Rotten to the Core
When someone says that they’re “really into metalcore,” there’s only about a 40% chance that they’re talking about the music that you think they’re talking about, and thus no real way to determine exactly how quickly you should be running for the door without delving at least a little bit deeper.
You see, in reality, there are two schools of metalcore. If your hypothetical conversational partner is over the age of 25, they are probably referring to the older, hipper side that emphasizes the “-core” of its hardcore base ingredient. Spearheaded by Converge and late ’90s groups like Shai Hulud and Botch, the style was more like a head-scratching, tertiary branch of punk rock than anything else. With distinctive musical elements like d-beat drums, buzzsaw chords and abstract-yet-personal lyrics still pretty much intact, their major difference from traditional hardcore bands was that these groups dipped their toes into the pool of metal riff composition and occasional time signature play.
The other tributary of metalcore constitutes what people called “The New Wave of American Metal” for roughly forty seconds in 2006, and was primarily a product of the early days of a new millennium. Groups that fall into this category worshiped the dual-guitar flourishes and old school galloping rhythms that characterize Scandianvian melodic death metal bands like In Flames, At The Gates, and Dark Tranquility. These would be your Unearths, your Killswitch Engages, your All That Remainses, and, of course, your As I Lay Dyings.
In 2013, former As I Lay Dying singer Tim Lambesis was thrown in prison for paying an undercover detective, posing as a hitman, for the murder his wife, which, considering that the hitman was a detective in disguise, never amounted to any more than Lambesis’ imprisonment. It wasn’t a good look for a band that marketed themselves as “Christian metal”–like Stryper, but with death metal screams. So now, like how Holy Grail was birthed from White Wizard and Cult Leader from Gaza, we have a brand-spankin’ new metalcore group called Wovenwar, which is essentially As I Lay Dying with a different vocalist.
The formation of Wovenwar would have been the perfect opportunity for the ambitious guitar duo of Phil Sgrosso and Nick Hipa to double down on punk and metal influences and songs structures. It might also have afforded them the chance to ditch the confounding Peanuts-esque Christian overtones and finally create some heavy music that took risks and challenged listeners–i.e. to once and for all prove they weren’t mere footmen in the since-defeated metalcore army.
But, with Honor Is Dead, they have done the exact opposite. Now helmed by former Oh, Sleeper frontman Shane Blay, Wovenwar go full on arena metal like they’re trying to be a limp-wristed, post-hardcore version of Five Finger Death Punch. Choruses in cuts like “Confession” feature invariably huge, saccharine hooks that sound straight from ignored ’80s power ballads, halting main riffs in their tracks more staunchly than ever. Even when laid over thick, bleak Carcass-style melodeath, the clean vocal melodies of “Cascade” play like pilfered Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen tracks with beefed up distortion. But the band’s heavier moments aren’t ever wholly satisfying either. Hipa and Sgrosso’s guitas have dulled, tone-wise, and what little grit hasn’t been purged by the group’s aversion to the gain knob was surely sucked out in post-production. On top of that, the instrumentation just seems less complex and abrasive. The intro riff of “Stones Thrown” sounds like a two-note, watered down version of something that might have appeared on Shadows Are Security.
With Wovenwar, there is no dissonance and no real friction–any pretense of real heaviness melts away under flashy single-note guitar leads and post-hardcore scream-singing. The more the group tries to compensate for its lack of musical heft with sneaky sound engineering, the more it seems like the clean singing and atmospheric echoes of cuts like “Compass” belong in the top 40 rock countdown, shoulder-to-shoulder with Daughtry and… Puddle of Mudd. And it’s not like As I Lay Dying’s lyrics were ever esoteric works of art, but Wovenwar’s songs are filled with cringe-inducing gems like “talkin’ shit right from a screen,” which is, coincidentally, exactly what is happening right now! Wovenwar definitely knows their audience. The gang was better when their consisted primarily of lifted Bible verses. High on Fire does this plenty and it’s great.
There are a handful of decent moments on the album, but they don’t last nearly as long as they should. The main part of “130” is almost Meshuggah-like in its right-hand quickness, and “Censorship” finally breaks the uniform pace of Honor Is Dead with some bizarro crooning over a perplexing tom rhythm that would fit right into a Tool song. The amoebic push and pull of the drums recalls Around The Fur-era Deftones, but, as always, the angsty hardcore screams kill the vibe before you even have a chance to soak it up. On top of all these grievances, each of the record’s songs consist of the same verse-chorus-verse structure and share a length of around four minutes, so the roadmap of monotony begins to set in rather early. But what else were we to expect? As hard as this will be to believe, Lambesis was far better suited to the metalcore singer position than Blay. Lambesis’ harsh vocals were at least tolerable to old-schoolers. Even on really pandering singles like “Darkest Nights,” the melodic singing was never as pathetically indulgent as Blay’s on “Bloodletting.” And at least we know Lambesis had a sense of humor and reverence for real death metal that he showcased with his Schwarzenegger-themed joke project Austrian Death Machine.
As it stands, As I Lay Dying have turned from derisive metalcore stalwarts into post-grunge wannabe hit makers. The new group sound like Three Days Grace and Shinedown, which very well may have happened naturally, even without Tim’s forced departure. All the blistering double kick drum parts in the world can’t make this record heavy, and the best moments are merely overproduced, lazy rip-offs of In Flames’ early material. Honor Is Dead is a cocktail of everything that is wrong with modern metal, all the trends, clichés and pitfalls that we should have left in the last decade, topped with layered vocals sugary enough to give you a cavity. The album does achieve one noteworthy feat, however: it’ll make you recall the work of Tim Lambesis with genuine fondness.