ARCTURUS will forever be haunted by their past. Having put out a record like "La Masquerade Infernale", an inarguable classic and one of the cornerstones of this whole "post-black metal" genre, all subsequent releases will be held up to it for comparison and critique. As always, an ARCTURUS album requires an investment of time and attention — many of the earliest reviews for "Sideshow Symphonies" were mixed. Letting the album soak in will reveal a bit more, though — "Sideshow Symphonies" is a space trip of its own merits, and a sound that will please existing fans, but it's definitely not on par with "La Masquerade Infernale".
The big news here, of course, is the departure of Garm and the recruitment of Simen Hestnaes (BORKNAGAR, DIMMU BORGIR) as lead vocalist. His vocal lines seem to be the focal point of the arrangements, and he delightfully chews the scenery, delivering some ridiculous lyrics (including the show-stopping line "who gives a fly-y-y-y-ing shit anyway? Come on conquistadors, what do you say?" in "White Noise Monster"), hooting and mewling with theatrical abandon.
It's a good thing he's so into the proceedings, because musically, things are a bit on the pedestrian side. Drummer Hellhammer turns in a characteristically awesome performance, but most of the guitar and synth parts seem like bare skeletons, laid down to support the vocal parts. It all sounds good — even with a somewhat more bargain-basement production, and a few actual errors (including a much-bemoaned click at the end of "Shipwrecked Frontier Pioneer"), the core ARCTURUS sound is an awesome mix of atmospherics and madness. It's just that, with a few exceptions, a lot of this leans too heavily toward the former, and the whole thing (especially when Hestnaes isn't singing) ends up being audio wallpaper, with little that sticks in the listener's memory once it ends.
There are a few cool bits — the frantic keyboard solo about 3:45 into "Deamonpainter" that sounds like a member of GOBLIN scoring a Commodore 64 video game is one that comes to mind. Unfortunately, after many listens, not much else does. I stress that it's still, by and large, an enjoyable listening experience — after all, even ARCTURUS coasting still mops the floor with most of the genre. But it's not the compelling work of art we know this group is capable of — it's not even really that memorable. Avant-garde background noise with insane vocals — not what I was hoping for.