(We present DGR‘s review of the new album by the California death metal band Arkaik. The album will be released on March 11th by The Artisan Era.)
For a very long time I considered Arkaik something of a bellweather when it came to the modern tech-death scene. Up until the time following 2017’s Nemethia the group were a pretty reliable snapshot of that scene, every two to three years adding to their conceptual album universe with a battering of groove-oriented and rhythmically-complex songs that straddled the line between being overly technical and brutally-core without leaning too far in either direction. Despite an ever-shifting lineup, Arkaik have maintained a fairly strong and consistent output. Because of that, as noted, they’ve been perfect if you’re the type to dance into and out of many different subgenres of heavy metal.
Now though, the situation shifts as labels have gotten far more specialized than before. It’s not so much that Arkaik find themselves at the forefront of a particular genre any more, but that they have found another label that specializes in where Arkaik are at this moment in their musical journey.
The group’s newest release Labyrinth Of Hungry Ghosts (metal’s obsession with labyrinths continues unabated) grooves hard and fast, surprisingly drops a bit of their more brutal-death-metal influence in favor of that sleeker speed, presents a somehow even pointier band logo, and slightly adds more symphonic elements than what was already creeping in around the edges on Nemethia. They make it so that every song has some sort of hammering start/stop riff that could snap someone’s neck.
And then they decide to sneak a flute and violin into the mix at one point.
Labyrinth Of Hungry Ghosts is releasing via The Artisan Era, who you’ll have noted have become something of a home for a lot of the higher speed tech-death groups in recent years, alongside Unique Leader. The difference it seems is that the Artisan crew have specialized more on the neo-classical shred and keyboard synth side of the spectrum, so that many of their releases in recent years have felt like a guitarist’s wet-dream. If you want waterfalls of notes to keep up with and enough finger dexterity to make a courtroom stenographer jealous, then The Artisan Era and their slate of groups are for you.
What’s interesting here is that Arkaik are kind of… not that. Of all the groups of their specific class they’ve been one of the more rhythm-section-inclined bands out there, and even though they’ve certainly added things to their sound to help accentuate their music so that it wasn’t just groove after hammering groove, they also haven’t jumped whole hog into the backing symphonics and high-bpm shred that their current home has made its bread-and-butter. What Labyrinth Of Hungry Ghosts is instead, is a riff-landslide style album.
While we’ve already found one of those this year in AfterLife‘s Gates Of Madness release, this one is less Cytotoxin if they harbored a secret love for Meshuggah and were slightly more melodeath-inclined, and a whole lot more mechanical. If you’ve been digging stuff like Soreption‘s or The Zenith Passage‘s recent machine-like precision, or thought that Omophagia‘s recent output of piston-fired lethality was great, then Labyrinth of Hungry Ghosts will be a welcome smorgasbord of music for you.
It would be unfair to commend the groups we do for having chunky and hard-driving riffs without commending Arkaik for much of Labyrinth Of Hungry Ghosts. Guitarist Alex Haddad has a ton of room to show off here and play laps around everybody, but there’s just as much crushing riff-work on display as there are chances to add various leads and solos throughout each song. A handful of these songs even lift the bar all the way up to ‘pummeling’ on the descriptor front within the first five tracks.
Labyrinth starts off strong as well with “The Orphion Descent” laying out the groundwork for the next three songs, including the band’s love of having vocalist Jared Christianson fading back up to the forefront of certain parts with a heavy bellow to trigger the next set of chugging riffs for you to headbang along to. “The Orphion Descent” may be the most blast-happy of the three – although I appreciated the crashing piano sample – but it’s also the one that is the blueprint-layer for the riff apocalypse that follows in the title “Labyrinth Of Hungry Ghosts” song or the necksnapper that is “Abode Of The Deceiver”.
The album plays out in two acts. About halfway through “Wayward Opulence” and well into “To Summon Amoria” the group give in to their more prog-leanings than before. This is likely where a lot of the discussion will happen because it seems like the first five songs of Labyrinth Of Hungry Ghosts were the face-crushers and mosh-makers of the mix and the last three are where the band decided to combine all of that with whatever they could to make their songs sound ‘epic’.
The tracks get longer in the back half of the disc, and yes, this where the aforementioned flute and violin show up, though not as obviously in the forefront as you might imagine. They do enough to break things up as the assault starts to get a little on the relentless side within “To Summon Amoria”, especially as that song is already packed with a guest guitar solo and room for guitarist Miguel Esparsa – credited with a handful of solos on this release – to also show off a bit. That’s not counting the fact that “The Vertical Road” reaches a similar musical density and song length. If you were wondering where the ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ part of the tech-death album journey was going to make its appearance on Labyrinth Of Hungry Ghosts, it’s in the back few songs.
I haven’t covered every Arkaik release to date for this here website but have been following the group for some time. Part of that journey has been documented in my Lucid Dawn and Nemethia reviews here, but one of the constant themes is that the band have always found some way to surprise. Labyrinth Of Hungry Ghosts is no different. It’s hard to tell where a band might have their heads in a five-year gap between releases – granted they broke it up with the single “Supernal Flame” in that time – but the new album still has Arkaik as solid as they’ve ever been.
This is a tech-death album that is surprisingly headbang-worthy. The band get plenty of room to show off just how deft they are as players, but it’s all buttressed by an amazing amount of chunky riff-work that just tumbles over you again and again. The trick of having the vocals fade back in is used a little too constantly but it’s a solid mosh-call and Arkaik make plenty of room for people to just beat each other silly with this one. It’ll be tough not to find yourself moving along to quite a few of the songs here, and if nothing else, Labyrinth Of Hungry Ghosts may be the most ‘made for live playing’ album that Arkaik have ever done. It is a good weapon for the band to use in fighting their way back to the front of the genre-line.