Album Review: As I Lay Dying - Awakened
The struggle between brutality and melody is something that has come to define much of the modern metal movement. On one hand, there are the bands that don't believe any interplay is necessary, choosing instead to treat their listeners as punching bags, pounding song after song of relentless heaviness until they decide to retire. It's an approach that seems to be gathering more and more followers, one I would contend does nothing to help the cause of metal. Much like a politician who speaks onto to his own supporters, that approach is short-sighted, and prevents new fans from ever finding their way into the scene. What used to serve as the gateway is slowly disappearing entirely, putting metal music out on a secluded island.
There's also an argument to be made that no amount of hand-wringing to please everyone will bring about success, since the very heaviness we take for granted is enough on its own to scare away all but the most robust of fans. It's a tempting argument, but one that doesn't quite hold up when you consider the success metal used to be able to claim. No, what seems to be the problem is a generation of metal musicians who, in the name of being more 'metal than thou', lowered their gloves and let the knockout punch land squarely on their jaw.
As I Lay Dying is emblematic of this phenomenon. As a metal band, they offer everything most listeners would ask for; loads of down-tuned guitar riffs, screaming vocals, and relentless percussion pushing the songs along. They follow the textbook of modern metal songwriting well, but it's that adherence to the norm that reveals their greatest weakness. A song like opener “Cauterize” is one that could easily escape beyond the confines of metal to find a larger audience, if not for the requisite mandate towards brutality. The chorus is a huge blast of melody that could win over an audience, but is sandwiched between sections of needless aggression, trying to please everyone, ultimately disappointing most.
And therein lies the dilemma of a record like “Awakened”. If we judge it as a modern metal album, there's not much to complain about. The production is sufficiently clinical, the songs are suitably heavy enough, and the songwriting offers just enough melody in the mix to prevent the album from becoming noise. It's just that after two or three tracks, the feeling of staleness is hard to ignore, as every track follows the same blueprint. Without introducing more melody to differentiate the songs, they blend together into one long experience, one that becomes draining when it becomes clear that nothing out of the blue is going to come up and grab you.
That doesn't make the songs bad, it just lowers their effectiveness. Heavier tracks like “Resilience” are fine on their own, but don't have enough charm to stand copies following in such short order. A few changes in tempo or tone would have done wonders for the record, but as it is, the album is a one-note affair. It's a common occurrence, but frequency doesn't make it any more forgivable. When “Whispering Silence” offers up a more melodic chorus in the middle of the record, it's both a welcome relief as well as a standout musical moment, but by that time it's hard to care.
“Awakened” proves that sometimes you really can have too much of a good thing. Any of these songs, packaged as a four song EP, would have made a strong impact. But with so much similar music to digest all at once, there's no chance of any song sticking out and latching on. The record tries to include a little something for everyone, but it's becoming harder and harder to do that without compromising the very nature of the music. It's because they haven't given up on the stereotype of what metal is supposed to be today that the record is disappointing. This sort of metal can never appeal to everyone, no matter how hard it tries.