. I recall listening to this album many years ago, thinking it was neat, then proceeding to forget about it, which in hindsight was a mistake given my broader knowledge nowadays. What I thought was just a random band turned out to be a somewhat of a Norwegian supergroup consisting of Mayhem's drummer Hellhammer as well as a few members from the Progressive Black Metal band Ulver. Arcturus was officially formed in 1990, two years before Ulver, however this group's debut album didn't come to be until 1996, one year after Ulver's signature debut album, showcasing the sometimes complex pipeline of album creation when working with multiple groups at the same time. Given that Ulver's debut album was known for its more progressive take on atmospheric black metal with a bunch of jagged transitions, it's not surprising that Arcturus was able to utilize those ideas in a subgenre that benefits greatly from those ideas.
The Sham Mirrors has a rawer and heavier sound overall, meaning more distortion than your run-of-the-mill, squeaky clean sounding Progressive Metal. This applies to the vocals as well, which are reverb laden and very theatrical with heavy use of choir-like layering. Despite being so over the top in its vocal and synth choices, The Sham Mirrors has a certain darkness to it that is extremely unique for an album that manages to still sit firmly within the Progressive Metal tag and not drift into heavier waters. The use of synths and piano are a massive part of The Sham Mirrors and "Nightmare Heaven" with its extended atmospheric section does a great job of encapsulating the otherworldly uneasiness that the album attempts to convey through its entire runtime. These synth themes are layered extremely well behind the grinding guitar riffs to not feel like an afterthought, which properly gives the album another dimension past the riffing. This means there's a lot to take in though, as Arcturus eventually show off their Black Metal roots on tracks like "Collapse Generation" and especially "Radial Cut", which has guest vocals by Ihsahn. I'm a pretty big fan of Symphonic Black Metal, so you don't hear me complaining.
Despite Arcturus' best efforts to create a harrowing and otherworldly feel, they weren't safe from the goofiness that Progressive Metal manages to bring out. It's obviously a subjective topic and if you think they pull off the atmosphere perfectly, I can see The Sham Mirrors being an all time classic for you. However, I still can't shake the feeling that some of the transition, vocal, and piano choices in tracks like "Nightmare Heaven", "Ad Absurdum", and "Star Crossed" fumble around a bit too much. The ten minute epic closer "For To End Again" is easily the most guilty of this given its opening marimba number, but thankfully it reigns everything back in for the most complete and complex showcase of their sound on the album, transitioning between ripping guitars and well written piano interludes without skipping a beat.
The Sham Mirrors succeeds in being an experience that is incredibly unique, but it doesn't have enough staying power for me to want to come back to it consistently. I love the use of symphonics to give off an epic and theatrical feel to some grimy sounding riffing, but the push and pull of the melodies can get a little lost sometimes. Symphonic Metal has shifted away from this darker style as of late so it's cool to hear another type of band take advantage of what strings can offer for heavier and more distortion heavy Metal. The synth-y strings, piano, and even brass parts during the closer feel very fleshed out with unique melodies separate from the guitar, showing that Arcturus put a lot of thought and effort into incorporating all but one element of their sound. Even though the vocals are able to compliment the instrumentation well, they seem a bit senseless sometimes in their melody and placement. "Radical Cut" is a surprising exception for me as Ihsahn manages to slot in perfectly for a spectacular climax to the album before the closer.
Overall, The Sham Mirrors is an album that I regret not having on my rotation for the past few years, but at the same time it doesn't manage to rise to any sort of legendary status. It's awesome to hear such a uniquely progressive take on using theatrical strings with grisly sounding guitars, especially given Arcturus' Black Metal background, but I find myself struggling to come up with a way it sincerely wowed me. Nothing stands out as insanely memorable despite being an incredibly enjoyable and succinct listen, which is also a nice change of pace for a Progressive Metal album.
I remember having heard the black metal bedut of Arcturus, Aspera Hiems Symfonia, years ago. I hadn't checked out any of their releases after that because I was in a black metal mood at the time. Well, I've gone over countless metal albums in recent times and I finally got around to checking out La masquerade infernale, which had plenty of brilliant moments, but was a bit of a hot mess switching from serious metal to opera to circus music. But The Sham Mirrors was one of the most consistent albums I've ever heard, and it managed to do everything advertized. It was a very dramatic piece in mood and atmosphere, but it never reached the symphonic bombast of a lot of symphonic metal acts, using it sparingly and accordingly. The album boasted plenty of odd tempos to keep the avant-garde side strong and healthy, backing sound effects to help the unique mood of the album, and plenty of fantastic rhythms to keep the metallic status strong. The production of the album brought out all of the best aspects of the aforementioned elements, and as a result we have one of the most accessible but yet weird and wild avant-garde metal albums of all time. Even Maudlin of the Well and Thy Catafalque have problems balancing experimentation with consistency. But with The Sham Mirrors, Arcuturs had corrected the biggest and most obvious mistake on La masquerade infernale. This is serious metal with a passion for oddities.
Symphonic Metal (conventional)
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Progressive Metal (conventional)
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