Last fall, San Diego-based metalcore giants As I Lay Dying marked their tenth anniversary with the diverse and entertaining compilation album Decas, which not only included hails-and-horns salutes to their many influences, but also demonstrated how far the band has evolved since 2001 and hinted at possible new explorations to come. With that said, the band's sixth studio release Awakened pretty much sticks to the band's signature mode of melody-driven metal drive by thrashy intensity and speed, fronted by the harsh/clean vocal blend of founder & frontman Tim Lambesis and bassist Josh Gilbert. All those elements fell excellently into place for 2010's The Powerless Rise, and in many ways Awakened feels like a continuation of that album, but with greater emphasis on vocal harmonies & overdubs, carried off by slick production from Bill Stevenson – itself kind of a surprise to me, given that Stevenson's industry rep is based mainly on punk and hardcore acts like NOFX. There are some punk-influenced touches here and there, mostly in the form of anthemic fist-pumping vocals on tracks like “Tear Out My Eyes,” but the overall sound is pristine and crisp... maybe even to a fault, as it occasionally steals some mid-range grit from the combined guitars (by Lambesis, Phil Sgrosso and Nick Hipa). But apart from that minor issue, I was impressed with how musically tight and balanced this unit has become since their indie debut Beneath the Encasing of Ashes – worlds apart from their widely embraced current sound, which mainly gelled with the acclaimed 2007 release An Ocean Between Us.
The brutality of opening cut “Cauterize” sets the ideal tone, joining the following track “A Greater Foundation” as the album's strongest tracks – making it no surprise that they would become the first and second singles, respectively. With high-speed riffage fueling the machine, held steady by powerful no-nonsense percussion from Jordan Mancino, and Lambesis' scorching harsh vocal delivery at the forefront, the energy level begins high before sliding into more subdued melodies in songs like “Whispering Silence,” showcasing the quality of Gilbert's clean vocals – which thankfully never descend into squeaky emo boyishness, but maintain a robust power of their own, even during the album's more pensive moments in standout tracks like “Defender.” Fast or slow, the guitar work is excellent throughout, with even more complex solos than Powerless, and some breathtaking leads on cuts like “Overcome.”
While the band isn't really breaking any new ground between this and their previous album, they have managed to hone and streamline their already tight instrumentation, and while the production may sound a little too commercial for a group that draws most of its energy from mosh-friendly thrash elements, it does clear the way for more vocal experimentation and helps the catchy melodies shine brighter. It's a solid effort for a band that has helped define the melodic metalcore sound, with a balance of chorus hooks and ground-pounding riffs that would be especially supreme on stage, where these cats have always dominated. For proof of that, check out this performance video for “A Greater Foundation”...