Published May 06, 2013Having experimented with their sound on their last few releases, Virginia-based extreme metal band Arsis have returned to their brutal roots for the outfit's fifth album, Unwelcome, which features a revamped line-up. Containing better songwriting and production, as well as expertly skilled musicianship, founder/chief songwriter/lead guitarist/vocalist James Malone and company have taken their sound — which incorporates elements of melodic death metal, tech-death and thrash — to a new level. In a recent interview, Malone discussed the writing process for Unwelcome, the band's two new members and maintaining a balance between their many styles, as well as why he didn't pay attention to what's trendy or what might appeal to larger audience for this record and how that has hindered Arsis in the past.
Was there a specific musical direction that you wanted to go in for your fifth Arsis album, Unwelcome?
To be honest with you, I had taken quite a bit of time off from Arsis, I even sat out one tour myself, so by the time I actually got around to writing for the album, I hadn't really done much with metal for two years. So, I was really out of touch with what was going on in the musical world, just not paying attention to it or playing guitar myself for that matter, so it was really fresh when I sat down and started writing for the album. I felt really inspired, I guess just from being away for a while, I had a new perspective on things, and I was playing guitar for 14 hours a day like I was in high school. So it was really refreshing and really sincere. But no, I didn't have a direction in mind so much, it was just writing what I thought sounded cool.
Was your time off the reason it has taken a little longer to release this record, in comparison to your previous releases?
Yes, but to be honest with you, the album was completed last August so technically we could have had a 2012 release on this if we really pushed for it, but we were just shy of the proper window for Nuclear Blast, as far as promotion goes. And right when we were finishing up the album, we got the offer from Scion to record an EP, so we wanted to take the time to work on that as well and we thought it was best to get the EP out first and then release the full-length, so that's why there was a little bit of a wait.
What was the writing process like for Unwelcome?
It was a lot of me and Noah [Martin, bassist] just locking ourselves in a room in his house with a bunch of gear and recording software for hours on end, arranging stuff. I would do a fair amount of writing myself, as would Noah. I guess there were a couple songs that I wrote entirely, but a lot of the songs on the album Noah would send me some riffs here and there that he just kind of has laying around and was just like, "Alright, go to town with it." And I would base whole songs off of like one riff that he would send me, just kind of pick it apart and find which sections of his ideas really stood out to me and just build songs around those. So there are quite a few songs that came together like that as well. There's even a track on the album that Shawn [Priest, drummer] started, like he just sent over some drum riffs and he was just like, "Alright, write some guitar parts that go along with this." So I had a lot of fun trying to do that, I've never written from just drum parts before so it was a lot more rhythmic than melodic, obviously, starting some of those songs. So yeah, it was really cool.
There've been some member changes in the band, with a new guitarist and drummer. How did that have an impact on this record?
How did it have an impact? I think for the better, to be honest with you. Shawn is just an amazing drummer, super tight live, the tightest drummer I've ever played with live and he's been filling in for us on and off throughout the years whenever we had work schedules conflicting for tours and stuff like that. So he knew our back-catalogue very, very well and it just made sense to work with him on the album. We wanted to go in a little bit more extreme direction and his playing style just kind of fit the direction of the music a lot better than our previous drummer, so it was just a really good fit. And then for Brandon [Ellis, guitarist], he wasn't around so much for the writing of this album, he did contribute a lot of solos to the album, but I look forward to writing with him in the future. He actually had filled in for me on the one tour that I sat out, so the other guys in the band knew him pretty well, and he's just quite the prodigy, so the new material should be rather interesting with him contributing as well.
Do you feel like this is a pretty stable Arsis line-up, going forward?
Yes, I do, I do. Probably the most stable that it's ever been. And myself, I know I'm the most stable I've ever been too, while I've been doing Arsis. So it should be cool.
The band's sound incorporates a lot of different styles, and this album sounds a little heavier on the thrash/'80s metal side, with really catchy riffs. Was that intentional?
No, no, not so much. Like I said, I just locked myself in a room and played guitar for 14 hours a day and just whatever I thought was catchy and that I thought I could work with was kind of the direction I went with stuff. It was just completely mindless writing, as far as I didn't really have a goal in mind, you know? It was just whatever felt sincere.
Is it ever a challenge to maintain a balance between the technical death metal stuff and the catchier, hook-based thrash stuff?
I think so. That style does come rather natural to me because as technical as some of the riffs can be, I always try to make them as catchy as possible. Technical for the sake of being technical, I don't think that does anyone much good, unless there's a hook or a melody that you can take away from the song. You can be as technical as you want all day long, but if nobody's going to remember anything you played, there's really no point in it. So, I'm conscious of it and I'm not conscious of it at the same time. I feel from day one, we kind of tried to do that with the band, so it's as natural I guess as it can be at this point.
Lyrically, is there a specific theme or concept behind Unwelcome?
It's all rather abstract. I guess it probably could be said about any Arsis album. It's just my own feelings of regret and remorse, and personal turmoil, if you will. So, situations change, but it's always similar subject matter of personal experience. I've never really been one to write about politics, I try not to pay attention to them too much because they depress me. I'm not a history buff, so I'm not going to write about ancient Egypt. I don't worship Satan, so my ideas would be rather limited when it comes to that sort of stuff. So, the only thing I really have is personal experience to write about.
It's interesting that you included a cover of Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" on this album. Why rework that song in particular?
Noah had been talking about wanting to do that song for years, years and years and years. And one day, I went over to his house to write for the album and he had started a cover of it, like he had the intro of it and the first part lined out, and he and I sat down and beefed up the verses and the chorus. Yeah, it came together rather nicely, we were pretty happy with the way it came out. I'm a fan of '80s pop, to be honest with you. If I'm listening to music in the car it's probably going to be, like Depeche Mode or the Cure or Gene Loves Jezebel or something like that. I don't listen to a lot of metal these days.
How do you feel the band's sound has progressed since you first started out? There's a big difference between the first two records and the Nuclear Blast releases that came after.
Yeah, the first couple were really super raw, especially the first album [2004's A Celebration of Guilt]. I started writing some of those songs probably when I was still in high school, to be honest with you, some of those ideas were from back then. I was like 22 by the time we really got to recording any of those ideas, I mean they were so old, like I said I was probably 16 or 17 years old when some of the initial ideas for the stuff on A Celebration of Guilt was being formed, in my brain anyway. I'm 33 now, if that gives you any idea of how long it's been. So yeah, especially the first one we really had no clue what we were doing, just two guys trying to play as brutal as we could and still be catchy. And we recorded the album in like a really cheap, easy demo studio in Virginia, so it's pretty much as raw as you possibly could get. I guess it progressively got a little more sophisticated in terms of the writing. Coincidentally though, for the new album, I wrote it a lot like I would have written something around the time of A Celebration of Guilt and [2005 EP] A Diamond for Disease, in terms of the technology that I was using for demoing stuff. Those two albums were both demoed on cassette four-track and probably not a whole lot of people out there are going to be familiar with it, but with very little capability of punching in and out, I used a drum machine for programming the drum parts that I've had since 1996, to give you an idea of how old the technology is. So, it's pretty much like when you're demoing it, you have to play it from beginning to end, with as few mistakes as possible, and go back and revise it later. It's challenging, it's kind of forced me to play the songs all the way through and just be like, "Alright, is this going to sound good live? Is it playable? Can I do this?" So, it was good in that aspect, writing for this album and I think the songs have a little bit more of a natural feel to them than something off of like, [2008 album] We Are the Nightmare, where we used pretty sophisticated technology to demo all that stuff out and it was a lot of copy and pasting, just kind of throwing stuff together, as opposed to having actual songs that flow and are playable and are human, I guess. In a way, I think Unwelcome is a step back to some of the earlier material, that it's less sophisticated at the same time but also more brutal than some of the other stuff as well.
You've said that you didn't want to pay attention to what's trendy or what might appeal to a larger audience for this record. Is that something you did do in the past?
Very much so. I would say particularly with We Are the Nightmare. We had been touring a lot with bands like the Faceless and Necrophagist, and I think I was very obsessed with being as technical as I possibly could, for the sake of being technical without paying very much attention to song structure and if things were catchy and the way things flowed, and I think it really showed. I mean, a lot of people loved the We Are the Nightmare material and I don't have a problem with it, but it definitely wasn't something that came very natural for me. So yeah, there definitely was a time when I was paying attention to what I thought might be trendy and with [2010 album] Starve for the Devil I kind of went the complete opposite direction. While a lot of the parts in the songs are still very technical to play, I was really wanting it to be as stripped down as possible and almost pop rock, if you will. And I thought it would open up a new fan base in a way, and it was kind of tongue-in-cheek at the same time, and I thought people would get the joke, but not too many people got the joke really, so I guess I'm not as funny as I thought.
Are you at a point now where you're making the music that you enjoy first and foremost?
Yes, very much so. If people enjoy it, that is awesome, that is great. It's very hard to make a living doing music, it's very hard to make a living doing extreme music in the underground sense. So if I'm not a millionaire off of it, I might as well have some integrity and just create art that I can stand behind and that I am sincere about. I really feel Unwelcome is very much that.
Do fans ever have any expectations of what an Arsis record should sound like?
Yeah, I've been hearing for years that we should sound like A Celebration of Guilt. But, I'm sure if we made A Celebration of Guilt part two, people would complain that we made the same album over and over. So, I guess they have expectations, and I'm no different. I guess I really don't know what I want either, so yeah I think they have expectations, but hopefully with this new one we've met some expectations and exceeded some expectations in the eyes of a few people.
How are you feeling about heading out on the road soon with Hypocrisy, Krisiun and Aborted?
I think that's going to be a blast, I think it's going to be really, really good. All of the bands are similar enough, but different at the same time. Quite often a lot of booking agents, it was more a trend five or six years ago, but they would throw as many different types of bands as possible on the same bill because they'll all draw out their own crowd and it'll be a successful tour, I guess with that philosophy behind it. I don't think it ever really worked out that way though, to be honest with you, because there's so many fans that would be like, "I'd love to see Arsis, but I don't want to see them with this band or that band and pay $30 for a ticket." So I think with this tour, everyone is similar enough that it's just like, "Oh yeah, Aborted are playing and Krisiun. Great, fuckin' awesome, I'll be there." So I think it could be really successful, I hope so anyway.