Even if rock’s triumphal-film-score concept-album crescendos are generally dedicated to narrating combat of the mythic mock medieval variety, rather than documented events, heroic ballads set against sweeping historical vistas have made a few appearances in rock-opera prog, such as Triumvirat’s Spartacus, and in the occasional power metal suite, like Iced Earth’s The Glorious Burden. But despite not knowing more than a few erratically memorable examples, I doubt that any prog or power “history album” quite compares to Arriver’s long-awaited epic, Tsushima.
Primarily from the viewpoint of the defeated Russian Admiral Rozhestvensky, the album tells the story of the Battle of Tsushima, a landmark 1905 naval encounter in the Russo-Japanese War. Wikipedia describes it as a turning point in modern warfare, as it was the first battle in which wireless electronic communication played a central role and the last in which one fleet surrendered to another. The album opens with “Winter Palace War Council,” a mournful accordion overture interrupted by a vicious staccato assault, in which, although “The Dowager Empress warned us/ Eastern entanglements shall fail,” the vocals growl defiantly states, “We will all die, but we will never surrender!” After balefully adopting the voice of Japan’s victorious Admiral Togo, in the menacing trudge “Togo, Son of a Samurai,” the story resumes in the Russian perspective with “Dogger Bank,” a high-speed stuttering Deicide-esque dirge conjuring the shadow of defeat to the distant conflict in the North Sea. “Our anchorage will be refused in every neutral port of call/ You may turn your backs on us,” the guttural snarl testifies, “but we alone are standing tall!”
In the album’s centerpiece, “Around the Cape,” a fierce, lumbering riff accompanies the background of total collapse, the defeated Russian fleet at Port Arthur and peasant revolts at the Tsar’s palace: “Crocodile hunting and French whores,” shouts the disembodied chorus in the face of their annihilation, “they only serve to slowly weaken our resolve.” A brief, precisely shifting thrash piece, “Dark Clouds Above the Fleet,” evokes mechanized perfection while prophesying the inevitable end: “Misery is all we know/ No solace found in place of sorrow/ Ignore your orders, lashing follows.’ In reverberating harmonic chords, and some actual Russian-language re-enactment, “Singapore” describes Rozhestvensky’s Ahab-like hubris in the face of the looming conflict. A massive swaggering rocker chopped into odd sections by tempo shifts, percussive artillery, bewildering time switches, and ornate finger-picking figures, “Tsushima Trilogy” churns like huge icy waves; in the suite’s last section “The Boiling Sea,” the Admiral exhorts his men to “never lower the flag,” until the battle ends in a whiteout of seasick feedback and the gasping sputter of a dying engine. The devastation is summarized in bleak harmonies over a rumbling funeral march in “Quadrology:” “21 vessels sunk by dawn/ 4000 Russian sailors drowned/ The Tsar’s last armada is lost and with it the war.”
While many loud rock bands deliver arrangements founded on the alternation of chugging riffs and blasts of fury, with Arriver the shifts are more elegant than startling, with dramatic grandeur favored over shock and awe. More classical than fanatical, their chords never simply evoke Satanic massacre or chivalric soundtrack. The uncomfortable relationship between punk and metal is foregrounded with a band such as Arriver– their sophisticated long-form arrangements don’t fail to sound like the French black metal band Deathspell Omega, but without any hint of histrionic horror or the perversion of nature. Or I might think of the melodic arpeggios, whiplash tempo changes, and layered chords of Between the Buried and Me, or the furious mathiness of Converge or Dillinger Escape Plan, but not of those bands’ crisply gated production values, which seem to only make use of death metal tropes in the service of reinventing angsty Gothy industrial music. Arriver’s old-school chops may even occasionally be reminiscent of Vader, but the former’s symphonic nuance is incompatible with the latter’s straight-ahead brutality. Arriver’s warm, tactile sound, both in performance and production, is most comparable with more melancholy exponents of the ‘90s post-hardcore indie-rock spectrum, like Bitch Magnet, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, or Unwound. But, putting the sound aside, the music is convincingly metal.
Merely an agglomeration of tropes, there is no nugget that makes metal metal. But metal fans might concur that, as stridently humorless as metal may be, its lack of irony keeps it blissfully free of sincerity. Metal is not personal but completely internal, not interpersonal but utterly public, magical rather than political, and thus always, in its way, religious. The nature of history as a diverse collectivity of experiences may seem more suited to punk. Still, Tsushima rides the fence admirably, in its unselfconscious apprehension of a totality whose only unifying element is anguish, becoming perhaps less of a “history album” and more of a “war album.”
Simone Weil’s essay on the Iliad presents war not as a transcendent individual experience, but an unstoppable gluttonous inertia of force before which conquerors and victims are equally powerless. Weil defines “force” as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” “A man stands disarmed and naked with a spear pointing at him;” she says, “this person becomes a corpse before anybody or anything touches him.” As in Weil’s description of the Homeric epic, the chief tone of Tsushima is bitterness. “The dissonance introduced in the overture, “The Winter Palace,”introduces a dread that lingers throughout the action of the musical narrative”, grimly relating episodes in the admiral’s reflections upon the battle, before, during, and after, with the delusional yet fatalistic determination of Custer at Little Big Horn. “The cold brutality of the deeds of war is left undisguised;” rhapsodizes Weil, “neither victors nor vanquished are admired, scorned, or hated.” On a more modest scale, the same sentiment could be applied to Tsushima.
Glory in struggle, a subtext of all loud white music, is subtly tweaked in the fearful feedback, deformed rhythms, and ominous harmonies that counterpoint Tsushima’s thrashy gallops, surgical barrages, and martial marches, somehow mingling the mournful solemnity of patriotic Russian choral anthems with Fugazi’s insurgent insouciance to create a result that is neither reverent nor skeptical. Almost a straight-faced echo of the miniature Stonehenge proffered by Spinal Tap, the mightiest works and most sublime cataclysms of man are seen in their true ephemeral puniness. Rather than a bestowal of posthumous heroic laurels, the abject defeat of arrogant power seems to be the moral of the story, summed up in the chant that closes the album: “Day by day, like links in a chain, darkness spreads at the edge of the empire.” The torch of triumph and the flame of the fallen warrior must dispel in smoke for any hope to stay kindled.
Arriver’s website with info about the album is here.