Tech Death Titans: Arsis – A Celebration of Guilt
The well of new tech death is running a little dry this week, and rather than trying to scrape together a handful of EP’s or demos to throw at you, we’re going to try something a little different. Tech Death Titans is a new subseries dedicated to reexamining important albums from throughout the genre’s history, finding out what makes them work, whether or not they still hold up, and so on. We’re kicking things off with a stone-cold classic, an album that helped introduce me to tech death and remains to this day one of my all-time favorites: A Celebration of Guilt, the brilliant debut from Arsis.
Once you’ve mopped up the goop that opening riff turned your face into, let’s start dissecting this song. “The Face of My Innocence” is about as clear a musical mission statement as a band can make; by the time the first solo hits, you know what you’re in for. It serves as an overture for the album in a way, offering a surface-level view of each facet of their deceptively nuanced songwriting. That very first riff shows you that the dual guitar approach is going to be utilized to its full potential, one side throwing down a cyclonic tapping run while the other blasts out a tremolo-picked pseudo harmony. The foundation of blastbeats is broken up by chaotic fills, and before you can even really wrap your head around it, they dive into a soaring 5/4 riff that doesn’t evoke the off-kilter feeling its meter normally does. A brief reprise of the intro, now accompanied by acidic vocals, gives way to one of the filthiest god damn grooves you’ll ever hear. A melancholy (but no less driving) bridge leads into a gloriously headbanging section and our first taste of James Malone’s legato soloing. And, lest you think this is all serious business, the cheeky outro fake out shows they have a humorous side, too. All this from one song!
Of course, any good album is going to have its share of bangers, but the beauty of Celebration is that you can point to any of its constituent songs as its highlight; there are no valleys here, no dips in quality. “Maddening Disdain” and “Worship Depraved” are ripping melodic numbers with a sinister twist. “Seven Whispers Fell Silent” shows off more of that subtly progressive songwriting, transitioning so smoothly between two different time signatures and tempos coming out of its solo section you probably didn’t even notice it. “Dust and Guilt” turns its goofy Halloweenish opening into something menacing, and the bitter, sardonic “The Sadistic Motives Behind Bereavement Letters” exudes dark humor while being surprisingly introspective at the same time. While each individual song might focus on one part of the band’s sound more than others, they still all tie back into the themes established at the start.
While the overall sound of the album is pretty unique in the world of tech death, it’s the fluidity and the intelligence with which the sound is approached that really makes it stand out. Going back to “Face of My Innocence,” let’s look at that groovy riff that shows up about 35 seconds in. It shows up several times throughout the song, each time with a variation that draws from a different section, tying all of it together. The part with the pinch harmonic comes back just before the solo appended with a twist on the opening tapping run, and appears once again underneath the solo spliced together with the driving double bass part immediately preceding it. This ability to attack ideas from several different angles and bring them all together cohesively is a hallmark of Malone’s writing style that became more refined as time passed, but already shone through early on.
Beyond the songwriting and the style, Celebration separates itself from the crowd further with its substantially less polished than normal engineering. You’ve probably noticed that this album sounds like shit, but in the opposite direction of most tech death, and I mean that as a compliment. If you want your album to sound gross and gritty without losing too much clarity, this is the sound you go for. The guitar tone is as harsh as the vocals, and the leads are as slick as they are muddy. Mike van Dyne’s ferocity behind the kit is enhanced by the lack of quantization; you can hear the inconsistencies, but it makes it sound more violent and animalistic than sloppy. You can feel every single one of those kick and tom hits in your gut, and it’s made all the more impressive when you consider how obscenely fast and precise it really is.
Fuck. I love this album. I’m not going to pretend there isn’t a whole ton of personal bias going into this review- I didn’t even know tech death was a thing until I saw Arsis (opening for Firewind, of all bands)- but I truly believe that A Celebration of Guilt is the great equalizer when it comes to metal. Tech heads will find plenty of mind-boggling instrumentals to marvel at. Death metal fans will love its uncompromising attack, and the black metal inclined will bask in its cold, embittered atmosphere and lyrics. I’ve even known fans of less extreme subgenres to latch onto its unending hooks and melodies. This is an album that is infinitely replayable, deeper than it looks on the surface, and truly worthy of a place in the tech death pantheon.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for today. If this is something you want to see more of (or less of), or if you have any classic tech death albums you want me to check out, let me know. Until next time,
Is your band tech as heck? Got a juicy piece of news or an upcoming release to watch? Send it my way at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll check it out. I might even talk about it.