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Norwegian progressive metal band Arcturus started out as a melodic black metal band of the early nineties "second wave," similar to Ancient in their emphasis on atmospheric texture and mood rather than merely blasting the listener's brains out. 'Aspera Hiems Symfonia' remains their only full-length release in this style before their progressive tendencies came to the fore and they left the extreme elements behind, but even this partial classic is once removed from the more authentic style of their earlier EPs. The 2001 re-master of this album polished up its production sound and tagged on 'Constellation' and 'My Angel,' the latter of which can also be found on the excellent 'True Kings of Norway' compilation of rare early releases from second wave black metal bands, back when they were still good (Emperor, Immortal, Dimmu Borgir, Ancient and Arcturus), while 'Constellation' is the basis for this album's sound, containing earlier versions of three songs for a direct comparison that works in favour of either release, depending on the listener's taste.
I was slightly disappointed to finally hear this full-length, as its departure from the dingy, moody sound of the EPs to a more eloquent performance burdened by over-use of backing orchestration makes it less effective as a result, despite the presence of legendary black metal alumni in the form of vocalist Garm and drummer Hellhammer. I've been a big fan of Garm's distinctive "monk" vocals since hearing Ulver's 'Bergtatt,' one of my all-time favourite black metal releases, and was later delighted to discover that he was the early vocalist for my other favourite Borknagar, so I had my hopes raised quite high for Arcturus. Garm is as good as ever, using his clean singing less often than his effective and determined growl in order to keep things from becoming too dull, but the rest of the band sadly fails in the same regard.
Hellhammer (one of the Mayhem survivors and always the most level-headed of that bunch) is mostly confined to a slow and steady pace, especially in the later songs as he's relegated further to a marching drum, while Carl August Tidermann's guitars stop sounding as impressive or even as discernible after their enjoyable squealing performance in track five, losing the battle for prominence with Steinar Sverd Johnsen's keyboards that really take over the proceedings and create a fantastic regal air at the cost of memorable or inventive melodies.
The older style present on 'Constellation' in particular is much more in line with the ethos of black metal in its more melodic forms, relying on organ-sounding keyboards for a more chilling and less domineering background atmosphere and allowing the guitars and drums to play a more substantial role, even when the songs are more or less exactly the same on both releases, 'Raudt Og Svart,' 'Naar Kulda Tar' and 'Du Nordavind' all sounding more effective in their original versions. This is all primarily down to a matter of taste, but for an album that places so much emphasis on atmosphere, it slips into ambience far too often in places that the original songs evidently didn't intend to. The progressive rock influence is perhaps part of the reason, as some songs take on a more carnivalesque style than anything seriously gloomy, and much of the album is lacking any trace of metal whatsoever, black or any other shade. 'Aspera Hiems Symfonia' is of minor importance in the continuing evolution of black metal, but its preceding EPs demand greater attention for their innovative style that was all too soon taken from this world.
1. To Thou Who Dwellest in the Night
2. Wintry Grey
3. Whence and Whither Goest the Wind
4. Raudt Og Svart
5. The Bodkin and the Quietus
6. Du Nordavind
7. Fall of Man
8. Naar Kulda Tar
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 To Thou Who Dwellest In The Night
2 Wintry Grey
3 Whence & Whither Goest The Wind
4 Raud Og Svart
5 Bodkin & The Quietus (To Reach The Stars)
6 Du Nordavind
7 Fall Of Man
8 Naar Kulda Tar (Frostnettenes Prolog)
9 Deep Is The Skies
11 Raud Og Svart
12 Icebound Streams And Vapours Grey
13 Naar Kulda Ra
14 Du Nordavind
15 My Angel