Elay Arson’s third full-length offering is a blistering journey through the smoke and fire of darksynth innovation. It’s an occult vision produced by combining diverse music influences and lashing them together with satisfyingly thick and crunchy sound production. Calling upon band member Daniel Larson’s Apache and Hopi heritage for inspiration, Elay Arson infuses their blend of darksynth and metal with an unmistakable Native American influence that generates a uniquely transcendental listening space. It’s a pretense-free venture into supernatural themes, and when it works, Spirit | Death’s concoction provides numerous surprising and rewarding moments. However, it has a tendency to fall into forgettable songwriting and generic alternative metal that contrasts with the album’s most ambitious and memorable moments, leaving it with an invigorating but ultimately uneven character.
One of the most notable and worthwhile aspects of Spirit | Death is the diversity of its music, with every track offering something distinctly different from the ones before and after it. This pattern begins immediately on “Sunrise,” in which a beautiful piano performance and deep, throbbing drum beats lay the foundation for Elay Arson’s ensuing ritualistic music venture. The brief intro leads naturally into the first full song, “Tawa.” A coarse electric guitar rhythm rides alongside an unexpectedly bright chiptune melody in the track while the drums pound away like rolling thunder across the soundscape. It’s one of the most accessible entries, and it’s perfectly chosen as the lead-off track.
“Cheveyo” follows with a brooding, downtempo beat and some of the album’s strongest Native American influences. The trance-inducing drum pattern and fluid guitar sections are accompanied by a synthetic choir that floats over the top, haunting the listener like a band of restless spirits. It’s a beautiful track in its own right and effectively complements the variety and progression of the two songs that precede it.
Unfortunately, Spirit | Death hits its first low point on the next track, “Masauwu, Fire Keeper.” The first of a pair of tracks named for the Hopi tribe’s Earth God and Spirit of Death, “Masauwu, Fire Keeper” opens with well-executed narration alongside beautiful, chime-like melodies and ambient tones before dropping into one of the album’s heaviest and most guitar-oriented compositions. The grinding electric guitar and pounding drums closely recall rhythmic alternative metal, and though the instrumentation has an impressive tone, it lacks the unique character and identity of the rest of the recording, hammering out the piece with relatively generic songwriting. The best moments come in the breaks when the guitar and drum sections melt away and the song rises into drifting ambience.
Fortunately, the duo’s experiments with metal instrumentation are quickly redeemed on “Sussustanako.” In contrast with the Soulfly-esque approach of “Masauwu, Fire Keeper,” the following track leans closer to the melodic death metal of ‘00s-era Dark Tranquillity, with rolling double bass, blast beats, and strongly melodic guitar work. It’s a powerful and beautiful entry that may be the finest piece on the album. The strength of the song is supplemented perfectly by its follow-up, “Masauwa, Skeleton Man,” a hypnotic, rhythm-oriented piece once again accented by faultlessly somber narration. The music works subtly at pulling in the listener with its deliberate repetition, and while it may not be the most attractive effort on its own, “Masauwa, Skeleton Man” is a well-timed cooldown on the heels of “Sussustanako” that adds a valuable piece of diversity to the tracklist.
Elay Arson’s commendable songwriting efforts begin to unravel in Spirit | Death’s back half, partly due to the enjoyable but overly long and repetitive compositions in “Mescalero Prophecy” and “End Times.” A clunky collaboration with Ultraboss further brings down the album’s third act. The mixing and mastering on “Final Midnight Ride” feel bright and jarring, and Ultraboss’ soaring guitar licks — respectable in their own right — are out of synch with Elay Arson’s darkly supernatural soundscape, causing the song to clash with itself throughout its running time. “Fifth World Gate” features a more cohesive collaborative effort with Carbon Killer, resulting in a gritty, cyberpunk-infused piece that stands as a highlight near the end of the album.
Spirit | Death may not be perfect, but few artistic endeavors as innovative as Elay Arson’s newest release are. The album compensates for its occasionally lackluster songwriting and minor technical deficiencies with its creators’ bold strides into hybrid music ideas, combining diverse and personal elements for a creation that frequently stands apart from its contemporaries. The Native American influences in particular give the recording a distinctive sound, and it’s a welcome change from the predominately Euro-centric tone of nearly all darksynth music and its origins in synthwave.
Despite its shortcomings, there’s no denying the value and significance of Spirit | Death in 2018. The violent, supernatural realm of modern darksynth is evolving rapidly, and Elay Arson has contributed a landmark album that continues to redefine the genre and clarify distinctions from its older, more cheerful sibling in synthwave music. The recording is never as dramatically experimental as Gost’s Possessor, though its commitment to clear melodies and rhythms will likely make it easier for most dark synthwave fans to enjoy. The prominent integration of electric guitar and other metal instrumentation also reinforces a pattern of evolution heard recently in Carpenter Brut’s Leather Teeth, though Spirit | Death surpasses that release in terms of both technical execution and worthwhile songwriting.
At its best, Elay Arson’s newest effort delivers gritty and engaging songs deserving of high volume, and the excellent diversity of the tracklist makes it a memorable listening experience. It may be flawed, but it’s a flawed gem that retains plenty of inherent value. Alternately beautiful, powerful, and haunting, Spirit | Death provides a clear vision of an exciting future for brooding, heavy, and occult synth music.
Rating: 79 / 100 (Good)
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Want more info on the darksynth and synthwave genres? Check out What is Synthwave? 2018 Edition
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