Putting out a classic with your first album is a curse. Well, it’s just a bit of a curse, of course, because the percentage of bands and artists that actually put out a classic at any point of their artistic careers is minuscule. So minuscule that searching for such bands and artists blindly would have about the same odds as randomly scanning the cosmos for signs of alien communication. It’s… rare.
Still, when artists do manage to release a classic very early in their careers, it’s likely to set a permanent bar of future disappointment. Even within the extremely rare group of bands that release a classic are those that can move on from that classic and either surpass said classic with an even greater achievement, or reinvent themselves to such a degree as to all render comparisons to the previous high mark irrelevant. The latter is entering the realm of being extremely rare within an already extremely rare group; this is a Robert Fripp level of rarity. In the Court of the Crimson King is as important an album as exists for what came to be known as true progressive rock, but Fripp was able to continually reinvent King Crimson and his sound with different lineups over the decades, a feat of brilliance that has kept the band relevant for about 50 years.
James Malone is no Robert Fripp. With Arsis, Malone had one goal, which was to write some of the greatest melodic death metal in the history of the style, and he undoubtedly achieved that end. A Celebration of Guilt, now 14 years old, was basically the heir to Heartwork in terms of melodic death metal that maintained a high level of brutality, and Arsis even set themselves apart by upping the technical aspect by a fair degree. They then released the accompanying A Diamond for Disease EP a year later almost as a victory lap to show that Malone’s initial burst of genius within the metal scene was no fluke.
Arsis has been spending every year since trying to get back to this level. With every release they have failed, but only because the initial bar they set for themselves was so high to begin with. Everything they have done has been at worst listenable and fun (Starve for the Devil) and at best just short of their early classics (We are the Nightmare). Since the early years, their consistency and output should have made them a beloved scene stalwart—those bands that receive praise purely for sticking to a style and delivering with consistent quality. There are countless examples of such acts from across the decades; think Saxon, Overkill, Incantation, etc. And the scene needs such bands. Fans sometimes can’t handle constant changes or simply prefer predictability in their escapism. So sustaining a high quality within a certain sound is absolutely worthy of a certain level of praise, even if sometimes this consistency has as much to do with the bottom dollar and artistic limitations as it does with any kind of dedication to or from fans.
Why then does Arsis seem to lack such status compared to similar stalwart bands, particularly those that lack their talent? Going on pure Facebook metrics, why does Arsis have a “mere” 87,000 likes compared to the one point one million of melodic extreme metal peers The Black Dahlia Murder? TBDM is a fine band, but in terms of vision they are undoubtedly b-teamers and have never released an album even remotely the quality of A Celebration of Guilt. Had Arsis’ quality declined to true mediocrity, and not just to a “failing to match early brilliance” level, this would be understandable, but that isn’t the case.
This brings us back to the initial point of this article: putting out a classic as your debut is a curse. By setting their bar so high, Arsis guaranteed that their subsequent works would also be held to an unattainable standard. There are certainly other possible factors—less and infrequent touring, inconsistent lineup—but it’s hard not to see the first point as the biggest. Perhaps fans hold it against James Malone, the person who with the song “A Diamond for Disease” proved himself to have a truly huge artistic vision, for making few attempts to expand his vision since. There have been little changes, sure—a bit more tech on Nightmare, a touch more cock rock swagger on Starve—but nowhere near the types of shifts that a lot of bands experience over the years.
Another explanation is that the heavy metal community—if you hadn’t heard—can be as petty and cannibalistic as it is loyal to its own. As a group, we’re kinda dicks, and we’re never consistent in how we’re dicks.
“Oh, you changed? You traitor.”
“Oh, you never change? You lazy piece of shit.”
Arsis is both exemplary of this type of scene policing and yet somehow the antithesis of it. Their star seems to have fallen because they largely stuck to their stylistic guns, not because they went nuts with experimentation. There’s just no winning with some (most) people, but in metal the former reaction happens much more frequently than the latter.
All of this of course brings us to Visitant, the sixth Arsis full length in addition to their multiple EPs. It also rocks, and quite frequently it rocks a ton. It’s likely the second best thing Arsis has released since 2005 after only We are the Nightmare. That it also does nothing new shouldn’t be a concern within the Hallowed Halls of Heavy Metal, right? High quality plus loyalty to a sound should be lauded according to common rules, but as stated, Arsis is far less popular (albeit still pretty popular) than comparable peers.
It’s tough to pinpoint precisely all the reasons why Arsis’ case is different from other veteran acts, but it’s impossible to ignore the classic debut factor. They laid all of their best cards on the table right at the beginning and won big, but because they never decided to move to a radically different game, it painted their later works as far worse than they are in reality. Arsis remains a very good band, and Visitant is a very good album. It is both unfortunate and understandable that, like every other post-Diamond Arsis release, it has to be judged in the shadow of the band’s towering early achievements. Lesser bands survive by never setting their bar so high.
The big point of all this rambling isn’t a question of whether or not a new Arsis album that is neither really fresh nor as good as their early peaks is worthy of your time, but rather that such an Arsis album is absolutely more deserving of your time than most similarly veteran-minded albums from other bands.
It’s okay to be only be very good, even if you were once truly spectacular.