After enjoying the recent offering from As I Lay Dying (check out our review of Awakened here), I've been finding myself in more of a metalcore mood more than usual this week. Arguably a more accessible mix of melodic choruses, crushing breakdowns and offbeat riffs, the genre still takes some hits from the old-schoolers for its frequent reliance on clean choruses and predictable breakdowns, but for my money there are still a few bands out there who totally nail the genre with a balance of emotional content (not to be confused with emo whining, which gets on my nerves) and hardcore brutality. There's a more experimental edge to Pennsylvania-based quintet This or the Apocalypse that summons the same madness as acts like Every Time I Die and Dillinger Escape Plan, with an added dose of technical wizardry. They've channeled an even more aggressive vibe for their third studio album Dead Years, which finds the band at the top of their game, capturing the raw chaotic power of their debut record Monuments and tempering it with the cleaner production of the 2010 follow-up Haunt What's Left.
The crackling energy of “Hell Praiser” sets the bar ridiculously high, surpassing the expectations set by the solid (but not as remarkable) first single “In Wolves.” The opening riff is among the band's heaviest, hinting at the coming eruption of mixed rapid-fire rhythms, but the lead guitar chops quickly establish rock-solid melody lines that thread everything together. Frontman Rick Armellino charges the air with a wide range of ferocious growls, while handing off clean chorus vocal duties to other band members and guest singers (it's a mixed bag; more on that later).
Although the band's fans have lamented the departure of technically superb drummer Grant McFarland, to my ears new arrival Aaron Ovecka has made a smooth transition to the kit, anchoring the rapidly-changing song structures with the same skill – and on this record, the changes come fast and furious. The same rhythmic aggression drives tracks like "Gaunt and Fierce" and "Kill 'Em With Guidance” (which also introduces an effective keyboard intro) while the lead guitar work shines through brightest in “Americans” and “Hate the Ones You Love.”
Of course, it wouldn't be metalcore without a breakdown or three... and while they do tend to get a little formulaic, the strongest example comes in “Power Hawk,” which also sports some of Armellino's most impressive vocals. Speaking of which, the vocals throughout Dead Years are far more diverse than those of Haunt What's Left, drawing less on fist-pumping anthemic hardcore and bringing in guest vocalists to contribute melodic lines to several tracks – most obviously on “You Own No One But You,” which is a fairly commercial-sounding entry, featuring clean pop-style choruses that are melodically pure but otherwise feel a bit out of place here.
Even hot on the heels of a top-notch release from As I Lay Dying, I dare say TOTA's latest effort may help them emerge from that wider-known band's mighty shadow and establish themselves as major league players. For a genre that sticks pretty close to a set formula (and has done it to death lately), I'm pleasantly surprised to find some more variety emerging in metalcore this year, and Dead Years has turned out to be one of the more memorable offerings so far.
Now grab a helmet and dive into the video for “Hell Praiser” below...