[11 May 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Of all the dozens and dozens of American metalcore bands who bluntly co-opted At the Gates’ groundbreaking blend of melody and aggression and drove it into our heads instead of trying to come up with something remotely original, As I Lay Dying is one of the tired genre’s most inexplicable success stories. At their worst, the San Diego band can be hopelessly generic, the songwriting often lacking the melodic punch of peers All That Remains and Killswitch Engage, the vocal work of frontman Tim Lambesis strong but failing to differentiate from all the other death growlers in metal, their live show devoid of the energy and charisma that a band like Unearth exudes in spades. Yet by sheer will they’ve chipped and chipped their way into the heads of younger metal fans especially, building an extremely loyal fanbase from the ground up by literally playing anywhere and everywhere over the course of ten years to the point now that they can keep churning out the same old tired Slaughter of the Soul rip-offs and be assured of a top ten debut on the album chart. For all their faults, that tenacity alone is worthy of some respect.
Granted, in the wake of their 2005 breakthrough Shadows Are Security As I Lay Dying has attempted to shed the metalcore tag. At times 2007’s An Ocean Between Us showed some mildly interesting signs of growth, the majority of its songs a lot darker in tone, riffs often ditching the mellifluous flourishes for a much blunter attack that could sometimes be described as “Slayer-esque”. For their fifth album, however, the band has decided to go back to the formula that gained them such notoriety in the first place. But before all the skeptics start rolling their eyes and thinking, here we go again, the end result is far more interesting than expected. Sure, the quintet has gone back to the cookie-cutter sound of twin leads, hardcore breakdowns, and alternating clean and harsh vocals, but by essentially admitting that they have no innovative ideas whatsoever and are content to work within that metalcore template, they actually sound like a band liberated on The Powerless Rise.
While Shadows Are Security was likeable in its simplicity and An Ocean Between Us was admirably aggressive, the new record feels like the work of a very confident, tour-hardened veteran metal act. Much credit goes to producer – and Killswitch Engage guitarist – Adam Dutkiewicz, who makes up for the last record’s rather tepid mix and annoyingly thin drum sound with the most robust tone we’ve ever heard on an As I Lay Dying release. The down-tuned thrash of “Beyond Our Suffering” is a great example kicking things off with a mighty swagger, guitarists Nick Hipa and Phil Sgrossa alternating between atonal fills and flashy, shredding solos.
Better yet, though, the songwriting is often a step above anything the band has done previously. That aforementioned “good cop/bad cop” formula has been done to death, but Lambesis and bassist Josh Gilbert have a good dynamic going here. “Anodyne Sea” is the catchiest thing they’ve done since “The Darkest Night” five years ago, Gilbert pulling off a soaring melodic chorus, while “Parallels” sees Gibson brazenly attempting a more nuanced, post-hardcore style (are those actually vocal harmonies?) and actually makes it work as the guitars add some effective arpeggios reminiscent of Dutkiewicz’s own band. Meanwhile, Hipa and Sgrosso lead the charge on the spirited “The Plague”, the pair sounding as comfortable trading melodic leads during the solo break as, dare I say, legendary metal guitar duos Murray/Smith and Tipton/Downing.
The Powerless Rise is certainly not without its faults. “Without Conclusion” swipes the distinct pick scrape that Gojira has made famous and overdoes it to an annoying degree, its “look at what we can do” sentiment off-putting. Elsewhere, the songwriting can get lazy, “Condemned” far too close to Hatebreed for comfort, the maudlin slow-burner “The Blinding of False Light” falling flat, and Lambesis never does himself any favors with yet another performance high on brutality but lacking personality. More often than not, though, this album does work very well, a sign that these guys are indeed starting to get better with time. “I see that conformity is betrayal,” Lambesis bellows at one point. I’d beg to differ: falling back in line might be the smartest thing As I Lay Dying has ever done.