Upon first glimpse, the combination of ballet and death metal seems horribly unnatural in the eyes (and ears) of both ballet aficionados and fans of extreme music, and indeed, when Virginia band Arsis was asked by New York avant-garde dance troupe Ballet Deviare to compose a commissioned piece of music specifically for ballet interpretation, more than a few eyebrows were raised on both sides of the fence. The resulting piece, the 12 minute “A Diamond For Disease”, from a metal standpoint, was easily one of the best tracks of 2005, an epic excursion into melodic death metal, as furious, cannonating blastbeats brutally underscored the mind-boggling array of lithe melodic lead guitar melodies, heavily influenced by the majestic brutality of Swedish death progenitors At the Gates and In Flames, yet elevating it all to the kind of grandiose level one would expect from a flamboyant Norwegian black metal act, giving the song a decidedly contemporary air. It’s not until you see the dancers performing along with the song (thank goodness for YouTube) that we realize that not only does the music of Arsis work well in the ballet realm, but that the two seemingly disparate styles share a lot in common: ballet appears light and graceful, but is extremely strenuous and physically punishing, while conversely, death metal relies heavily on the physical brutality of the sound, but upon deeper inspection, is capable of surprising moments of finely-tuned grace.
“A Diamond For Disease”, released in EP form in 2005, is one hell of a song to follow up, but Arsis is definitely up for the challenge on its second full-length, United in Regret, and much like its collaboration with Ballet Deviare, is equal parts blunt force and sumptuous melody, blind rage and tender introspection. A rare duo in metal circles (primarily because they can never find the right permanent members), guitarist/vocalist James Malone and drummer Michael Van Dyne take a more concise approach than on the previous mammoth track, serving up nine scorching tracks over 36 minutes, yet the shorter songs work just as well, the pair never allowing the songwriting to meander in hopes of creating another lengthy opus. It’s quick, to the point, and insanely fast, the unrelenting speed hitting us smack in the face as “Oh the Humanity” begins, Van Dyne’s double-kicks, machine-gunning snare, and crisply recorded cymbal bell giving the song an extra-sharp edge. However, when the breakdown kicks in, Malone’s mellifluous, expressive lead fills begin to dominate, which leads to one of the most fascinating aspects of this band.
Death metal lyrics are usually rather interchangeable; aside from the fun splatter-film subject matter of Cannibal Corpse or the studious ruminations on mythology that Nile or Behemoth do so well, in most cases it’s the usual violent doom and gloom emanating from the vocalists’ indistinguishable guttural growls. In the case of Arsis, however, we get some of the most self-loathsome verses this side of the Warped Tour, as United in Regret appears to derive its primary theme from a shattered relationship, but unlike an emo band sputtering high school journal poetry, Malone mines his own blackened soul for some startlingly revealing confessions. “What words spoken? / What love swayed? / And the mirror broken brings the faith of the damned to me,” he growls during “Oh, the Humanity”. On “I Speak Through Shadows, he says, “Vanity tainted all of your lonely face / Indifference was welcomed in and fervor laid to waste,” continuing on “Hopeless Truth”, “Now the reasons are lost within indifferent eyes / And what vanity taints must be our parting gifts.” Granted, Malone does have a tendency to let his rage get the best of him (“Close your legs before I close them for you,” is a bit, erm, lacking in dignity), but he nails that combination of sadness and anger on “The Marriage Bed”: “I cower towards you in wonder / Was it your emptiness that pushed me away or your hatred that drew me near?”
It’s the music that keeps us riveted, though, and United in Regret is spellbinding. “…And the Blind One Came” is a welcome departure, locked in a mid-tempo groove, climaxing with a solo break so unflinchingly pretty, it could have come from a band like Nightwish. The title track boasts a cunning power metal riff that’s brilliantly offset by some frenetic percussion by Van Dyne, while the bluntly-titled “Lust Before the Maggots Conquest” is a taut display of prototypical, traditional melodic death metal, with subtle hardcore skronks adding just the right amount of abrasion. It’s the cover of Depeche Mode’s 1987 tune “The Things You Said”, however, that showcases Arsis’s mastery of musical chaos and emotional bloodletting. In the past year, other metal bands (namely Lacuna Coil, It Dies Today, and Between the Buried and Me) have all ably covered Depeche Mode, but none were able to put its own distinct spin on the song as well as Arsis does here. In fact, with its churning beats, chugging riffs, and growled vocals, it’s barely recognizable, E-bowed guitar notes duplicating the original synth melody over all the cacophony, and the end result is as gorgeous as it is violent.
Produced by Daath guitarist Eyal Levi, who also displayed similar skill on Misery Index’s excellent Discordia, and mastered by Scott Hull (he of grindcore greats Pig Destroyer), United in Regret packs a huge sonic punch, the duo aspect emphasized the most, with the guitars and drums right up front in the mix, rendering the bass (played by guest musician Noah Martin) to a mere afterthought. The sound does veer towards sounding shrill, but it lends the record an abrasive quality, providing yet another dimension to the music, working in consort with the pummeling drums, ornate guitar melodies, and emotionally fragile lyrics. A terrific, multi-faceted effort by one of America’s finest metal acts, like ballet, there’s much more going on here than many might mistakenly assume.