Arsis / Neuraxis
A Diamond for Disease / Trilateral Progression
B+ / A-
n the town of Zelienople, PA (population: 4,123) is a small record label that is quietly pushing the boundaries of modern metal. "Forward thinking metal" is the motto of Willowtip Records, a haven for innovative, uncompromising death metal and grindcore. Despite limited budgets (releases are financed solely by earnings from previous ones), classy packaging and a loyal word-of-mouth following have made Willowtip widely respected in metal circles. Virtually every Willowtip release is a keeper, and the latest from Arsis and Neuraxis are no exception. In fact, they are such a tremendous progression for these bands that they represent the state of the art in metal today.
Arsis exploded onto the metal scene in 2004 with A Celebration of Guilt. The album made many year-end Top 10 lists, and was lauded as the second coming of Carcass, a lofty yet not unjustified title. With its blastbeats, abstract melodies, and singer/guitarist James Malone's raspy vocals, A Celebration of Guilt might have been the result had Carcass continued in the melodic direction of its 1994 masterpiece Heartwork.
A Diamond for Disease finds this Virginia band shedding all comparisons and establishing its own sound. The same sonic ingredients are present, but the song structures are more adventurous than before, the melodies are more epic, and everything in general is bigger and better. Basically, the new Arsis sound is guitars, guitars, and more guitars. Much of the time there are three guitars, panned left, right, and center, all playing different lines. Below the dizzying diminished arpeggios and harmonized runs lie massive, memorable riffs. With clean, strong production that keeps these layers separated, this EP is "stop what you're doing and headbang" good. Its only fault is that it's too short. If A Diamond for Disease is any sign, the next Arsis full-length will be a major metal event.
The title track is the EP's centerpiece, and is one of the best metal tunes of the past five years. It's a thirteen-minute monster that feels much shorter, bursting with tempo shifts, key changes, and richly orchestrated guitars. Majestic riffs and a catchy chorus ("Let's make a deal, a diamond for disease") make this one for the repeat button. The passage from 5:20 to 6:30 is particularly breathtaking, with spiraling solos, machine gun riffs, martial drums, and clean guitars swirling into a vortex of headbanging goodness. Give this tune time, and it might seriously challenge the metal greats of the '80s.
Interestingly, "A Diamond for Disease" was composed for the Ballet Deviare, a New York City ballet company that often dances to heavy metal. From January 6th to 8th of next year, the Ballet Deviare will be performing to works by Opeth, My Dying Bride, and a rare live performance by Arsis (the band is a two-man project that infrequently tours, using hired guns to flesh out live shows). Lest metal and ballet seem odd bedmates, note that Entombed's last album, Unreal Estate, was a live death metal score to a ballet performance in Stockholm, and that the word "arsis" comes from the ancient Greek for the raising of a dancer's foot.
Continuing in the vocabulary vein, the "neuraxis" is "the axial unpaired part of the central nervous system, composed of the spinal cord, rhombencephalon, mesencephalon, and diencephalon." A band with this geeky a name must be doing it for the music. Neuraxis formed in 1994, and, along with fellow Montreal bands Despised Icon and Ion Dissonance, has been mixing technical death metal, grindcore, and hardcore into what is becoming a distinctly French-Canadian sound (related scenes include similarly minded Bay Area bands Animosity, All Shall Perish, and Antagony, and North Carolina bands Between the Buried and Me and Glass Casket).
Trilateral Progression breaks the Montreal mold, however, with a massive injection of melody. In all respects (songwriting, playing, production), this album is a major step up for the band. Its death/grind roots are still evident, but the riffs are now hugely melodic, with no trace of Swedish influence. At last, a North American metal band that doesn't go melodic by copying the Swedes! Instead, the melodies here are simply just that, catchy and compact. For example, "Chamber of Guardians" begins with moody, clean guitars before dropping into an absolutely monstrous, swinging groove that would make Pantera proud. "Shatter the Wisdom" chugs along with an insanely hooky midpaced riff before shifting into halftime harmonies, only to explode into tremolo picking and blastbeats—and you could hum the whole thing. There's much variety here, too. "Caricature" balances new-school dissonance with old-school thrash beats, while "Axioms" takes a completely unexpected break in the middle for some classical guitar. With a clear, powerful mix from Jason Suecof (Trivium, God Forbid), this album is as near a perfect a blend of brutality and melody you'll find in metal this year.
Melody moves units, and while Willowtip hasn't changed its focus, the Arsis and Neuraxis albums should help bring attention (and cash) to other, more savage releases on the label. But chances are you won't be able to find them in stores. Whether by design or by circumstance, Willowtip releases have little distribution, and the only reliable way to get them is through the label's website. The consumer ultimately wins, though. Prices are lower without a middleman, and the label ships orders quickly. If you want to support high-quality, independent, DIY music, you are sitting in front of the means to do so.