Metalcore is on its last legs.
— Tim Lambesis
There is a website that calls itself the American Nihilist Underground Society that argues that “Metal and Christianity are enemies.” San Diego’s As I Lay Dying have set out to disprove that very theory, bringing their God-fearing music to the metalcore fold, and have their position as one of the forefront bands of the scene to show for it.
As I Lay Dying, after the William Faulkner novel, is an oddly romantic name becoming increasingly unsuited to an outfit whose closest point of call is In Flames and Hatebreed. This has never been more evident than on their fourth disc, an album that does away with all the melodramatic excess that found them favor with the mainstream crowd and crafts a controlled blast of vicious metal that bares their bones and revolutionizes their sound — there’s a reason this project was originally intended to be christened Evolution.
You really get the feeling while listening to An Ocean Between Us that they were aiming for all-out heaviness; left behind for the most part are their Iron Maiden tribute guitar harmonies, the oft-clumsy melodic vocal passages that dragged 2005’s Shadows Are Security down ridiculously due to ill-timing (and when they do return here it’s in particularly cheesy doses — opener “Nothing Left” goes for a Ricky Martin chant-along chorus, no less). Even the solos of guitarists Nick Hipa and Phil Sgrosso are wisely confined to two brief interludes, “Separation” and “Departed”; the latter is a surprising expression of twiddly Muse wankery.
This leaves them to knuckle down to dissonant flurries of choppy, down-tuned distortions, whiz-kick drumming, and all-over meatier music… the result is their peak as of yet. Jordan Mancino has improved tenfold on the kit; his hyperspeed double-kick is a blur that punctuates the rapid-firing guitars. And the roars of vocalist Tim Lambesis are far more powerful and mature than the throaty half-scream that was his home on Shadows Are Security.
Nothing could change his outlook, however; his song-writing is still melancholic and unusually poetic, with usually just a single verse comprising a song — “How many years have we waited / For a ship that never set sail? / I sat ashore and watched / As one hopeless wave crashed upon another,” he snarls. The middle of An Ocean Between Us constitutes the bulk of its burly new style — unusually, it gets its worst tracks out of the way first, with the title track and the energetic but uneven “Nothing Left” acting as mere warm-ups to the ‘unofficial’ single “Within Destruction”, an all-too-devastating example of the band’s uncompromising new look. A tumble-dryer of incisive guitar parts and drums that literally hiss, the cut maintains a brisk, furious pace and is utterly devoid of those unnecessary melodies.
“Wrath Upon Ourselves” and “The Sound of Truth” are veritable steamrollers apiece, one wild discord cutting with the sharpness of a hundred razors, transferring effortlessly to the next, pinned down by Mancino’s mighty and relentless stick-pummeling. “Comfort Betrays” and “Bury Us All” run for less than three minutes, true examples of a band pushing themselves to their very base limits. And it works a treat: when As I Lay Dying get going they’re truly a force to be reckoned with, harder and leaner than any metalcore band out there. So much so that when they declare “This is who we are” on the album’s last track, you actually believe them. How much stronger An Ocean Between Us would be if not for its closing minute of piano, if it faded out to the feedback of its last, broken guitar chord.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all relating to the band’s fourth disc is that it was produced by Killswitch Engage mainman Adam Dutkiewicz. The album is as far a cry from his typical resonant, clear-as-a-bell production as a metal record can be… bursting forth with a burning, unstoppable up-against-the-wall intensity, reaching that rare status of being throbbingly heavy and not remotely self-parodying.
Regardless of that, An Ocean Between Us is better than both Killswitch’s As Daylight Dies and Shadows Are Security, and the best metalcore spin of the year. As I Lay Dying hate being labeled a Christian band, but God would surely be proud that An Ocean Between Us shatters its way to high heaven.