Metalcore is a lot like college ball for heavy metal. Metalcore is where the new kids try to hone their craft and move on to do something more interesting. Most of these bands are Johnny Bravo and they’ll wallow around making average music until the costume their scene-specific genre dictates they wear starts to look bad. However, amidst the mediocrity there is a handful of bands that just might go pro and actually develop their sound.
Reviewing the new As I Lay Dying album Awakened, I felt like a pro recruiter looking at new talent. As I Lay Dying are one of the better bands in the metalcore genre and Awakened is a massive step forward in breaking the shackles of the genre. The song writing here is head and shoulders above what the band has done before, especially in the use of dynamics and structure. The only Achilles Heel is that As I Lay Dying still fall back on easy metalcore touchstones instead of powering completely into new territory.
So what works? Well, the opening track (and first single) is the wake up call that something more is happening on Awakened. “Cauterized” blasts the doors open with a hyper aggressive and bombastic display of guitars and blast beats. I was hoping As I Lay Dying would stick with this a little longer but the groove “Cauterized” opens into is so good I lost myself in its head banging goodness. For some, the metalcore singing chorus is a bad thing and I understand that. Here it works. For some reason when singer Tim Lambesis opens up those pipes it elevates the song.
“A Greater Foundation” is an example of the band pushing their own envelope. For the most part when you play metalcore drums you either play fast, play mosh or go home. As I Lay Dying allow the drums to open up a bit here and use fills, tom work and various little dynamic treats to give “A Greater Foundation” some depth before the Mach 5 drumming kicks back in. “Wasted Words” is one of my favorite tracks on the album. The Slayer informed riff is absolutely relentless and could have carried the entire song. Instead As I Lay Dying stop on a dime and open “Wasted Words” up into an epic arena rock jam. It has that almost keyboard sensitive-metal vibe that I usually but here the band absolutely nail it.
“Whispering Silence” has elements of prog-rock before defaulting back to an easier sing-along metalcore chorus. “Defender” takes an interesting approach of combining power metal ala Iced Earth with old school thrash elements. Within that mix As I Lay Dying keep a chewy metalcore center, but the surrounding guitar Olympics are really interesting. Awakened ends with another of the strongest jams on the album, “Tear Out My Eyes”, which has bits of everything else we’ve experienced musically. Thrash, power metal, epic metal and, of course, metalcore.
Awakened’s downfall comes in a few forms. As entertaining as this record is, it’s still a mostly guitar focused endeavor. Phil Sgrosso and Nick Hipa are great players, and the interwoven dance of riff-lead-riff they execute is impressive. That should be happening as one part of the music, not the only part. Drummer, Jordan Mancino is more than capable but outside of a few bits of a few songs, he’s regulated to playing the fast-fast-fast double-bass masturbation that is all metalcore albums.
Josh Gilbert’s bass is nonexistent; he might as well be standing there singing his clean vocals without an instrument. That’s not a slight on Gilbert; it’s just that his bass is essentially mimicking the guitar line, a problem in all metal not just metalcore. Bands that really step out of the extreme music shadow involve the bass and drums as more than timekeepers or blast beat producers; they are actually part of the structure. Some of it comes down to production, which has always been an issue with metalcore. Its all so compressed and so high end oriented that any dynamics not forced into the song writing is lost. When you compress the hell out of the music, the bass always vanishes (cough*cough* And Justice For All *cough*cough).
As I Lay Dying also fall back into the uniform crunch part, which I hate. It’s when every instrument from guitars to bass to drums all play in the exact same cadence creating this nearly danceable mosh part. Live during this section the band can bob up and down in unison. It’s the calling card of metalcore and As I Lay Dying need to move away from it post hast. Some will call into question the whole growl vocals/clean vocals thing. I don’t have an issue with that, it’s what the genre is much the same way Black Metal has a specific vocal style. I think Tim Lambesis and Josh Gilbert have strong enough vocals that they could open up the cadence a little more but otherwise it doesn’t bother me.
Risking the eternal ridicule of my underground metal brethren, I have to say I really enjoyed Awakened. It also helps that I saw As I Lay Dying live recently and they really delivered the goods. Awakened is the first step into a larger world for As I Lay Dying and I commend them on it. My detractors will comment that the band was nominated for a Grammy and have sold lots of records so that makes them good enough. I’m referring more to a creative world, one where As I Lay Dying leaves the easy 1-2-3 of metalcore behind and finds their own voice and challenges themselves on every release. Until that time, old and new fans will be excited and entertained by Awakened.
Ratings clarification, for the breathlessly enraged message board mercenaries:
6-7 Very Good