Thursday, August 11, 2011

As I Lay Dying - The Powerless Rise Album Review

As I continue trekking through the music writings I've put together over the last few years, I've revisited a lot of albums I had temporarily forgotten about (some for good reason, others not). With this release from As I Lay Dying, I don't have a need to revisit it as it is still in constant rotation in my workout playlists. As I Lay Dying are heard usually at least once while I'm out running or lifting in the weight room. In the last half decade, they've been the go-to metalcore band and have consistently set the standard for the genre. I love seeing trend-setters continuing to evolve and mature the genre they're a part of, and As I Lay Dying do this perfectly. 

As I Lay Dying have had a very successful career thus far, finding themselves consistently among the top ranks of metalcore acts. When the band turned the corner between Frail Words Collapse and Shadows Are Security, embracing melody and integrating it into their musical repertoire, the band truly found their identity, but not to the disappointment of some fans. Despite the few disappointments from fans that didn't want to see the band evolve, Shadows Are Security was the album that ushered the band to the forefront of the metalcore genre and for good reason—it was one of the few albums that married melodic catchiness with pummeling metalcore aggression, creating a refined template that all too many bands would copy in years to come. The follow up to this groundbreaking album, An Ocean Between Us, saw the band continuing their interlacing of melody and metalcore, but doing it with more precision and a stronger sense of direction. The album as a whole felt more cohesive instead of a collection of really great songs, which was really the only drawback to Shadows Are Security. Most listeners, including myself, viewed An Ocean Between Us as a incremental step forward for the band. Now, three years later, As I Lay Dying have taken what appears to be another small step forward along with a shuffling sideways.

The Powerless Rise has been highly anticipated by many for quite some time now, no doubt in part because not many bands have been able to pull off the melodic metalcore sound so effortlessly and naturally as As I Lay Dying. After an initial listen, you’ll know that the band hasn’t lost a step, but there are a few key differences between The Powerless Rise and their past two albums that will stand out. These differences are not detractions from the album, but they do separate it, if only slightly, from what the band has done before.

Most noticeable is the lack of focus on big, booming choruses filled with hooks. Whereas songs like “The Darkest Nights,” “Confined,” “Nothing Left,” and “The Sound of Truth” had choruses that were deliberately written with a hook in mind, there aren’t any blatant hook-laden choruses other than perhaps in “Anodyne Sea”. Yes, there are still melodic choruses, but they feel slightly more integrated into the songs they are a part of instead of being the sole focus of a song with the verses simply serving as filler. Take “Anodyne Sea” as an example. It does have a very infectious and melodic chorus, but instead of just being the portion of the song you can sing along to, it works as a transition between the heavier portions of the song which are equally as compelling. It starts off fast, balls-out, and in your face, but naturally transitions into the chorus before (not quite as naturally) getting back to beating you apart. And whereas past songs with melodic passages were softer in general, “Anodyne Sea,” at the near three minute mark scrapes your face off with a razor sharp breakdown before hitting the chorus again for a full on melodic/aggressive interplay between the vocals and guitars.

Other songs using prominent melodic vocal passages, such as “Parallels,” “Anger and Apathy,” and “Upside Down Kingdom” all use them as natural portions of the songs and, barring “Anger and Apathy,” have extremely heavy offsetting passages. The synthesis of the melodic and the aggressive portions of As I Lay Dying’s songwriting is as close to complete on this album as it ever has been.

While mentioning the topic of As I Lay Dying’s aggressive songwriting, it is also very evident that the band went for a much more overall aggressive approach. The majority of the songs on The Powerless Rise have a darker, harsher tone when delving into the heavier passages. This tonal shift makes it so that the songs on this album would feel out of place if they were to appear on Shadows Are Security, but they would not be as out of place on An Ocean Between Us, which is where you can hear the genesis of this shift starting. Tim Lambesis’ vocals are now deeper, with heartier growls. Nick Hipa’s leads are more angular and menacing than in the past, but also explore melody more effectively this time around. Even Jordan Mancino’s drum work feels beefier than ever before. The band as a whole has come together to explore darker territory, which works stunningly and overcomes the lack of killer chorus hooks mentioned previously.

The Powerless Rise does not push any boundaries, but by continuing to play a style they are already the leader of, As I Lay Dying show they are, and plan to remain, the reigning kings of melodic metalcore. There is no drop-off in quality in comparison to their last release, they’ve trimmed the fat, they’ve gone darker, and they’ve proven they can continue to grow, even if only incrementally. It’s going to be a long year with bands trying to measure up to the gold standard set by this album, and I anticipate few, if any, metalcore bands matching the quality of The Powerless Rise.

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