James Malone has spent the better part of the last five years preparing for Arsis’ new album, Visitant. Not that the guitarist/vocalist/primary creative force has had a lot of time to follow-up 2013’s savagely good Unwelcome album. He’s been intimately involved in the unexpected explosion of supergroup Necromancing the Stone—Malone joined in 2014—a move to Texas, and teaching guitar at the School of Rock. Additionally, sideman Brandon Ellis ended up joining death metallers The Black Dahlia Murder. Between Malone and Ellis’ non-Arsis responsibilities, new material was put on the proverbial backburner. But that all changes with Visitant.
“We had a pretty strong touring cycle for the last album, Unwelcome,” says guitarist/vocalist James Malone. “Then, I got involved in Necromancing the Stone. It wasn’t taking up too much time since I wasn’t the main songwriter. It was more of a fun outlet for me, a chance for me to get on stage and play without having to do both guitar and vocals. I didn’t expect Necromancing the Stone to get signed and to go on tour, but all of that ended up happening. That took time obviously, but then Brandon [Ellis] ended up joining The Black Dahlia Murder. It took me awhile to get my wits about me to the point where I wanted to concentrate on a new Arsis record. The time it took to regroup was very much needed.”
Indeed, Arsis’ return is a welcome one. It took a while for Malone to get his groove back, but after completing “As Deep as Your Flesh,” “Easy Prey,” and “Tricking the Gods” songs started falling out of the Arsis frontman. The partnership with Ellis also proved to be wickedly good. While Malone was writing on his end, Ellis was crafting the next generation of “Carve My Cross,” “We Are the Nightmare,” “Choking on Sand,” and “The Ten of Swords.” Between the two songwriters, drummer Shawn Priest also chimed in, resurrectin Death Vow” from the Arsis vaults for Malone to reconfigure. While at first the follow-up to Unwelcome seemed over the horizon, once the principles of Arsis moved on Visitant, the songs materialized quickly. Then again, Malone finally upgraded his dusty 4-track for a proper digital audio workstation (DAW).
“Every Arsis record up to Starve for the Devil was written on a 4-track,” Malone says. “I had never really progressed beyond that as far as home recording technology. I didn’t have a DAW. A year ago, I had some time off from work after a Necromancing the Stone tour, and I thought, ‘I’m going to learn how to look at a WAV file and recognize what it is. I’m going to learn this newfangled technology.’ There was a learning curve for sure, but after I learned how to work the DAW, writing for Arsis became a lot of fun. I will say Brandon’s songs have a different flavor than mine. Same with the songs or pieces of music Shawn came up with. That said I try to make sure everything sounds as much like Arsis as possible.”
The difference between Unwelcome and Visitant is subtle yet profound. On one hand, Malone is comfortable in his own skin now. He’s through with all the self-loathing that fueled his past oeuvre. On the other, Malone’s guitar mentoring at School of Rock has revealed valuable songwriting or songcrafting lessons for the shredder. Before he was taking cues from Gary Marx (Sisters of Mercy), Ihsahn (Emperor), and Tony MacAlpine, but thanks to School of Rock his exposure to music he doesn’t like—but appreciates the musicality of it—has increased dramatically. In sum, Malone’s musical universe is now wider and deeper than it ever was. Just don’t expect Arsis take turn into The Black Keys territory.
“I moved to Texas about three years ago,” says Malone. “I kind of got tricked into teaching guitar. The first six months were rough, but once I got into the groove of it, it made me a better player. I think it also made me a better composer. I say this because I’m now teaching music that’s outside my wheelhouse. I’m a firm believer in there’s a lesson to be learned in almost any piece of music. I hate that I’m saying this, but I was teaching a Black Keys song to a kid and I want to dislike that band with all my being but there’s some valuable lessons in their music. Like syncopated rhythms and simple guitar techniques that guitarists have to learn at some point. There’s always value in music. The stuff I’ve taught over the last years has taught me a lot about writing music.”
Lyrically, Malone isn’t writing about himself on Visitant. That ship sailed with Unwelcome. Instead, the guitarist/vocalist/lyricist is pinning popular tropes of horror movies on his songs to make things more interesting. Plus, the Arsis mainman is a massive fan—Malone isn’t afraid to attend horror conventions for autographs and photos—of ‘80s horror movies and its sub-genres. There isn’t a truer combination or natural pair in all of music than heavy metal humping horror movies. To wit, “Tricking the Gods” is derived from Silver Bullet, “Funereal Might” is inspired by Phantasm, “Dead is Better” is a Pet Cemetery revisit, and “Unto the Knife” is a nod John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. Visitant is the quintessential soundtrack to horror movies from an era classic.
“Visitant is like an old-time word for ghost or apparition,” Malone says. “All the lyrics are inspired by a different horror movie. I wanted a title that would allude to that but not give things—what I’m actually saying—away flat out. When I say inspired by, it’s very loose. People still have room to draw their own interpretations of what the lyrics are about. But they were inspired by horror movies. Like ‘80s horror movies. Silver Bullet, for example, which is based off Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf, is a favorite. I love that movie. I’ll also name drop The Fog, Prince of Darkness, and Lord of Illusions. There’s a supernatural element to the lyrics for sure.”
The recording of Visitant was slightly unorthodox all things considered. While Malone and Priest recorded guitars, (some) vocals, and drums, respectively with Mark Lewis at MRL Studios in Nashville, the rest of Arsis recorded at home. Ellis, who thrives in the home studio environment, tracked all his guitars by himself. Bassist Noah Martin opted for the same convenience. Whereas Malone recorded the rest of the vocals—in a closet—on his personal workstation. Once all the pieces were put down, they were shipped to Lewis for mixing and mastering. The result is a record that balances rawness, power, and clarity, like Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” blasting from an old 7-inch.
“I’ve done more pre-production for this Arsis record than any Arsis record in the past,” says Malone. “I was pretty close to the material. But I will say Mark is amazing! I’ve known Mark for about 15 years. He did Unwelcome for us. But I didn’t want to give Mark too much direction this time. I wanted his take on it, because the last thing I would’ve wanted for Visitant is for it to sound like my demo. To be honest with you, this record sounds so much more dynamic than Unwelcome. I actually like the way our record sounds. I don’t think I’ve been able to say that about an Arsis record I’ve played on. I’ve come close. I still can’t listen to A Celebration of Guilt. I can’t stand the way it sounds. But this record I’m way into. The tones, the vibe, everything.”
Artist Mark Riddick is no stranger to Arsis. In fact, his involvement in the visual side of Arsis goes back to 2004’s A Celebration of Guilt album. With Visitant, however, Riddick’s famous pen and ink style has been replaced by a painting. Or, several paintings. Turns out, the Virginia-based artist has re-discovered his collegiate painting roots. Instead of delivering a signature Riddick piece for Visitant, he went outside the box and painted seven horrifying pieces. If Visitant is Arsis in a wilder, more cunning, yet still melodic state, then the cover art is the creature in the cellar, the bump in the night we’re all terrified of.
“Mark, to my understanding, was actually a painting major in college,” Malone says. “The pen and ink or hand-drawn stuff he’s known for in the metal community came after his painting interests. When I was done with the pre-production, I contacted Mark to give him a sense of what the record was about. The title and so forth. He told me, ‘I’ve been meaning to get back into painting. Do you mind if I do some paintings for Arsis?’ Mark ended up doing seven paintings for the layout. It’s very involved. When I saw the paintings for the first time I was blown away. I think it’s really special. I’m super into the whole layout. It going to be something to look at.”
For a band that Malone started in college—just to pass time on weekends, he says—Arsis has risen through the ranks relatively unscathed. They’ve become part of the fabric of top-tier bands vying blow fans away and best their previous record. Arsis has set the bar high for bands entering not just their space—mélange of melody, aggression, brutality, and virtuosity—but for just about any upstart looking to be the next riff slayer. With Visitant, Arsis are blazing through new trails and blasting over genre-imposed limitations. Watch out! Arsis are back!