A band of 20-year-olds plays really, really fast, and aims for the highest metal star -- Metallica.
By now, the sound is familiar. Thrashy riffs fire in lockstep with double bass drums. Screamed (or growled) verses give way to clean, sung choruses. In between soar twin guitar leads in perfect harmony, with a hardcore breakdown for the kids in the moshpit. Rinse and repeat, and sell at Hot Topic -- mascara not included.
This is the so-called "metalcore" formula, and it's fast getting old. In 2004, Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage arguably perfected the sound, with legions of imitators. Even bands from other countries have started playing metalcore, a testament to its selling power. Does the world need yet another album with demonic vocals and angelic choruses?
Maybe, when it's this good.
On the surface, Trivium's new album Ascendancy has all the metalcore ingredients. But while Shadows Fall has hardcore roots and Killswitch Engage has a strong emo bent, Trivium leans towards the metal side of things -- specifically, '80s thrash metal. The tempos are faster, the scale is more epic, and the band has both the balls and the chops to take extended instrumental breaks. For what are essentially very loud pop songs, these excursions are charmingly over-the-top.
Yes, you heard that right -- Trivium writes pop songs. They just happen to come with bullet belts and shredding guitar solos. It's been argued that metal is really pop music, with the hooks being in the almighty riff instead of the vocals. But here both the riffs and vocals are insanely catchy; rarely has mile-a-minute thrash metal been so damn hummable. Songs like "Ascendancy" and "The Deceiver" feature flawless vocal harmonies; "Dying in Your Arms" sounds like Jimmy Eat World on steroids and has that most clichéd of pop song conventions, the key shift up at the end. R.E.M. did it in "Stand"; Bon Jovi did it in "Livin' on a Prayer" -- it's tried, it's trite, and it works.
In this balancing act between pop and metal (the real deal kind, not the '80s teased hair version), Trivium resembles its greatest influence: Metallica. Of course, Metallica never wrote songs with screamed vocals, and not until the Black album did it lock into standard song structures. But it became the biggest metal band in the world through near-perfect songwriting and the best hooks in the business -- basic pop music elements. And while many bands cite '80s thrash metal as an influence, everyone has imitated Slayer and not Metallica. It's easy to cop a riff, but it's harder to write a song on the scale of classic Metallica -- not that bands haven't tried (see: Megadeth's entire career; compare: the intro to Shadows Fall's "War Within" album with the intro to the Master of Puppets album).
While Trivium doesn't quite succeed at writing Metallica-size songs, it certainly has the elements down. The machine-gun riffs in "Rain" recall "One", the guitar harmonies in "A Gunshot to the Head of Trepidation" are straight out of And Justice for All, and when the song breaks down to a single note thump, one half-expects to hear the "Die by my hand" chant of "Creeping Death". Not only does singer/guitarist Matt Heafy sometimes sound like a young James Hetfield, he even holds his guitar like Hetfield does!
This degree of hero worship isn't surprising for a group that formed to cover Metallica in a high school battle of the bands. What is surprising is the average age in the band: 20. It's incredible that a band this young can outplay and outwrite peers many years older. Trivium's precocious maturity may be just what it takes to survive when the metalcore ship inevitably sinks. Ascendancy is Trivium's second album; Ride the Lightning was Metallica's. And while Ascendancy is no Ride the Lightning (yet), perhaps high school kids in 20 years will be forming bands to cover Trivium songs.