Arcturus are at the forefront of the Norwegian metal scene with their mind-expanding brand of music. They were a vastly important band in the early Norwegian black metal scene, yet with a style that can’t really be copied or emulated. Early recordings were epic and atmospheric. While maintaining keyboard-derived atmospheres, later efforts saw them expand beyond the black metal tag, albeit a unique take on the genre, into something more progressive and avant-garde.
Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg’s vocals are a defining characteristic of Arcturus’s early material. Also known as the voice of Ulver and former Borknagar vocalist, Rygg presented the dual approach of operatic clean tones to savage, blackened shrieks on the Constellation EP and Aspera Hiems Symfonia full-length. With the exception of some brief moments of harsh vocals used for effect, he went fully clean with the next two albums, La Masquerade Infernale and The Sham Mirrors, with a greater emphasis on experimentation. After a decade, Garm left and current Borknagar vocalist ICS Vortex (Simen Hestnæs) took over the mic.
Prophecy Productions has released the massive box set Stars and Oblivion – The Complete Works 1991 – 2002, which includes all the Arcturus material that featured Rygg, as well as the “My Angel” single released prior to his time in the band. Fans can experience the wonders of Steinar Sverd Johnsen’s keys, Knut Magne Valle’s guitar melodies, Carl August Tideman’s shredding leads and Jan Axel Blomberg’s (Hellhammer) precise and power-driven drums, and of course, Rygg’s varied voice. The boxed set has a lot of additional material, too, including a massive booklet with photos and art and bonus tracks. In the following interview, Rygg provides details about the box set. He also talks about the band and his development as a vocalist.
Darren Cowan: How does it feel to have been a part of Arcturus during this time?
Kristoffer Rygg: How it feels? Like it’s a minute ago (laughs). Seriously though, those were fun times. Real exciting, for more reasons than I can relay here and now. But it was also a very different time, of course, with regards to the Septem Circumstantiae.
Why did the band decide now is the time to release this massive product? When did you start working on it?
I’m not sure it started with the band, to be honest. I guess it had more to do with the fact that all albums are now finally under one roof at Prophecy Productions. And Rayshele Teige, who works for them, has been a real primus motor, you know, curating everything. I was approached by her about a year ago, and kept thinking to myself how strange it was that this box should only contain the albums and things on which I was involved. I mean, I sort of get it, and find it very cool and flattering, but at the same time it felt like an unreasonable amount of shine was suddenly on me (laughs). It’s almost 20 years since I left the band. So yeah, I tried to maintain a respectful distance to the whole thing, and help out only when I was specifically asked about something. I located some old pictures, press clips and stuff like that. Oh, and the title Stars and Oblivion came from me. It was something I suggested, spur of the moment… and it stuck!
The box set contains the vinyl album X-Tapes consisting of rarities and unreleased tracks. What can you tell us about these tracks?
I reckon all those things are from Steinar’s old cassettes. We recorded quite a few things back in the day, you know, just on a boom box in the middle of the room. I can’t imagine the quality is very good (laughs), but in the context of a celebrative thing like this it’s nice to throw in some relics, of course. Allow a glimpse into the inner chamber – how an evening in Skippergata 21 could unfold (laughs).
X-Tapes contains private cassettes of rehearsals, drunken jams and two live tracks from 1995. Where were the live tracks recorded? What do you remember about this show(s)?
That’s right, I remember we did one gig, right after or right before Aspera Hiems Symfonia. It was at an old sawmill turned youth club, near Knut’s place of origin, Gjerstad. Right, so it must have been after we’d recorded the album, considering Knut’s in place. I had no idea there existed any recording from this until very recently.
Do you have any stories about the drunken jams?
(Laughs) Only that we had many of those. This is probably… hopefully, the least embarrassing of them.
The art book features a seventh CD, which contains synthesizer compositions from Steinar “Sverd” Johnsen. Were these compositions you never used? What were his plans for these compositions?
I don’t think those things are strictly Arcturus-related, other than in that they are from around the same time. Steinar probably wanted to include it, you know, to give some perspective on where he was coming from as a composer or keyboardist.
Knut Magne Valle remastered all the material to enhance the sound to contemporary standard, while maintaining the original spirit. Why did you feel it was necessary to modernize the sound?
Knut has done a stellar job with this, I think. If anything he’s been trying to get more dynamic range on Sham Mirrors, for example, which was mixed and mastered in the age of “digital crush” (laughs). He has not fucked with the integrity of these recordings, which many modern re-masters do. I understand both sides to this argument, in a sense. But that’s a whole other discussion. Anyway, things have obviously happened in the world of sound since these things were recorded, it made sense to run it through some modern tools. Open it up a bit, adjust the tinges. And since it’s done by someone who plays in the band, you can be sure it’s done with utmost care. No matter how you spin it, a digital processing of some sort would have been needed for this project anyway… new files, new formats, digitizing the old rehearsals and so on.
Please talk about some of the photos and the art work contained in the art book. How do you feel about the fresh cover art created by renowned Romanian artist Costin Chioreanu?
Costin’s piece is amazing and adorns the box beautifully! It couldn’t possibly look any cooler! But actually I’d like to take a moment to give a big shout to Łukasz [Jaszak] who did all the stuff inside, meticulously putting all the content together, the book, the individual sleeves, everything… He’s been running around collecting scraps and pieces, photographing, scanning, retouching, redesigning, typesetting. Searching for replacement files where the originals were too lo-res, you know. The list goes on.
You co-wrote songs with Knut. How did you two work together? Did you write some of the songs yourself or were the songs a collaborative effort?
I never wrote songs for Arcturus – except vocal lines and lyrics – but I produced a lot of it. The main compositions started with Steinar, although certain song ideas or riffs came from Knut too. And let’s not forget Jan Axel’s incredible drumming! Knut and I would take care of a lot of the… let’s call it “appliances”, after the fundament was down. Especially with La Masquerade it was basically Knut and I who did all the tracking. We then spent long days and nights in the studio, months actually, manipulating or experimenting, playing around with the source material. So yeah, of course it was all collaborative. Fun!
Do you have a favorite Arcturus album or song?
Objectively I’d say Sham Mirrors is the one that stands out as a “total package”, you know, where all the parts seem to gel and everything finally comes together and shines. But as a moment in time, a personal memory, or just as a piece of curiosa, I’d say La Masquerade Infernale is the one for me. That was such a fucking statement! Total trip. It still looks damn cool, masks and flames and all hocus-pocus (laughs). I’m not sure I agree with the press release which claims it’s stood the test of time on all accounts, but anyway, the “antiquation” is part of the charm, to me. You can really hear the crazy inspiration we had at the time, the hubris, the madness, the mess.
Constellation and Aspera Hiems Symfonia were symphonic black metal albums. With La Masquerade Infernale and later The Sham Mirrors you kept the symphonic elements, but stripped away the black metal in favor of an avant-garde sound. Why did the band go in this direction? Was there something that inspired you to take a different path?
Well, the black metal thing was starting to get pretty watered out by ’96. Lots of people were just rehashing the same basic recipe. We had little interest in that. Or, a limited interest you could say, which became more and more limited as time went by. But I can’t point to any one specific thing that lead to this. Well, some of it’s in the book, of course. Some explanations.
Using clean and harsh vocals was still a bit of an anomaly when you released Constellation in 1994. How did you develop your voice?
It all kind of started there, you know. Somewhat embarrassingly for me (laughs), I guess those first Arcturus recordings is where you can really hear that nervous kid who’s just kinda has discovered he can use his clean voice too, either holding back or other times going completely overboard… just because there is so much insecurity there, you know. Hold this up against, say recent Ulver releases it’s clear that things have happened. How? Trying and failing (laughs).
One of the highlights for me on La Masquerade Infernale was your musical rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “Alone” poem. Why did you decide that poem would be a good fit as an Arcturus song?
It’s interesting to think about the fact that I was only about 20 years old. The old me thinks this is almost too soon for someone to be paraphrasing Poe and citing 17th century Catholic mystics (laughs), but it kinda goes to show some of the inspirations. In hindsight, it was a good choice though. Sits well with the “mysterious outsider” vibe that’s going on. I actually re-read “Alone” not too long ago… Such a beautiful, haunting poem. I believe Poe wrote that when he was also quite young. Speaking of outsiders: at the end of “The Throne of Tragedy” there is a sample of Charles Manson.
That’s it for my questions. Do you have anything you would like to add to the interview?
Just that it feels kinda strange to suddenly be answering questions about Arcturus, after all this time. But thanks for the trip, man.
(interview published September 20, 2021)