By Thrash-head

Scenes often are assigned figureheads who - for better or for worse - are often tasked with being the benchmark for an entire subgenre of metal. Metalcore has Adam Dutkiewicz, Swedish death has Peter Tagtgren, and thrash changes theirs every few years (are we back to Kerry King or are we on Gary Holt now?).Few would deny that Chuck Schuldiner was easily the leader of the pack for tech-death with his genre-defining/-defying/-redefining style that has been an influence to countless death metal riff merchants over the years. Suffice it to say, when he passed away in 2001 it left a hole that really has yet to be filled. We need somebody to lead the charge of tech-death down paths anew, but we have a lot of choices to weed through. Luc Lemay, although a veteran, only recently resurrected our beloved Gorguts, and Muhammed Suicmez is just taking WAY too long to get us this new Necrophagist to be even relevant anymore.

Enter one James Malone, taskmaster behind Arsis. A gifted songwriter with one foot in the extreme metal future and the other firmly rooted in guitar gods of the '80s (think: if Warren Demartini and George Lynch wore corpsepaint). His playing is incredibly technical, his vocal style is that perfect halfway between black metal and thrash, screechy-yet-aggro, and the songs that he writes just captivate the listener with genre-defying acrobatics.

As amazing as this band is, they tend to be criminally overlooked in the scene these days, possibly because of how they fuse so many styles together. Take a song such as "Handbook for the Recently Deceased," for example. It begins with a brutal 6/8 death/thrash groove and then flows into blasting upper-register death before resolving into an awesomely '80s classic heavy metal riff with plenty of double-stops. "Martyred or Mourning" follows a very similar structure, and virtually any song contained on this disc tends to jump between various subgenres and points of influence several times. Therein lies the awesomeness of this band though, as they can take virtually any style and fuse it with another and it still sounds like them because the energy remains constant throughout. Certain other elements tend to be retained throughout every single song and virtually every single riff too, from the pummeling double-bass that carries even the least-intricate of riffs (see 1:29-1:53 of album-closer "Scornstar"), to the ridiculously adept guitar harmonies that are ALWAYS present. One element I like that is a little more present on this release than others is the return of guitar interplay along the lines of a more brutal early Opeth. It was something that was extremely present on the "United in Regret" album when James was the only guitarist, and in the albums since it feels like they've utilized this less and less, at least until now. Look to :31 into the album-opening title track or 1:47 into "No One Lies to the Dead" to see what I mean; one guitar is doing one riff, and the other is doing something completely different on top of it, and the notes/rhythms just happen to work out well together filling out a riff nicely. If there's any one drawback to this disc, I'd say it's that this element isn't utilized even more.

Aside from James himself, the other members bring a lot to the table as well. New drummer Shawn Priest blasts and paradiddles his way through these tracks with what seems to be the tightest drumming I've ever heard on an Arsis album, but he still retains enough of a pocket to really add some groove and sway to these tunes, something that to me has always been an overlooked element of Arsis that makes that truly standout from their tech-metal brethren. Returning bassist Noah Martin is death metal's equivalent to Steve Harris, with fleet-fingered lines that power the low-end on these riffs and yet he stays in his role through the tunes, never venturing outside his box for a bass solo because, admittedly, there's not really a place for it in this music. As for the new 2nd guitarist, Brandon Ellis may just be the best this band has ever had, and he's got some huge shoes to fill since his predecessors include Ryan Knight (now of Black Dahlia Murder) and Nick Cordle (now of Arch Enemy). His finger-tapping is on a par with bandleader Malone's (which is to say he's Van Halen-incarnate), but what can help you determine who's taking a solo a little easier is that it seems that Brandon has a more dramatic, wider vibrato technique, which is very pleasing to the ear, especially if you happen to be a guitar player yourself.

This album is a very welcome addition to their discography. Anyone that's a fan of the band already will love it, and anyone that is looking for something technical and energetic that hasn't yet heard the band should also do well to check it out. To this writer, it's not exactly on a par with "United in Regret" for shear heaviness and catchy songwriting, but I am very much digging the "let's play fast and give our fingers a workout" thing that they do so much better now. In addition to the nonstop sonic onslaught, the album also has an impressive mixjob that really brings everything into the forefront. The solos cut through at the appropriate volume levels, the vocals never overpower the riffing, and the drums - although very up-front as is usually the case in extreme metal these days - and subdued just enough that on every speakers I played this on I could still hear everything else equally well.

It'll be interesting to see what James' and the band's future output looks like. At this point, it's a safe bet to at least say that it'll still sound like Arsis.