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Arsis hold a strange position within the death metal world. The band’s versatile mix of melodic and brutal death metal, injected with a huge amount of Judas Priest-ish party power in later releases, seems to attract a specific type of metalhead, who is rarely the typical death metal hessian. And while this is not necessarily tied to frontman James Malone’s lyrics, one cannot help but notice that they, like the band’s fanbase, are untraditional for death metal. Introspective, well-worded, and focused on subject matters unconcerned with, say, extruding and consuming human entrails, Malone’s lyrics are a fascinating and sympathetic view into the honest and self-aware death metal fan’s soul.
This is not to say that Malone’s lyrics aren’t always taken up with death metal’s common subject matters. There are plenty of songs about infernal darkness and corporeal grossness in the band’s work, as evidenced by the lyrics of “Seven Whispers Fell Silent” from the band’s classic full-length debut A Celebration of Guilt:
Seven whispers silent on scathing winds
The seven whistlers tune
Seven cries, blinded eyes bade they choke on the night
Beneath the stare of a cold and blood-dimmed moon
Sure, this sounds typically diabolical, and in truth I have no idea what these lyrics are about. The vocabulary here, though, is pretty incredible. The use of words like “scathing”, “bade”, and “blood-dimmed” evokes a certain poetic flare that’s often underused in the genre.
From A Celebration…, though, no song can match the lyrical prowess of “The Sadistic Motives Behind Bereavement Letters”:
I’m so sorry to hear of your bitter loss
I know my words can only offer but so much comfort for you
Just know that I am here to ease your lonely feelings
To fill this time of grieving and remind you it’s your fault
It’s your fault for not caring
It’s your fault for not knowing that he’d try again
Jesus. Malone’s lyrics present his honest interpretation of a letter concerning, one assumes, a friend’s suicide. Here, the poetics are dropped for genuine venom, declaring the sorrow and accusatory hatred conveyed through one of mankind’s more dishonest public displays—our response to the death of loved ones. To Malone (or, to be fair, the ‘protagonist’ of this song), this flimsy attempt at reaching out and comforting someone is a more treacherous and repulsive barb than any insult could be.
This is, perhaps, one of Malone’s more prevalent topics: the people we love. Marriage comes up over and over again in Arsis’ songs, portrayed entirely as a contemptible institution and tradition based on lies and deceit. From “The Marriage Bed” off of 2002’s United In Regret:
I cower towards you in wonder
Was it your emptiness that pushed me away or your hatred that drew me near?
And from the band’s epic 13-minute rager “A Diamond For Disease”:
In denial of the thoughts that our feelings dissolve
Your words were always chosen wisely, disguising all intent.
Amidst the poetry, I thought I heard you say,
“Let’s make a deal, a diamond for disease…”
Then the promise of never became embracing as the act of strangulation.
The idea of forever became the grandest humiliation.
The phrase “the promise of never” comes up repeatedly in Arsis’ work (it’s the name of a later song on 2001’s A Diamond For Disease EP), always implied to be an imprisoning concept by Malone. He makes constant references to “conquest”, and his use of visual concepts like “strangulation”—having the life squeezed out of someone—show him as a bound and overwhelmed figure, making vows to a person who wants only to rule him under an iron fist. This isn’t your typical expression of sadness about marrying the wrong girl, or getting cheated on;, it’s an expression of disgust at marriage itself, which Malone obviously considers insidious and subversive of honest humanity. Marriage is a lie, and lies are an ultimate sin, another recurring sentiment that is summed up well in the crusher “A Feast for the Liar’s Tongues” from 2008’s We Are The Nightmare:
A feast, a feast for the liar’s tongue!
A handful of grief to satisfy!
There can be no satisfaction in shame!
And nothing but shame in my deceit!
Honesty, it seems, is key to Malone’s emotional survival—but that isn’t entirely expressed through the turmoil of interpersonal relationships. The band’s “Forced To Rock” from 2010’s Starve For The Devil is a wild, one might dare say fun, classic metal track, with themes focusing on metal’s own ethos and Malone’s own strive for personal perfection (the singer is a diagnosed anorexic):
Forced to rock!
In the name of the Devil, starve
to take down this life with a feast of famine
In the name of Satan, we are forced to rock
Reaching out with hands of gold
And famine is the feast.
Where the only hell is growing old
We are starving for the beast!
While all of these lyrics are a battle cry of a metalhead’s tortured soul, it is the penultimate line here—“Where the only hell is growing old”—that sticks in this author’s mind. Throughout his own pain and turmoil, Malone has pointed out what we all know: that this is a genre of the youthful, that it’s not the flames of perdition that we fear but their being snuffed out. This is what makes Arsis’ lyrics so powerful when coupled with their dynamic brand of death metal: an understanding of self, unhindered by pretense, that many damn their own lives by actively trying to deny.
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