Since their debut record, 2001’s Beneath The Encasing Of Ashes, San Diego-based metalcore quintet As I Lay Dying have proven to be an admirably consistent act – eschewing radical experimentation in favour of a gradual tweaking of their sound within the boundaries of their established formula. Their combination of Slaughter Of The Soul-era At The Gates-style melodic death metal, breakneck thrash and pounding breakdowns has seen them elevated to the forefront of the metalcore scene, to the delight of their fans and the chagrin of their detractors, who see them as determinedly one-trick ponies. In fairness, there’s a lot of truth to that criticism – perhaps the biggest stylistic leap forward As I Lay Dying have made came with 2007’s An Ocean Between Us, which saw new bassist Josh Gilbert contributing his clean singing alongside vocalist Tim Lambesis’ usual savage, throat-searing screams and guttural roars and the band as a whole introducing more melodicism into their songwriting to follow suit.
Well, it’s been three years since that album, during which time Lambesis has taken some time out to nurture his Austrian Death Machine project. Has that time-out affected As I Lay Dying’s sound? Well, to these ears, not really. Fans of An Ocean Between Us will be delighted to hear that once more, As I Lay Dying have improved on the core elements of their sound incrementally, while detractors of the band’s seeming antipathy towards innovation or experimentation will find vindication once more at just how typically As I Lay Dying this album sounds. So, yeah, The Powerless Rise is filled with tight-as-a-Scotsman’s-wallet instrumental performances, the guitar tag-team of Phil Sgrosso and Nick Hipa seemingly effortlessly unspooling combinations of nimble-fingered solos, soaring dual harmonies and bludgeoning chord progressions while drummer Jordan Mancino’s inhumanly tight percussive battery keeps the aggressiveness at the forefront of the sound. The album also sees the band deploying their stylistic trademarks somewhat sparingly – not all of the tracks include Gilbert’s clean vocals but are more fast-paced and aggressive to compensate, some tracks lack breakdowns and are more thrashy as a result, that sort of thing. This works in the band’s favour, making the tracks more individually interesting rather than having an entire album of stock AILD efforts.
For example, ‘Parallels’ is one of the more catchy, melodic cuts on the album, starting with a suitably epic intro before the near-patented ‘snare roll into double-kick rampage’ AILD transition, the song switching between breakneck-paced drumming underpinning brutal verses before a soaring chorus led by Gilbert’s high-pitched clean singing. The following track, ‘The Plague’, is a far more death metal inspired effort, showcasing some of Lambesis’ most brutal low vocal efforts yet. The 2:49 runtime of ‘Condemned’ roars along like a hyper-caffeinated Hatebreed, single-minded in its destructiveness, whereas ‘Anger And Apathy’ once again gives Gilbert’s clean vocals the spotlight during its almost maddeningly-catchy choruses – seriously, just try not to sing along after hearing that track a couple of times.
All sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Well, here’s the rub – after nine years and and five albums, As I Lay Dying aren’t showing us anything new anymore. There’s a nagging air of over-familiarity to The Powerless Rise that prevented me from getting particularly enamoured with it. The band stick so rigidly to their formula that, after a certain amount of time, there’s no escaping the impression that once you’ve heard one album, you’ve pretty much heard them all, regardless of what incremental improvements on the template the band may make from album to album. If you’re a fan of metalcore, you’ll be more than satisfied by The Powerless Rise – As I Lay Dying have pretty much mastered the genre by now. But if you’re expecting to hear something that transcends the tropes and signifiers of metalcore – basically, if you’re expecting to hear something new, whether from the genre or from As I Lay Dying themselves, you’re not going to find it here.