Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Arsis - United in Regret

For never was a story of more woe...

There's a lot going on with Arsis lately.  Their not-so-hotly anticipated fifth album, Unwelcome, is due out in a month or so, and Scion A/V is continuing their quest to be the hippest car company in the universe by releasing their new surprise EP, Lepers Caress, (aren't they missing an apostrophe there?  That title looks weird...) for free today.  This is all shortly following frontman James Malone sitting out a recent tour, which is significant because Arsis has always been his baby, it's essentially a one man band with some other dudes who play along.  It'd be like Lemmy sitting out of a Motorhead tour, it's just preposterous to think of.  And then there was the joke article stating that Malone had quit music altogether to take a job as a strength and conditioning coach for the New York Mets (that I totally didn't fall for out of sheer absurdist optimism...).  And now they're embarking on a tour with Sonata fucking Arctica of all bands.  So to celebrate all of these recent headlines surrounding a band that nobody has cared about for about four years now, I'm gonna take y'all back to their forgotten album, 2006's United in Regret.

This one holds a special place in my heart.  Their previous two releases, A Celebration of Guilt and A Diamond for Disease have both been collectively coated in so much fanboy goo that you get a free wipey when you buy them, and everything after this album has been part of a surreal, circus style slide into failure and insanity.  United in Regret, in hindsight, can be seen as the harbinger to the carnival fire that Arsis became around the time Starve for the Devil came out.  A lot of the warning signs are there, the songs are a lot less cohesive, the lyrics and themes are even more laughably whimpy, and Malone is more visibly just a whiny teenager who happens to be a great guitar player.  Even though the debut is clearly better, there's a strange personality to this album that its predecessor lacks.  Simply put, United in Regret has got charisma.

If nothing else, this record has to be the first concept album about being friendzoned in all of heavy metal.  Love is a powerful emotion, and one of the easiest to write about and relate to.  It's a great base to start from, and I have no qualms with romantic themes in an otherwise dark style, it definitely has potential to work in a strange harmonic dissonance way.  The way Arsis approaches this, however, is with the same teary eyed angst and frustration of a fifteen year old boy in a mad dash to his diary after breaking up with his girlfriend of one month.

All nine of the tracks on display are based around some unnamed Mary Sue (whom I shall henceforth refer to as Sheldon Noodlespine) lashing out angrily at some woman he "loved" (let's call her Annabelle Gobelcocque) who didn't love him back.  Basically she was a whore who cheated on him with somebody who presumably wasn't a spindly anorexic dork with abandonment issues.  Each and every song references this whore's lies or her lips or some odd reference to a monument or the word "indifference".  That last word makes me think the true motivation behind these vitriolic diatribes is something more akin to this: Sheldon really liked this girl.  He liked Annabelle so much that he convinced himself he loved her, but because he's a clingy nerd with as much confidence and sex appeal as a biscuit with two shits inside of it, she wasn't attracted to him, but liked how nice he was to her, so she saw him as a good friend and nothing more.  James grew more and more obsessed every day, convincing himself that she was this immaculate seraph whose very existence was proof of the divine.  Every day in history class he'd zone out googly eyed at the back of her head, daydreaming of picnics under falling cherry blossoms while she'd daydream about getting getting her pink tortoise mounted by the hunky star quarterback for the school football team (let's call him Mike Henn).  This is because Annabelle is a normal horny teenager and Sheldon is an ineffectual wiener.  Naturally, Annabelle shacks up with some douchebag who drives a Mustang and says "yolo" a lot because he has an older brother who buys beer for him (normal horny teenagers are also extraordinarily stupid, you see).  This devastates poor Sheldon to the point of existential despair.  "How could this angel be so corrupted?  This guy wasn't good enough, why can't she see how perfect we are for each other?!" he'd choke out to himself between sobs into his Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann body pillow.  Later he'd share his plight on the internet, and all of his equally maladjusted /b/rothers would tell him that she's just a whore who was out to break his heart, and he needs to drop that bitch and get on with his life.  Sheldon of course follows this advice and leaves poor Annabelle without who she thought was a great friend, all because she was a normal person who had the gall to not reciprocate the feelings of an unhealthily focused sperg.  Sheldon is of course blind to the fact that he's merely a different kind of asshole for bailing on somebody solely because they don't have feelings for him, and instead picks up his guitar (the only thing he's good at) and writes nine songs about this horrible slut who broke his heart by committing the awful crime of being "indifferent".

What all that amounts to is BOO FUCKING HOO.  The thing about Arsis is that they're probably the nerdiest non-USPM band on the planet, and I never understood why until really paying attention to the lyrics around this era of the band.  Socially awkward kids can relate to the above story, they've all been there.  Nearly everybody has seen the object of their affection trek down the dark path away from the purity we thought he/she embodied.  Hell I've been there, because I too am a dork who had no idea how to be comfortable with himself until I stopped watching Naruto.  You had unrequited feelings, welcome to being 15 years old, time to fix your stupid asymmetrical haircut and stop writing shitty poetry about it.

Now I realize that the previous ~600 words seem like a really unnecessary tangent, but really it's symbolic of what the album does to you.  You are just constantly pummeled over the head with this extremely blunt message of "this girl is a whore and I'm an angsty twat" over and over again throughout the duration of the album.  This is hard to ignore for a few reasons.  One is that Malone isn't a very gifted lyricist.  Most musicians writing a song with this theme would veil their finer details behind some sort of symbolism.  This number about a demon rising from the depths to torment some poor shlub could well be an allegory for something else entirely.  They could work with some clever imagery to get their point across.  But no, Arsis just clobbers you in the gob with upfront accusations of manipulative sluttery.  I get the feeling they tried to be somewhat clever, but the fact that Malone still refers to a vagina as a "wound" he wants to "be inside" shows that he's still got a few lifetimes worth of practice before he can call himself anything resembling a poet.

The second reason this is so distracting is paradoxically a good reason, United in Regret is catchier than herpes.  One thing the band has always done right is that even at their most disjointed and confusing, they can always deliver a handful of songs that are a lot of fun to sing along with.  Tracks like "Oh, the Humanity" and "The Cold Resistance" have real choruses that I find nigh impossible to restrain myself from rasping along with.  The vocal patterns manage to be sing-songy and infectious despite being delivered in a harsh monotone, and that says something about Malone's songwriting ability.  Namely it says that he's one of the flukiest and most accidentally brilliant songwriters this side of Jari Maenpaa.  Unlike Jari, who is clearly good at writing one particular style of music and mediocre-to-shit at everything else, I can't really pinpoint what it is that Malone excels at.  Nearly every Arsis song since the beginning of time has been a haphazard goulash of unrelated technical melodeath ideas that he strings together with noodly classical Necrophagist style solos, but a good chunk of the time (especially early in the band's history) he somehow finds the correct order in which to assemble these random parts.  I'm convinced that A Celebration of Guilt is some kind of divine accident, where his dozens of unrelated ideas all fell into place flawlessly this one time on a count of beginner's luck.  The intricate melodies and leadwork that has been the band's trademark since day one is still here on United in Regret, but the problem is that the album on the whole is a lot less cohesive than its predecessors.  The slapdash songwriting just doesn't mesh well with this new sound.

New sound?  Oh yeah, the production is wildly different here as well.  Everything is considerably more muddy and incoherent than the crisp, trebly precision of the previous album and EP.  The thing about this is that it doesn't make the album feel more organic (which I suspect was the reasoning behind trying to fix what wasn't broken), and instead makes it harder to follow and less sure of itself.  The rhythm guitars especially sound muffled and chained in stark contrast to the crisp percussion that kicks through at nearly every opportunity.  There's an odd fuzz surrounding all of the stringed instruments as well, and again it isn't an organic feeling element.  I'm not saying this should be clinically clean or anything, but the music is surgically precise in it's approach, so it'd be nice if the production would allow the sound to express itself a bit more clearly.

And in the end, maybe it's a good thing that the production is working against the actual music, because compared to their earlier efforts, this is the album where Arsis started to go off the deep end and stop filtering themselves at all.  I mean, there are so many instances where I can't help but feel like Riff X and Melody Y don't go together at all and I'm just finding myself disoriented with Drum Beat Z making things even more awkward.  Seriously, the drumming is handled as if Brann Dailor and Flo Mounier decided to have a "Let's see who can give less of a fuck about keeping time" contest.  There is no such thing as a solid beat presented anywhere, it's all fills and rolls and tossing the snare in a tumble dryer and crap like that.  It's disorienting to a point where it never was before.  The parts where the band reins itself in to a more traditional styled riff or chugging stomp like "Oh, the Humanity", "Lust Before the Maggots Conquest", or especially the chorus in the title track are actually very good, and this is indicative of the band as a whole.  When Malone puts everything together as a band, some really neat shit can happen, but when everybody goes bonkers and tries to take center stage with their instrumental acrobatics, everything falls apart into a cacophonous mess.  Even though Malone handles all of the guitars on this record, it still sounds like there are two different players playing two different parts at the same time, cattily swatting at each other in the studio as they fight to have the more prominent part.

Now as I stated earlier, I do indeed really like United in Regret.  Every time I bring up a positive aspect I have a habit of saying "one thing the band has always been good at", but when I mention this next point I want to clarify that I mean THE thing the band has always been good at: Malone fucking slays at complex and intricate riff writing.  Now I don't mean he plays what a less ambitious band would consider a solo as a verse riff, but I mean the riffs he crafts are one of a kind and unmistakably his work.  The way he weaves an inherently strong melody into a simultaneously pummeling riff is nothing short of modern art.  He takes the mindset of a traditional Gothenburg styled band like Dark Tranquility, and somehow transmutes their melodeath riffs into something where the rhythm and melody are being played by the same guy at the same time, but at double speed and with a sixth finger on his left hand.  Check out "Lust Before the Maggots Conquest" or "I Speak Through Shadows" for prime examples of this phenomenal skill.  I truly do believe that this stunning ear for melody coupled with the completely off the wall melotech riffs are a huge reason the band catapulted to popularity with their debut eight years ago, and it's all still in top form here. 

All of the good bits mixed with all of the crummy bits make United in Regret a very memorable experience.  I'll be the first to admit that A Celebration of Guilt is a better album (but then again the cover to that album looks like the Icon of Sin from Doom II, so it was destined to rule from the outset), but over the years I've found myself spinning United in Regret more often.  It's this strange, oddly cut and grimy jewel.  There is a ton of shit wrong with it, from the blunt force trauma of the crappy angsty lyrics to the disjointed mishmash of the songwriting, but it all amounts to a sort of character that their later releases sorely lack.  The problems here really came to a head a few years later as the band toiled on, downwards into the realm of pink guitars and music videos featuring your long faced and stringy frontman windmilling in front of strippers in a trashed classroom and song titles as bewilderingly stupid as "Half Past Corpse O' Clock".  But for what it is, United in Regret is only slightly less enjoyable than its predecessors, and while it's not the best starting point for new fans, it is at the very least fascinating in hindsight.  This is where their sheen and prowess of heavily melodic technical death metal started to develop sores before falling into full blown leprosy on the following We Are the Nightmare.  If nothing else, check out "The Cold Resistance" and tell me you won't have that chorus stuck in your head all day.

tl;dr - This album is the musical equivalent to that episode of The Office where Michael proposes to his girlfriend in front of all of his coworkers on their ninth date.  It's just as painful of an experience just for the sheer vicarious embarrassment, but it's also just as much fun.

RATING - 78%

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