Horror resonates because of its ability to use the supernatural to reflect our very natural fears. Think about the many critically-lauded films of the past few years—Hereditary, Get Out, or It Follows —or many classic, well-known scary stories. They all traffic in loss of some kind: loss of a loved one, of one’s personal agency, or even of one’s innocence. Sure, haunted houses, possessed dolls—OK, fuck all dolls—and non-sparkly vampires are terrifying, but not making ends meet, death, and puberty are even more disturbing and real sources of terror. Below the surface of horror is a menacing reflection of the repulsive ways life drops doo-doo on us all.
Thus it is that Visitant—the upcoming, uh, visitation from long-running extreme metal experts Arsis—fully embraces the bold, beautifully evocative, and harrowing aspects of horror. The album, due out Nov. 2 via Nuclear Blast Records, is the Virginia Beach-based band’s best work to date, appropriately marrying their melodic extreme metal base with wonderfully visual vignettes of the highest grotesque order. It’s also appropriately haunted as hell, both by vocalist and guitarist James Malone’s lifelong appreciation of horror films and a host of personal demons that he needed to exorcise.
Malone spent the time between 2013’s Unwelcome and Visitant moving to Texas, playing in retro heavy metal act Necromancing The Stone, and teaching at a local School of Rock, but there was a bigger life change that helped him reach his full potential. “I think it may be a combination of all the things you listed, coupled with the fact that I got sober a bit over two years ago,” he explains. “It didn’t happen immediately, but after being sober for a while, I found a renewed passion for music and for being creative in general. It has been the longest stretch that alcohol hasn’t been in my daily routine since I was working on the debut, [2004’s] A Celebration of Guilt, and I think it’s safe to say that alcohol definitely clouded most areas of my adult life. I was able to come at this record with a clear head and sharpened focus.”
In particular, Malone mentions that his time teaching helped reshape his creative mindset. “Teaching, and teaching genres outside my wheelhouse, has certainly renewed an interest in taking chances within my own writing,” he shares. “When you take a look at even the most familiar Beatles songs and realize the way that they played with tonality, employed some clever chord substitutions, added measures of compound time to simple rock progressions—a 12-bar blues for instance—you begin to understand the importance of following your own ear. Learning theory is great—I majored in it in college for a while—but at the end of day, you really just need to ask yourself one question: ‘Does this sound the way I want it to?’”
“If the answer is yes, then it’s correct,” he continues, “regardless of what the rules of music theory may say. The Beatles did some rather unconventional things, and we have heard these songs so much that we just accept these qualities as the norm and take the subtle brilliance of it for granted.”
Like most great horror fans, Malone’s adoration of the macabre was taught at a young age—maybe earlier than most would recommend. “My father was an avid collector, and he had a particular fondness of science fiction and horror. Growing up, it was not uncommon for him to take me to horror films in the theater as father-and-son outings. He was definitely the parent in the theater who everyone was wondering why he had his kid with him,” he laughs. “I was born in 1980, so a lot of the films I grew up watching were certainly stylized. I think this surreal and stylized imagery is what initially attracted me to horror, and it is still the type of horror that I prefer. Some of my earliest memories were of watching ‘Night of the Comet,’ ‘Vamp,’ and ‘Silver Bullet’; these are still some of my favorite films.”
“Later on,” he notes, “I discovered Italian horror and instantly fell in love with the work of [Dario] Argento and [Lucio] Fulci. To me, they approached their art with the same mindset that one should approach writing extreme metal. I like to compare ‘reality’ in music as something being diatonic or tonal. That is the familiar territory—reality, if you will. I appreciate music that bends and plays with tonality or reality the same way that a good horror director bends and plays with visual reality. I think to truly create and understand extreme metal, you need to loosen your grip on what you consider to be reality or tonality.”
Each track on Visitant is possessed by a different film, but the manner in which Malone conjured up those connections is quite fascinating. “In my opinion, the aesthetics of heavy metal, even at their most fundamental and basic level, lend themselves perfectly to horror, and vice versa,” he says. “When I would listen to the music we were writing for Visitant, I would try to let my mind wander and paint a mental picture for me. I would relate these mental images to a horror film and use that as the lyrical inspiration. I didn’t try to tell stories with the lyrics as much as I tried to paint images that were inspired by the films.”
As with all great horror-related art, there’s more to Visitant than meets the undead eye. The album was really a way for Malone to deal with—and honor—a particularly tough personal loss. “[That] is the ‘surface’ reason that I chose to give the lyrics on the album a horror theme,” he explains. “I think the underlying reason is that I lost my father this year, and given his illness and the care he was receiving, it was something I was trying to brace myself for during most of the writing for Visitant. An interest and appreciation for horror was something that both he and I shared, so in that sense, it was kind of a tribute to him. In another sense, I feel that one of the reasons horror exists as an art is to help us deal with events or emotions that we don’t wish to process in reality, death being the most obvious.”