Grigori Rasputin, celebrated Russian mystic and Imperial Advisor to the Romanovs during World War I, was poisoned, shot four times, beaten, drowned, and then burned post-mortem in an effort to stem his influence. Still, urban legends and occultist/pop culture theories formed since insist that he did not die and may yet live. In the decades since the rise of Thrash Metal, the genre has been built upon, dissected, synthesized, re-envisioned, pared down, programmed, symphonized, and otherwise assimilated across so many facets of the musical scope that one might believe there little left to differentiate it from the incestuous offspring and far-removed relatives that are the result of its being.
For many Metal purists, this constitutes a kind of death—a transplanted, disemboweled, over-Botoxed Point of No Return—that simply cannot be superseded as music is, by its very nature, progressive. Arceye, a four-piece based out of Shrewsbury, UK, has—with their August 7 release “At First Light”—reinvigorated the notion to this listener that not only is Thrash Metal alive and well despite numerous splinterings of the family tree since its heyday but that it exists largely unadulterated and exudes as much influence as ever.
Fronted by bassist/vocalist Al Llewellyn and backed by drummer/sampler Craig McKay and guitar/vocal duo Dave Roberts and Luke Durston, Arceye have been classified as a Progressive Thrash band. They’ve retained the aggressive picking and extensive use of double-bass drumming that are classic components of Thrash while seamlessly incorporating elements more native to Death Metal, such as blastbeats, darker lyrical content, and equally classic, vocal-steel-wool-styled atonal growling.
“At First Light” is a deeply passionate and at times frenetic (though miraculously ever-grounded) display of musicianship from guys that clearly feel reverence for the bands of their youth. There are sections, phrases, paces, arrangements along the length of the album that register as being in the vein of Thrash Bands of Before. The real accomplishment is in how Arceye have managed to tastefully tip their hats, aiming for a measure of unconventionality and—even when the signposts seem obvious—allowing influence to be a big piece of the cake without emulating heralded outfits to the point that their work could be downgraded as pseudo-cover material.
The eighth track of ten, “Damage Done”, is a particularly strong example, a very complete song fit for a movie soundtrack reaching its climax. A lone guitar lead-in, the riff circular and urgent, minor-keyed—Think the last minute of “Dead Reckoning” from Clint Mansell’s excellent “Smokin’ Aces” score—ushers in the main chord progression played in unison by bass and second guitar, synth strings a la Dream Theater, and orchestral tom hits borrowed briefly from Phil Collins’ bag of tricks. All the while, words barely a whisper ease us unsuspectingly forward as the intro builds into an explosion of layered screams and balls-out volume. Verses are Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison doing his best Neil Peart over a 21st-century stab at Metallica’s “Unforgiven” as sung by vocalists who complement each other so well that it’s hard to believe there are two or three guys here and not just one harmonizing himself. At about 4:15, all but guitars drop out for a moment of classically inspired finger work a la “Nothing Else Matters” and carrying us into the album’s most satisfying rhythm section effort, a Hammett-esque solo, multiple time changes, and an ending of shuffled bass and militaristic snare from said rhythm section.
My mind went all over the place taking in “Sirius”, one of the album’s three instrumentals. What began as a poignant, bluesy piece quickly drew and quartered my attention. The synth string undercurrent, rolling snare, and string-bending center of the song’s first section was a page out of “No Leaf Clover”—from the underrated Symph-Thrash Metallica “S&M” project— re-arranged for a slightly upped tempo and made more heart-wrenching. Once “Sirius” crossed the four-minute mark, a bit of an about-face. The progression seemed to go more major, this time taking the intensifying guitar and drum fills into territory akin to “Epic” or “The Last to Know” from the catalog of Faith No More while the keyboard line reached for lofty, hanging chords that brought me clear back to 1982 and Vangelis’s “Blade Runner” soundtrack. If Roy Batty hadn’t died on that roof, dove in hand, his monologue might’ve played perfectly over the last minute of this thing.
I could see the well-endowed cousin of Pantera’s “Cowboys From Hell” partnered with Craig McKay’s murderous blastbeats and the again-shining shared vocal sludge-and-rasp of Llewellyn, Roberts, and Durston in the meat of “At First Light’s” sixth cut, “Brother Disarmed”. It’s all about groove, and the relentlessly chugging, unified guitars and meticulously placed snare and ride accents gave my face a Dime-derived smile long-missed and eagerly welcomed.
“Dusk” is a beautiful final track, a sparse offering by Arceye’s two resident stringslingers engaged in flamenco gunplay that had me imagining the dense, busy fingerpicking of Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham if he had four arms, wore black armbands, and had spent his youth as a journeyman mariachi. Resplendent as this song was to my ears, however, it didn’t feel like the best end for album. It left behind a sense of energy, of things present and ready but unresolved. Perhaps that was the band’s intent—More to come, folks: Keep listenin’—but a more solid bookend to this chapter would’ve felt more appropriate a reminder of what we’d heard before and what got us “reading” at the outset.
Rasputin is dead. Maybe he died in 1916 from the water in his lungs. Maybe it was a tainted burger from Jack-in-the-Box in the mid-nineties. Perhaps his liver succumbed last week after a hundred-years-long copious alcohol regimen. Whatever. Something got him. Unlike this man of once-apparent power, Thrash and its influence still live, and the signs are clearly seen. Thrash has changed some, had to progress. Arceye are, in “At First Light”, carrying a torch for Thrash as progressive as it is pure, a fan-worthy amalgamation of splinters from that crooked family tree married with a face familiar enough to do justice to a storied sonic history and change alike. Bring the “Light” and whatever the dawn brings: I, for one, will be listening.