Taking up Arms

Deliberating on The Martyr, the Culprit, the Price
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  February 17, 2010

MASSIVE POTENTIAL: Arms Against a Sea have a few gremlins to work out, too.

As might be expected from a band who take their name from Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy, Arms Against a Sea appear conflicted on their debut full-length, The Martyr, the Culprit, the Price. Part of this is clearly by intention, as they string a Jekyll-and-Hyde/werewolf/multiple-personality-disorder theme through the album's 10 songs, with personalities delineated by either Dustin Saucier's moody and vulnerable clean vocals or his growling scream.

But they also seem conflicted as to whether they do, indeed, want to be taken seriously. For all of the really quite impressive technical guitar work, interesting song construction, and heavily emotive vocals, they're also, well, silly.

Why they would open an album of this kind of magnitude with a 44-second clip of intra-band conversation about eating cookies and calling each other "fatass" I really can't imagine. Maybe it makes sense as a closing track to let people know they're not the sourpusses their music might indicate (and they do something like this with an a capella vocal jam as a hidden track, actually), but straight out of the gate it's just off-putting.

And then there are the song titles. "Shasta McNasty"? "Where the Wild Things Were"? "Select Start," which opens with a bit of Mario Brothers sound effects, but never again revisits that theme (which is getting to be cliché at this point, anyway)? As they're not making a reference to the lyrics, it seems a purposeful choice to keep things light.

In some ways, it's refreshing; so many young bands can come off as too self-important. But with Saucier's delivery, so impassioned and weighty, it comes off as a forced juxtaposition. Perhaps they admire, and bite from, bands like Mr. Bungle or even Confusatron, locally, but to pull off that kind of genre-crossing and wit you've got to be truly innovative and amazingly tight. Arms Against a Sea aren't there yet.

They're pretty close, though.

"Chromatose" is probably the height of their execution, screamed right from the open, chaotic and staccato, before settling into clean vocals: "Your smooth skin will suffice for my taking."

I love the rhythm guitar here, where John Zebley delivers interesting chord chunks done quickly skittish, and both Zebley and Rossi are terrific throughout, building in huge metal riffs, ultra-quick voicing, and delicate melody.

Lots of cymbals from Alex Klemanski transition the song out of the verse and into a final section where the alternating vocal styles works best. With the lyrics, "I'm not who I . . . seem to be stumbling over every word I speak," Saucier moves from the scream to the vocal right in the same line, finishing with a conscience: "And the tragedy of this whole situation is that I never meant for any of this to happen."

Then the bang comes with the coda, where a spoken line introduces, "But the choir's singing" and what follows is a swelling upward "whoah-oh-oh" harmony of voices, which then provides backing for the chanted, "Bring this pig to the altar tonight/So the women and children can rest alright."

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