Of all the European countries that contributed to metal’s accelerated evolution throughout the 90s, Norway undoubtedly stood tall as the leader. While the influence of other subgenres that developed in Europe such as the UK’s gothic and death/doom hybrids, Finland’s pioneering funeral doom movement or the Gothenburg melodic death metal (“melodeath”) sound born in Sweden was pivotal and is still strong as ever in inspiring younger bands, the impact of Norwegian black metal is still the most lasting and forceful from both a sonic and cultural perspective. Despite several of the originators and biggest names to come from black metal’s “second wave”, be they Darkthrone, Mayhem, Emperor or Immortal, all bringing their own unique influences and takes on the genre, there was no dearth of bands, both Norwegian and non, content, often to a dogmatic degree, with merely adhering to the established tenants of the“pure” black metal sound. Those of course are primitive and minimal compositions with a focus on repetition and intentionally raw, low-fi productions for the purposes of grim atmospherics. “This black metal “attitude” is really something that was invented by somebody else…”(1) stated Mayhem drummer Jan Axel Blomberg, better known as “Hellhammer”. “Black metal for me is about thinking for yourself”, continued Blomberg, “Not following anything. And certainly not following some idiot that says you have to do this to be “true”(1). Blomberg’s mentality was shared by several other musicians within Norwegian black metal, a wholly singular form of experimental and progressive music soon emerging out of black metal in the mid-to-late-90s.
Much like 1994 was a pivotal year for second-wave Norwegian black metal with the releases of seminal genre classics like Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse, Darkthrone’s Transylvanian Hunger and Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss to name but a few, 1997 could be considered one of the watershed years for what Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal (2010) author Jeff Wagner dubs “post-black metal”(2). A term also used by Yusaf Parvez, AKA Vicotnik (3), mastermind of Dødheimsgard as well as a central figure in Ved Buens Ende, two critical names in black metal’s embracing of the avant-garde. The latter’s lone album Written in Waters (1995), in particular, marked a crucial turning point in the development of progressive or “post” black metal which, come 1997, saw a handful of bands either taking the genre into waters further uncharted than Ved Buens Ende while still retaining elements of black metal or, controversially in some instances, moving away entirely from established black metal tropes. While never a truly feral or necro black metal band to begin with, In the Woods’ (stylized as “In the Woods…”) 1997 sophomore full-length Omnio for instance still found the band exploring far more progressive and psychedelic pastures with exclusively clean vocals and a string quartet greatly expanding the bands already operatic soniscape. 1997 also saw the release of The Linear Scaffold, the debut album from Solefald who, while retaining some black metal extremities, especially the vocals, was also a fully molded progressive outfit from the outset. The more progressive and adventurous mindset also extended to Norwegian bands outside of black metal with Trondheim’s The 3rd and Mortal, who began life as a gothic doom metal band yet then morphed into a more amorphous and Avant outfit, releasing the brilliant In This Room in March of 1997 [i].
1997 was a particularly busy year for one Kristoffer Rygg. Though known by many and often rather amusing aliases [ii], Rygg is best known as “Garm”, the founding member of Ulver. More than any other band, Ulver perhaps best represents the progressive/experimental/avant-garde/whatever label suffices thread running through Norwegian music with a discography containing everything from black metal, acoustic folk, 80’s inspired synthpop, and film soundtracks. So raw was the recording of Ulver’s 1997 album Nattens Madrigal – Aatte Hymne til Ulven i Manden (translating to “Madrigal of the Night – Eight Hymns to the Wolf in Man”) an urban legend has persisted of the band literally recording the tracks in a forest. One of the quintessential examples of the Norwegian necro black metal aesthetic along with Transylvanian Hunger, Nattens Madrigal would also signify Ulver’s clean break from not just black metal but metal as a whole following the album’s release. Rygg’s other endeavors throughout 1997 remained firmly planted in metal while also remaining committed to breaking free of any preconceived notions of what metal, black or otherwise, could be and in turn expanded perceptions of “progressive metal”. Uniquely esoteric as Borknagar’s 1996 self-titled debut was, the album was assuredly black metal with Rygg delivering an utterly throat-ripping vocal performance. It was with 1997’s The Olden Domain, the second and final album featuring Rygg on lead vocals, that Borknagar morphed into its own brand of progressive, folk-infused “Viking” metal. One of many Norwegian supergroups consisting of impact players from black metal, also included in Borknagar’s ranks with Rygg was Ivar Bjørnson of Enslaved who wrote their own chapter in the 1997 book of progressive Norwegian metal with the Eld album. It would however be the album released in later 1997 featuring Rygg up front, La Masquerade Infernale by Arcturus which would ultimately become the defining Norwegian progressive metal album of 1997 and a standard bearer for Norwegian progressive metal in general.
As important a member of Arcturus, Rygg was to become for almost a decade, Rygg actually didn’t factor until 1993, the Arcturus nativity beginning in 1989 when Steinar Sverd Johnsen and Marius Vold of the band Mortem began rehearsing with Mayhem’s Hellhammer (4). The real start of Arcturus for Sverd happened in 1990 when “a new universe opened”(4) upon the former guitarist acquiring a keyboard. Though Vold had quit Mortem following the Slow Death (1989) demo, an idea for a new song led to a new collaboration with Sverd. The reunion resulted in the first two official Arcturus compositions, “My Angel” and “Morax” which were released as a 7” in 1991 (4), Sverd already molding a niche sound for Arcturus with the tracks. Vold would once again exit the picture in 1993, by then Sverd and Hellhammer were acquainted with Rygg with Arcturus sharing the same practice room as Ulver and Mayhem (4). Arcturus would quickly become another Norwegian supergroup with Tomas “Samoth” Haugen of Emperor also joining on guitar in 1993 for the Constellation (1994) EP. Legal procedures would soon be occupying Samoth’s time, Arcturus then gaining two new members, Tritonus guitarist Carl August Tidemann along with bassist Skol, a fellow Ulver bandmate with Rygg for the recording of Arcturus’ debut album Aspera Hiems Symfonia (1996). Translating to “Harsh Winter Symphony”, the album preserved black metal’s frigid, forest-set ambiance while Sverd’s keys provided the ornate symphonies the title promised. “The only places I picked up inspiration was through classical music”(4) Sverd admits. Sverd’s classically influenced composition along with Tidemann’s love of bands like Fates Warning and Queensrÿche further “blossomed the soundscape”(4) to paraphrase Rygg, Aspera Hiems Symfonia occupying its own (outer) space in progressive black metal both philharmonic and psychedelic.
Skoll, Sverd, and Rygg all concur on Arcturus being a separate entity from anything else happening in Norwegian metal. “We didn’t care much about what was going on around us or staying true to any particular genre”(4) admits Skol. Rygg said something of a similar effect regarding the band giving zero thought to the genre. “…it wasn’t really of any concern to us what people called our music”(4) said Rygg. Of Aspera Hiems Symfonia, Sverd rightly claims “We kinda created our own universe”(4) with both Rygg and Skol acknowledging each member’s individual backgrounds and influences from Sverd’s classical inspirations, Tidemann’s progressive rock and metal pedigree and Rygg tying in everything to black metal. The band would soon see more changes in personnel following Aspera Hiems Symfonia with Tidemann being replaced by Knut Magne Valle. The band also opted to self-produce their second album, spending around half a year at “Jester Studio” working out various ideas and sounds (4). Singular as Aspera Hiems Symfonia was, the material that was to become the follow-up album La Masquerade Infernale would be even more so, Sverd again “not giving a shit about musical borders” and adding “more colors”(4), the band becoming more experimental and downright surreal. Rygg describes the album as being informed by “an aesthetic outlook”(4) with influences from outside of music including film, literature, and theater (4). Rygg specifically noted the influence of the German Faust legend, the album even dedicated in the liner notes to the “Perilous Quest of the Faustian Spirit”, as well as French writer Antonin Artaud (4), the album also highly informed by the French fantastique and symbolist poets.
Released on October 27, 1997, by Music for Nations, La Masquerade Infernale was noticeably different with its album cover prominently featuring a black domino masked Garm. Playing around with theatricality yet in an entirely different context from typical black metal corpse-painted theatrics, the band consciously wanted to have an “alternative” black metal look (4). Shot by photographer Per Heimly (4), the accompanying photos of the band members on the inside of the booklet see the band similarly dressed for a performative masquerade. The packaging of the album revealed another French influence to those looking close enough with a famous pronouncement from the Marquis de Sade found behind the disc tray reading “Ce n’est point ma façon de penser qui a fait mon malheur, c’est celle des autres.”(“Not my manner of thinking but the manner of thinking of others has been the source of my unhappiness.”) taken from a November 1783 letter from prison penned by Sade addressed to his then-wife Renee Pelagie de Sade (5). The band’s new “aesthetic outlook”, as Rygg would say, for the visuals of La Masquerade Infernale was as involved and idiosyncratic as the album itself. An album that epitomizes the peculiar strand of progressive metal born from Norwegian black metal despite having no musical peer. Compared with even some other 1997 Norwegian releases and La Masquerade Infernale remains a true oddity. While certainly symphonic, Arcturus was galaxies removed from Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk or the orchestrated bombast of Dimmu Borgir’s Enthrone Darkness Triumphant. Similarly, Arcturus’ brand of grandiosity had less in common with the epic Viking-influenced mystical metal of Borknagar’s The Olden Domain or Enslaved’s Eld, La Masquerade Infernale instead a deranged space opera within a surrealist carnival.
Setting the scene immediately for the carnival of horrors, the opening song “Master of Disguise” begins with Sverd’s keys sounding both as if from the credits of a gothic, castle-set horror film, but also, not to belabor the point, carnivalesque and in the true spirit of the album and the song itself, more than a bit mischievous. An album of many surprises, one of the earliest, and a pretty major one, being the first prominent bit of vocals heard on the album coming not from Garm but from future Borknagar frontman and Dimmu Borgir bassist Simen “ICS Vortex” Hestnæs who years later would play an even bigger role in Arcturus. Acting as a co-ringleader alongside Garm, Vortex’s high-register histrionics counter Garm’s equally hyper-theatrical, albeit much lower baritone delivery on a handful of tracks. Garm, credited as “G. Wolf”, however, proves equally acrobatic, singing select portions of “Master of Disguise” such as “You think him to be pariah, whom company does exclude/But in the midst of all frenzy / He is – feasting in a transitory mood” as if in the frenzy the lyrics depict. Lyrically “Master of Disguise” bares the strongest French influence with the lyrics preceded in the liner notes by a stanza from Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Le masque” (“The Mask”) translated from Baudelaire’s landmark 1857 collection Les fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) [iii] which reads:
“No! This face is only a mask, a wicked ornament
Illuminated by an exquisite grimace
Look and see, atrociously contorted
The real head and the sincere face
Turned back under the shadow of the face which lies”
Subtitled “Statue allégorique dans le goût de la Renaissance” or “Allegorical Statue in the Style of the Renaissance To Ernest Christophe, Sculptor”, Baudelaire’s poem was written in homage to his friend, the sculptor Ernest Christophe’s statue originally titled “La comédie humaine” (The Human Comedy”, 1876) which Christophe’s later renamed “The Mask” in the wake of Baudelaire’s poem. (6) Christophe’s marble work is in the image of a woman removing her own face, revealed to be a mask, the true profile of the woman or the “real head and the sincere face” referenced in the Baudelaire quote, being anguished. Arcturus draws parallels between Baudelaire’s ode to Christophe and the New Testament, more specifically 2 Corinthians 11:14 which declares Satan himself the master of disguise with the lyric “He appears your friend, but The Saint hides many Satan’s” reflecting Saint Paul’s “And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light”. “Master of Disguise” also unveils the multiple layers of the album’s production with the addition of live strings set alongside Sverd’s synthesized orchestration near the end of the track. The strings, contributed by Vegard Johnsen on violin, Dorthe Dreier on viola, and Hans Josef Groh on cello, are presented more upfront on the space symphony “Ad Astra”, the song which perhaps best emphasizes the lush production of the album as well as Arcturus’ curious starship-ready take on symphonic metal. Though Sverd is the centerpiece of “Ad Astra” with a number of memorable passages, the sci-fi-esque flourish near the end of the song, an album and career highlight, the track is given additional character by electronic touches as well as Idun Felberg providing cornet. Former guitarist Tiedmann also returns on “Ad Astra” for the first of two guest leads.
Vortex then handles lead vocals as the album returns to the carnival on “The Chaos Path” performing some of the wildest vocal gymnastics heard on the album yet at the same time crafting tuneful melodies bending and contorting words in the most offbeat manner. The music is as unorthodox, Sverd’s keys taking on the sound of a circus organ, the overall farcical nature of the song also placing the music on a diseased Vaudeville stage. As noted by Metal Maniacs’ “Professor Black” (Chris Maycock) upon the album’s release, the warped cabaret of “The Chaos Path” reveals one of the very few points of reference that can be drawn from the totally singular filtration of sounds on La Masquerade Infernale. That being Devil Doll (7), the mysterious Italian/Slovenian outfit led by the enigmatic Mario “Mr. Doctor” Panciera who from 1989 to 1996 perfected a wholly singular amalgamation of avant-garde and progressive/symphonic rock and metal that was similar to La Masquerade Infernale was equally informed by classic literature, poetry and horror films. Highly theatrical in presentation, Devil Doll’s music also touched on the twisted Vaudevillian and cabaret themes heard on “The Chaos Path”, Vortex’s trapeze act on the microphone echoing Mr. Doctor’s own form of carnival barking which often reached similarly unhinged heights. Despite being the title track, “La Masquerade Infernale” acts more as a brief interlude with a light, spoken vocal from Garm overtop a repeated piano motif from Sverd. The electronic influences also make a slight return with a strange noise looped by Rygg throughout the track, Rygg handling all electronic samples heard on the album as well as aiding Hellhammer in achieving a unique drum sound on the album, putting “some delays and stuff on it”(4).
“Alone” begins with one of the album’s few ties to extreme metal with Hellhammer’s double bass kicks and blast beats met with Sverd’s swirling, symphonic keys. The track is also the band paying direct homage to Edgar Allan Poe, a chief literary influence on the album (as well as on Devil Doll) with the lyrics being Garm’s vocal rendition of Poe’s poem of the same name. Written in 1830 when Poe was 21 years old, “Alone” was unpublished during Poe’s lifetime, not receiving publication until 1875 in Scribner’s Monthly (8), 26 years after Poe’s death. An emotionally confessional work conveying the young Poe’s heavy feelings of dejection and alienation, Poe first scribbled the poem in a book of poetry owned by Lucy Holmes (8), a Baltimore socialite known among the literary crowd (9). A musical highlight with memorable guitar lines from Valle, “Alone” is a vocal standout with Garm weaving lasting vocal melodies out of Poe’s words, memorably proclaiming “As others saw – I could not bring my passions from a common spring” and “Then in my childhood in the dawn”. Particularly impassioned is the emphatic “And all I lov’d, I lov’d alone” channeling the solitude of the young, despondent Poe. “The Throne of Tragedy” has similar lyrical roots in poetry, however much more contemporary, the lyrics derived from the poem “Tragediens Trone” by Norwegian writer and publisher Jørn Henrik Sværen, a bandmate in Ulver with Rygg since the Perdition City (2000) days. “The Throne of Tragedy” gives Valle an even bigger spotlight with catchy melodic guitar lines dueling with Sverd’s keys, the latter steering the album back into cosmic territory ala “Ad Astra” while simultaneously taking another hard left with synthesized trumpets.
The album’s most crazed descent into the surreal, the first section of the penultimate track “Painting My Horror” beings almost as a sound collage, the band composing a musical exquisite corpse from Hellhammer’s double bass, the live strings, and electronics. However, the track then returns to the nightmarish carnival of “The Chaos Path”, the lyrics, some of the most vivid on the album, depicting Garm’s narrator’s “dream awake” painting of the “subconscious experience” or the “dreadful masquerade”. The musical shift signals the return of Vortex as well as a return to the world of Devil Doll. Especially the 1992 album Sacrilegeium, Vortex’s wild falsetto howls tag-teaming with Garm’s baritone on a line like “Pure I live in blasphemy, Mephisto I am hidden in Madonna’s gown” echoing a memorable passage from Devil Doll’s 43-minute “Sacrilegeium” suite known as “Talk Talk” featuring Mr. Doctor doing a similar duel vocal with guest singer Paolo Zizič. Like “Master of Disguise”, the lyrics to the closing track “Of Nails and Sinners” are preempted with a literary quote, a translation of “I know God couldn’t live a moment without me; if I should disappear, He would die, destitute”(10)[iv] from Angelus Silesius’ The Cherubinic Wanderer. Born Johannes Scheffler, Silesius was a 17th-century German priest and scientist best known as a mystic and poet whose poetry specialized in epigrams. Baptized as a protestant, Silesius became a controversial figure upon his embracing of the mysticism of Roman Catholicism, the “mystical glamor of its historical traditions”(11) attractive to Silesius whose influence in western mystical literature looms large. Opening with Sverd’s glacial keyboards, “Of Nails and Sinners” concludes the album on a triumphant note with monumental synth arrangements, Tiedmann contributing a final solo and Garm again crafting infectious vocal hooks.
The Arcturus story became even more interesting following La Masquerade Infernale with Rygg departing the band after the release of The Sham Mirrors in 2002. Stepping in was none other than Hestnæs who fascinatingly had done the exact same thing in Borknagar just a few years prior to Rygg’s departure. The aesthetic outlook of La Masquerade Infernale also became the visual aesthetic of the band’s live performances while touring for the Sideshow Symphonies (2005) album as seen on the Shipwrecked in Oslo (2006) DVD with a mini-circus of performers and dancers joining the band during select songs. Though destined to appeal to the most adventurous of listeners, the sheer originality of La Masquerade Infernale made even a mainstream US publication like Spin take notice, describing the album as a “jaw-droppingly progressive melange of Kurt Weill-ish melodrama, strings, cascading keyboards and (gasp) trip-hop beats.”(12) Blomberg compares the album to Mayhem’s divisive Grand Declaration of War (2000) in its experimentation stating “It’s those types of albums that stick out. It’s either genius or pure rubbish.”(4) Like Arcturus themselves taking certain initiatives from Devil Doll, the influence of La Masquerade Infernale can be detected in rare but similarity inspired bands from fellow Norwegians Atrox to UK-based Avant black metal act A Forest of Stars who also acknowledge Devil Doll. Acknowledging La Masquerade Infernale, Wagner refers to the album in the context of the band’s discography as “a moment in time.”(4) The same is also true of the album in the context of Norway circa 1997, emanating from one of the most musically innovative periods and landscapes of the decade. Yet La Masquerade Inferlane is ultimately a truly progressive product outside of time, remaining as inimitable as it was in 1997.
[i]. Though none released albums in 1997, other Norwegian bands who absolutely factor into the progression of Norwegian metal throughout the 90’s include the likes of Beyond Dawn, Fleurety and Manes. See also avant oddities Albino Slug whose self-titled album was released as early as 1993. The wave of 90’s progression was hardly unique to Norwegian metal however, with the UK’s Anathema developing out of death/doom into a more gothic and progressive sound on Eternity (1996) and My Dying Bride’s 34.788%… Complete (1998) featuring controversial dips into electronics. Sweden’s Tiamat similarly evolved from death metal into a Pink Floyd-influced brand of new age metal on Wildhoney (1994) before diving in the deep end of avant experimentation on A Deeper Kind of Slumber (1997).
[ii]. Rygg’s nom de plums include Trickster G, Fiery G. Maelstrom, Fiery G Rygg, Krispy Rygg, Vargnatt Inc, Garm Backbone and G. Playa.
[iii]. Ulver also found inspiration in Baudelaire by titling their 2020 album “Flowers of Evil.”
[iv]. The Silesius quote in the La Masquerade Infernale booklet reads “I know that without me god cannot live a moment; If I am destroyed he must give up the ghost.”
1. “Jan ‘Hellhammer’ Axel Blomberg (Mayhem, Arcturus) – drumtalk [episode 55]”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdBkGLP05Z0&t=950s. August 14, 2020.
2. Wagner, Jeff. “Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal”. Bazillion Points. December 1, 2010.
3. “The Thomas Eriksen Podcast #17 – Vicotnik (Dødheimsgard & Ved Buens Ende)”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8q__Ch0WYc&t=4965s. September 12, 2020.
4. “Stars and Oblivion (The Complete Works 1991 to 2002)”. Prophecy Productions. September 17, 2021.
5. Sade. “Letters from Prison”. Skyhorse Publishing. April 12, 2012.
6. “Baudelaire and the Arts”. https://library.brown.edu/cds/baudelaire/fleursdumal4.html.
7. Radical Research Podcast Episode 76 – “Ulver’s Kristoffer Rygg Outside the Wolf Pack”. https://radicalresearch.org/episode-76-ulvers-kristoffer-rygg-outside-the-wolf-pack/. February 19, 2022.
8. “Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore – Works – Poems – Alone (Text-01)”. https://www.eapoe.org/works/poems/alonea.htm. August 5, 2001.
9. “Poe and Alone – Maryland Center for History and Culture”. https://www.mdhistory.org/poe-and-alone/.
10. Silesius, Angelus. The Cherubinic Wanderer. Paulist Press. January 1, 1986.
11. “ Angelus Silesius”.https://www.sacred-texts.com/journals/oc/pc-as.htm. August, 2002.
12. Rowell, Mike. “Viking Death Trip”. Spin. August, 1998.