November 22, 2023

It’s rare to see such support from a record label for a band’s back catalogue as shown by Karisma with Arabs In Aspic. The Norwegian prog institution were signed by Karisma in time to release Madness & Magic in 2020. A year later, their first three albums (all from the 2000s) were reissued simultaneously by Karisma both as individual albums and as a deluxe vinyl box set. Now, Karisma have simultaneously released the remaining three albums of Arabs in Aspic studio material, originally from the 2010s, also with the option of buying all three as a deluxe box set. This time, Arabs In Aspic have been allowed to go beyond simply remastering the albums, and have retouched some songs, changed the language of the lyrics, and even changed the running order. So, even for fans familiar with the albums, there’ll still be much to discover.  

By Pictures In A Dream, released in 2013, Arabs In Aspic had honed their sound into that familiar cocktail of late ‘60s and early ‘70s influences: King Crimson and Uriah Heep foremost, but always with their own unique Norwegian twist. The line-up had also stabilised and has remained unchanged until the recent addition of a second percussionist. Pictures In A Dream opens with the sort of dreamy mid-paced vocal typical of the band in Rejected Wasteland / Pictures In A Dream. A strong instrumental section awash with mellotron (again, typical of the band) then leads to a more forceful vocal section. The vocals here are from guest singer Rune Sundby (from Norwegian band Ruphus) and it certainly adds something to the quality compared to the regular contributions of Jostein Smeby and Stig Arve Jørgensen, who are respectively an excellent guitarist and a fine keyboard player, but neither are outstanding singers. Sundby also sings on Prevail To Fail, an acoustic ballad which again shines the light on his voice.

Prevail To Fail had been the closing track in 2013 but for this release it is shuffled upwards, allowing Vi møtes sikkert igjen (which translates to We Will Surely Meet Again) to take that last spot. That makes sense as it’s the longest track and clearly intended to be a statement piece as it highlights the band’s uncanny ability to interweave powerful guitar and organ chord progressions in Uriah Heep fashion.  The song is also characterised by a majestically serene and drawn-out vocal melody (yes, folks, if you’re thinking of King Crimson, you’ve got it in one). Another highlight is Lifeguard@sharkbay, which after an energetic beginning diverts unexpectedly into a beautifully Floydian instrumental with Smeby’s best guitar solo on the album. Smeby does get his own showcase in a short instrumental track called Felix where you can’t fault his playing but the piece never quite takes off.

Reflecting the heavier side of the band is Let Us Pray, a fine song where they show their love of early Black Sabbath in a ponderously slow riff. Ta Et Steg Til Siden also gets into a good heavy groove but on other tracks the band falls into predictability. For example, Difference in Time and Hard To Find are both pleasant rockers but you sense the band going through the motions. Still, Picture In A Dream remains an excellent and entertaining album.

Two years later, the band released Victim Of Your Father’s Agony. It treads a pretty similar path to Pictures In A Dream, although it’s interesting to note the more visible contribution of bassist Erik Paulsen. Listen, for example, to the way Paulsen funkily drives along the brilliant instrumental Flight Of The Halibut which makes it one of the best moments on the album. The original release had a slightly confusingly titled instrumental track by the name of Saint-Palais-Sur-Mer Part 2. That’s because there was no Part 1 but that is remedied in this release. The two parts together are not substantial – less than three minutes – and fall into the acoustic pastoral category that the band does so well. Apparently, the song was inspired by the band’s first concert in France, playing a gig in the sunset, 300 meters from beautiful Atlantic beaches.

The cover of Victim Of Your Father’s Agony

The standout track is One which opens with a Uriah Heep style surge of guitars, organ, and harmony vocals. There’s time for an attractive organ solo (more Jon Lord than Ken Hensley this time) and even a bass solo before the impressive final flourish. The title track is also a well-constructed and interesting song although I expected something with more of a real climax to close the album.  The longest track at over eight minutes is God Requires Insanity but this one disappoints as its main riff drags a little.

An unexpected highlight is Sad Without You which demonstrates the band’s ability to write more commercial music. It’s three minutes of acoustic guitars and harmonised vocals with a catchy chorus, probably influenced more by the Beatles than anyone else. It functions as a great interlude between the heavier pieces. Despite these flashes of brilliance, Victim Of Your Father’s Agony is an uneven album, and you only have to listen to the mashup of Italian nursery rhymes that is Italian Class (actually released as The Turk and the Italian Restaurant in 2015) to realise that ‘consistent’ is not a word that’s going to be used often to describe it. Nevertheless, it’s still well worth listening to, and fans will certainly have fun trying to spot where the additional overdubs have been added.

The final release is 2017’s The Magic Of Sin. If that title is not familiar to fans, then that’s because it was originally released with the Norwegian title of Syndenes Magi (which does indeed translate to ‘magic of sin’). The original attempt to use English lyrics in 2017 apparently failed and the band reverted to their native language. For this edition, English has been reinstated. Interestingly, the album might have been completely different. Most of the material was ready for a new album but after attending a spectacular King Crimson gig in Oslo they decided that their new material wasn’t up to par, and they had to do better. The next day Smeby went back home to Trondheim and wrote what became the twelve-minute title track. Not surprisingly, it begins with touches of King Crimson but becomes more of a Floydian piece over time, the highlight of which is the short but inspired guitar solo which begins just after the three-minute mark. It’s the best track on the album for sure and a highlight in the band’s whole catalogue.

To continue the theme of confusing titles, the remaining two tracks on The Magic Of Sin are called Down in Darkness Pt 2, and Pt 3, but in 2017 they were originally entitled Mørket Pt 2 & 3. Mørket was also a song on Strange Frame Of Mind which explains the numbering. Part 2 is the shortest song at just under ten minutes(!) and is driven along by a powerful guitar/organ refrain and yet more Floydian passages. At a whopping twenty minutes, Mørket Pt 3 is the longest track the band have ever recorded. The opening duet of acoustic guitar and flute is a gorgeous introduction, and the subsequent sung part builds up in intensity leading to a heavy riff and a funkier passage. A groovy Sabbath-like riff livens things up at the eight-minute mark but is sadly discarded too soon. Things then start getting dangerously disjointed and finally there are several minutes of meaningless synth noises which kill the song. The chorus returns at the end but the damage has been done. Lesson learnt: don’t try writing twenty-minute epics unless you’ve got the material that merits it!  It’s a shame because the title track is brilliant and Mørket Pt 2 very enjoyable too.

There are moments of genius across these three albums, and they all are well worth revisiting.  The artwork is a treat thanks to the amazing work of Julia Proszowska Lund that gives the band such a strong visual identity.  The limited-edition box set, simply called IV-VI, contains the three vinyl albums with gatefold sleeves and a twelve-page booklet – a very tempting proposition!