Arsis And The Curse Of The Classic Debut

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.

Posted by Zach Duvall

Last Rites Co-Owner; Senior Editor; Obnoxious overuser of baseball metaphors.

  1. I’m surprised to hear such praise for _We Are the Nightmare_ but none for _Unwelcome._ I thought _Unwelcome_ smashed it out of the park for Arsis, toning down the over-technical wankery of _Nightmare_ and blending in the 80s rock aesthetic of _Starve_ into a collection of nine amazing, memorable songs. Looking forward to picking up the new one, though. Always a Malone fan.


    1. Also always a fan, I think Unwelcome is just short of WAtN overall, and partly because technicality is an important element of Malone’s appeal. Unwelcome didn’t really push those buttons in the same way. Great Arsis riffs leave me kind of dumbfounded and WAtN has that going on.

      To follow up on the gist of the article, I think that the element of ‘disappointing second album’ has been missed here. It’s not just that ACoG was brilliant, it’s also that at their first chance to show that they could be consistently great, they turned in what’s comfortably their least impressive album. I know SftD is not popular, but it’s got more going for it than UiR, which was just a poor rehash of the debut. It’s often said that you only get one chance to make a first impression, but I think it’s also true that you only get one chance to show that your initial genius was not a fluke.


  2. Many great points in this review. Often glossed over though is the fact that the original drummer had a more significant role in Arsis’ early sound than most give him credit for. Once the band became James Malone and Friends, the stylistic zig-zagging from one album to another began. To be expected with personnel getting swapped out, but the foundation & vibe set with acog was lost. Overtly techy solos & drums aren’t a replacement for chemistry and personality. The balance of melody, technicality, and Neanderthal-like straightforwardness is what made Arsis so special initially.

    The fact that James Malone cancelled more tours than he completed during the watn years, and the outrageously horrible lyrics & lead single-choice for sftd, didn’t exactly help their popularity either. Unchecked shitty decisions sometimes have permanent consequences.


    1. Super accurate review but even more accurate comment. I have been following this band since United in Regret which was to me probably their weakest album and the only album of theirs that I sometimes forget exists but like the review said because all their other output is so great.


    2. All great points. Never topping their early releases was never the ONLY reason they weren’t as popular as warranted, but it’s just what really stuck in my head. Never thought they zig-zagged that much between styles, just pushed one part of their sound a little more on different albums, whereas the balance is where they really excel. Thanks for reading/discussing.


  3. Has there ever been any confirmation (and/or speculation besides me, here, now) on whether “Forced to Rock” was something like an A&R decision by Nuclear Blast? Malone had never shied from—and indeed is often characterized by—lyrics that are self-referential, almost to the point of plagiarism (which I consider more of an artistic/stylistic choice rather than lack of creativity), but irrespective of that trait, that song struck me as almost mocking in its tone …and this is to say nothing of the mehtastic video.

    Additionally, SftD can be viewed as a more cohesive album (re: subject matter) if you skip that first track.


    1. Not sure, but it definitely doesn’t represent the album, which is quite good overall, accurately. Years back I read that much of the sftd material had originally been written by James Malone for a side project with Dan Nelson (ex-anthrax) during the watn years. Apparently Cordle and Vandyne tried to steer said album in a heavier, more classic Arsis direction, but obviously weren’t in a position to call the shots. Still a solid album like everything in their discography, but the creative dynamic that sparked the first couple releases and pre-acog demos was long gone by that point.


  4. Totally agree, Zach. In the wake of ACoG and ADfD, everything else they’ve released has underwhelmed me. While I welcome every new album from them, I always put on one of the above-mentioned when I have a hankering for Arsis.


  5. ‘(W)hy does Arsis have a “mere” 87,000 likes compared to the one point one million of melodic extreme metal peers The Black Dahlia Murder?”

    I suspect it has something to do with the key to any success: marketing. TBDM signed to bigger label Metal Blade and got tours with Cannibal Corpse and also kind of rode the coattails of the metalcore thing.

    Arsis were initially on Willowtip which is a far smaller label didn’t really get the metalcore tag (lost audience).

    It didn’t help their second album United In Regret was not that great.

    By the time Arsis got anywhere (ie Nuclear Blast in 2007), melodic death and metalcore were no longer the top dogs (and also oversaturated) so We Are The Nightmare kind of never took off despite being a great album.

    Not to mention Arsis’ name is a bit too similar to “arses.”

    Personally I think Arsis is an infinitely better band than boring as bat guano TBDM.


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