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Arsis’ A Celebration of Guilt Turns 10

Before we begin gushing over this totally gushworthy album, let’s take a look back at the year in which it was released. The death metal landscape in 2004 was bleaker than a Dan Seagrave album cover, years away from its rebirth at the hands of the NWOSDM and a legion of kids raised on torrented discographies of the Tampa scene. The bleeding, lifeless husks of once dominant OGs Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, and Obituary lined the horizon like Pierced from Within. Melodeath was six feet under in a mass grave shared by In Flames, Soilwork, and most of their Swedish brethren, having been brought to near extinction by metalcore’s whirling buzzsaws like the reaper on Effigy of Forgotten. Hell, even Suffo themselves were just dropping their first full-length in almost a decade. New acts like Origin and Necrophagist were taking what was left of the genre into exceedingly techier realms. Death metal needed a savior; it just never expected it to come in the form of a lyricist/guitarist informed by equal parts Depeche Mode and Dissection and a drummer with a penchant for practicing blast beats between his jazz coursework.

James Malone and Michael Van Dyne met at Berklee in 2000, found they were the only two dudes in their respective classes who dug on both Heartwork and A Love Supreme, and quickly self-released two demos before being snapped up by Willowtip in 2003. A year later, the duo emerged fully formed with A Celebration of Guilt in hand like a rookie athlete who catches the sport with its collective pants around its knock-kneed ankles, blowing past the remaining vets still pulling on their gear. They were 1983 Eric Dickerson; 1996 Derek Jeter; 2011 Mike Trout, brimming with the kind of self-assurance and ‘I got this’ confidence that makes stodgy journos shake their heads and mutter, “Just who the hell do they think they are?”

Arsis blended the advanced, showy musicianship of the new scene with the classics of old, funneling their advanced education into a casing hammered out of a Carcass/At the Gates alloy, and zeroed a perfectly placed kill shot only executable by trained marksmen. More than anything, Arsis brought back the class death metal had been missing since late-period Death. Most concentrate on opener “The Face of My Innocence” (and rightfully so), but let’s touch on finale “Wholly Night” for a sec. Note the way Malone times the stresses on “Longing for hea-ven’s dark curse/With I to guide the Cain-drawn hearse” with his pinch harmonics. These weren’t your average kids shredding to YouTube videos in their dorms. Or, to quote Obi-Wan: “These blast points; too accurate for Sandpeople.”

But yes, how about that barnstorming intro? Worthy of placement among “Override the Overture” and “Immortal Rites” as an all-time great death metal debut opener, “The Face of My Innocence” sees the duo lay bare everything they intend to accomplish in the first five minutes — Malone trading stupid accurate picking patterns with sweep hooks (hooks!) before Van Dyne’s snare fill triggers a pit-inciting breakdown none of the kids in this video seem to heed — then challenging themselves to continually scale the wall over the next 38.

“Maddening Disdain” threatens with a propulsive sing-songy hook belying the outright melodrama of Malone’s chorus:

Feel the fervor growing but the hate is stronger
My heart was whole with you
But the pain was mine, come twisted flowers
Come blistered soul, torturing disdain

Here is the Depeche Mode influence, the unabashed love for new wave and all that is cold and dark and ‘80s. Again Death appears as a frame of reference, Malone’s lyrics being the most heart-on-your-sleeve personal in death metal since Schuldiner penned “Perennial Quest.” There is the creepy stalker poetry of a jilted ex-lover on “Carnal Ways to Recreate the Heart” (“I’ll step inside you, I feel your lips/And seize your flesh, to penetrate the wound”) and near Jeff Walker levels of sarcasm and wit on “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

All of which builds to a vicious breakdown after Malone spits “There came the strangest sound/It was as if the whole of heaven came crumbling fucking down.”

Malone’s intimate, literal (and literate) lyrics aren’t surprising in hindsight. After all, this is the same guy who – after making public his struggles with anorexia in 2010 – titled the fourth Arsis album Starve for the Devil. It’s Malone’s delivery that truly impresses more listen after listen. With the pitch of Thomas Lindberg and the enunciation of Ross Dolan, Malone makes every syllable of his vitriol and self-loathing crystal clear, with a lyric sheet only required when he and Van Dyne bury his words in mounds of assorted tech geekery.

In fact, every aspect of Celebration’s production is professional and crisp. Normally with a band of such a limited lineup, this comes with a caveat of ‘for a duo'; it was certainly a mantra repeated often in the contemporary reviews on Willowtip’s website. No, this is impressive for any band. Not so much a reaction to the Pro Tools love letters of mid-‘00s metal but a bridge between the polished sheen and the thumpy boom of post-Morrisound DM, Celebration dodges the misstep of many other albums of its era (*cough* Necrophagist’s Epitaph *cough*) by keeping the proceedings sharp and listenable without sacrificing any brutality.

And what brutality there is. While it’s often cited as a landmark record in melodic death metal, I’ve come to refer to Celebration simply as death metal after years of spins. After all, there ain’t much in Arch Enemy’s catalogue that matches “Seven Whispers Fell Silent”’s slide-y, bouncing shred. Or how about the righteous, Marduk tremolo on “Carnal Ways to Recreate the Heart,” topped with more pinch harmonics than a Zakk Wilde jam session. And Van Dyne’s roiling double bass on “Return”’s verse and blink-and-you-miss-‘em triplets on its chorus out-thrash just about anything from the Gothenburg scene. But, most of all, these are eminently memorable songs. While Arsis contemporaries were whipping up bowls of noodly, “look at me!” riff salad, Malone and Van Dyne were slapping a few steaks on the grill and serving them with a baked potato and a balsamic reduction. Gourmet, but it’ll still stick to your ribs.

You can park a seat at Arsis’ table this September when the band journeys through the USA playing Celebration in its entirety to, er, celebrate the album’s decade of inspiring young shredders to hole themselves up in their rooms practicing their sweep picks in hopes of a Berklee scholarship. A full list of tour dates is below.

— Greg Majewski

Arsis — 2014 Tour Dates
09/01 Springfield, VA – Empire
09/02 Trenton, NJ – Championship Bar
09/03 New York, NY – Santos
09/04 Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall
09/05 Montreal, – QC Foufounes Electriques
09/06 Quebec City, – QC Dagobert
09/08 Lakewood, – OH The Foundry
09/12 Winnipeg, – MB The Zoo
09/13 Saskatoon, – SK Rock Bottom
09/16 Vancouver, – BC Red Room
09/17 Seattle, WA – Studio Seven
09/18 Portland, OR – Tonic Lounge
09/20 Anaheim, CA – O.C. Music Hall
09/21 San Diego, CA – New Royal Dive
09/23 Denver, CO – Moon Room
09/25 Fort Worth, TX – Rail Club
09/27 Orlando, FL – Haven Lounge
09/28 Tampa, FL – The Orpheum

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