Album Review: Arsis - "Unwelcome"

To say that Arsis has had a long, convoluted career path is a wild, reckless understatement. Birthed in California, the band’s career lineup cycle has more twists and turns than your standard daytime soap opera plot. So it’s a testament to the hearty will of frontman James Malone that this new album “Unwelcome” even exists. Arsis continues to try and persevere in the chokes underground universe of technical death metal.

Musically, Arsis is a band that has always had raw talent, but the group’s instability has made it difficult for them to exhibit consistency. With “Unwelcome” w see the band dial down and focus on the ‘technical’ aspect of ‘technical death metal.’ The fixated attention on layering and complexity is evident from the opening strains of the title track, which leads the album. It is an example of the kind of intricate beasts that populate much of “Unwelcome,” as Arsis sonically bridges the gap between typical death metal and the Dillinger Escape Plan.

Unlike so many other death metal records, “Unwelcome” manages to show a humorous side, featured in songs like “Handbook for the Recently Deceased,” which as Malone and I discussed, makes overt reference to the movie “Beetlejuice.” The screamed vocals do their best to mask the lighter shades, but they must be in there somewhere.

There is additionally a cover of Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night,” which is nigh unrecognizable but for the chorus. The lack of synthesizer and other 80’s stereotypes fundamentally changes the nature of the song, and it’s a brave cover for Arsis to attempt.

The most fascinating aspect of “Unwelcome” and the thing that makes it stand out from the quagmire of death and extreme metal, is the skillful and frankly awesome soloing of James Malone himself. If it’s possible to play ‘in the pocket’ of extreme metal, Malone does that with aplomb, electrifying songs like “Martyred or Mourning.” His soloing there and in other sections marks the album’s high points, making the music pop in Arsis’ unique idiom. This alone makes “Unwelcome” a worthwhile test drive for guitar enthusiasts.

Where Arsis stumbles is in the sheer density of their production. The finished product of “Unwelcome” is fuzzy and chunky, which makes the technical prowess harder to inspect. It’s a common problem in death metal, but sets the album back nonetheless. Too many songs get swamped, and would have been better served by finding a more delicate balance between loudness and tone. In an attempt to really push the envelope, Arsis overexerts, and loses sight of the hook. There are moments of clarity that work very well, like the early breakdown of “Carve My Cross,” but those moments are infrequent and their absence makes “Unwelcome” harder to listen to than it need be.

“Unwelcome” is a high technical album without being prog-y, but also isn’t accessible enough to garner more than academic examination. Death metal aficionados will sing the album’s praises, and it does have some strong merits. Arsis has persevered to produce an authentic and talented effort, but falls short of the watermark for “great overall album.” Unless this is your specific taste, it may be tough to swallow.

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