Friday, May 6, 2016

Arsis - Unwelcome


Yeah, it took a number of years, but it seems like James Malone stopped weeping long enough to realize that the elements that made his band so revered and special had been completely squandered over time.  Arsis's strength was always in turning the ludicrously technical into the infectiously catchy.  Malone is a goddamn savant when it comes to this, because his lyrics have always been hilariously wimpy and his song structuring has always been eclectic at best and downright wonky at worst.  For nearly a decade, A Celebration of Guilt stood as a glorious fluke, the one point in history where he managed to take his signature style of spider fingered riffing and flashy guitar solos and write a collection of great songs.  Nine years later, Unwelcome has finally come along to help stitch up the boo boos of the last few records.

I know I was nice to We Are the Nightmare when it was new, but time has really soured it.  It and Starve for the Devil suffered from some abysmal songwriting and completely unmemorable stretches of time within the album.  For my money, Unwelcome here really tries taking the band back to their glory days by, strangely, taking it further away from them.  What I mean is that Arsis had always been following the logical continuation of their sound.  The foundation was laid down early that they were a strong melodeath band with heightened aggression and a huge dose of technicality, particularly in the riffs themselves as opposed to just having impressive leads.  And from then on, things had always gotten more ambitious from this perspective.  The riffs had always gotten more technically impressive, the drumming had gotten more frantic and precise, and the solos had gotten more theatrical and over the top, and it seems like their most acclaimed days in terms of exposure and general adoration (instead of the grimy internet nerds like me) peaked around their third and fourth albums.  But somewhere down the line, the band lost their feeling.  The hooks had been relegated to maybe once per album and the singalong tendencies were thrown out the window.  The inherent simplicity of something so outwardly complicated was the big draw of the band for me, and they'd completely dropped the ball sometime after 2006.

But one listen to tracks like "Martyred or Mourning" or "Carve My Cross" or "Let Me Be the One" shows that they'd apparently finally realized what I'd been whining about for years, and managed to fix it by going the opposite direction.  Unwelcome is simpler than anything they'd done in the past, and it works to the album's advantage because it's easily the most memorable one in years.  The catchy, singsong choruses are back, the riffs and percussion complement each other brilliantly and stick in your mind like glue, everything just seems so much less disjointed and slapdash than it did in the past and the album is all the better for it.  "Choking on Sand" is pretty easily their best song since United in Regret, and I realize that's not exactly saying a lot, but I do mean that it competes with the first handful of releases.  That "Faster! Faster! Faster still!" vocal line just inspires so much frantic headbanging out of me, I can't help it.  It's fairly indicative of the entire album, there are a lot more of those ohrwurm sing-songy parts that A Celebration of Guilt was centered around.  In a way, this is actually something of a full length realization of A Diamond for Disease, which took the ideas of the debut and amped up the technicality while still striking a balance with the memorable hooks. 

That said, I'm probably making this sound like the triumphant return to the highs of the debut and followup EP, but that's a bit facetious.  There are still some signs of artistic bankruptcy that pop up and remind the listener that this is still post-2006 Arsis, so a handful of the same problems still plague Unwelcome.  The biggest one is that the lyrics are still the whiny teenage diary bullshit of Sheldon's unrequited White Knighting of Annabelle.  Granted the lyrics are pretty easy to ignore for me, particularly when the vocals are harsh like these, but the resurgence of hooks and singalong parts can make them hard to ignore.  I don't necessarily care about their incongruity with the ferocity of the music, it's more just the fact that Arsis sucks at writing these kind of lyrics and it's been the same general theme of longing over a woman who won't love you back no matter how nice you are to her forever now and I just wish James would load up PornHub and get the fuck over it already.  It's been like ten god damned years, move on.

The other major issue is that... ugh, there are two tracks that are just glaring nuisances that have no place at all on the album.  One is the cover of "Sunglasses at Night" and the other is the rerecording of their seminal classic, "The Face of My Innocence".  The Corey Hart cover is just, dammit stop.  Silly metal reimaginings of goofy 80s pop songs are invariably awful, and serve no purpose other than to sate some juvenile tendency to think anything not-metal is shitty, and therefore all of your guilty pleasures should be made metal in order for you to like them publicly, or just for cheap yuks that amuse nobody except the band playing them.  I'll admit that the track does at least sonically match the rest of the album, so if you aren't paying attention to the lyrics at all you might not even realize it's a cover of a well known pop song, but once you do realize it you can't help but feel insulted at the utter pointlessness of it.  As for "The Face of My Innocence", this inclusion feels like a mixture of throwing old fans a bone and showing them that the band never forgot about them, an attempt to introduce new fans who somehow never caught on that literally everybody prefers their first album to everything after it to the song, and most egregiously, as some sort of attempt to update or "improve" the classic material.  This doesn't improve anything, it's inferior in every conceivable way.  The debut had flawless production, with a unique trebly flavor and a furious punch through just enough clarity to let the surgically precise music shine, whereas with here it's so much more cleaned up that it ends up losing a lot of the fire to be found on the original.  It doesn't even sound tighter, as the band has been wound up like a high E for their entire career so there's pretty much no way to get any cleaner in their playing.  It seems like a desperate, last-ditch effort to regain some credibility on a doomed album, which is so weird because this is the best album they've released since 2006, what the fuck was the point?

So while it doesn't carry quite as many standout tracks as some of the other early albums, but it does at least recapture the spirit and a generous amount of the quality.  Unwelcome isn't a future classic or anything, but it's a surprisingly rock solid effort by a band that seemed doomed to slide into freakshow irrelevance.  The riffs are a spellbinding exercise in songwriting, with pummeling vitriol blended with exquisite melody.  The technical showcase is magnificent as always, and the occasional stop-start grooves throw just enough of a curveball to be intriguing without being distracting.  I really don't know many bands that sound like Arsis, nobody writes melodeath the way Malone does, and it's nice to hear him finally quit screwing around with mindless noodling and take a few steps back to focus on his sublime intertwining of technicality and melody that he's such a savant with.  It's promising for the future of the band, if nothing else.  So warts and all, it's still recommended for fans of their earliest material.

RATING - 73%

PS: The album also comes bundled with the entire Lepers Caress EP as bonus tracks, but I'm not gonna bother talking about it since, despite how it's basically the exact same thing as the full length (if a little more techy), it's ostensibly its own standalone release.

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