As I Lay Dying - Shaped By Fire - (8.5/10)
Published on October 8, 2019
Another metalcore phoenix on the rise.
The ebb and flow of trends seems almost cyclical in nature, even in present age of the internet where barriers separating audiences from their preferred music are seemingly absent. In the peculiar case of America’s more controversial contribution to the modern metal paradigm in metalcore, online outlets have been musing over the alleged demise of said musical movement since the early 2010s, with Killswitch Engage front man Howard Jones prophesying the end of its commercial hegemony as far back as 2006. This sentiment was not without some degree of truth given the demise of several high profile acts associated with the scene such as God Forbid and Chimaira several years back, not to mention the lack of output by the style’s early pioneers Shadows Fall and As I Lay Dying. The latter’s case would become a matter of infamy when vocalist Tim Lambesis found himself imprisoned for attempting to solicit the murder of his wife, in the very midst of the overall scene’s mid-2010s malaise no less. Yet even when discounting these coinciding events, there is a case to be made that they style itself had a shelf-life given its heavily formulaic nature and limited potential for expansion, and by the end of the previous decade it could have been argued that the sub-genre had softened itself to the point of becoming a mere extension of the broader pop/rock crowd.
While the question of metalcore’s rumored death remains an open one, if one wishes to treat its decline as a full fledged passing, the closing months of this decade might be signalling a rebirth is in the works. Following an amped up return to form out of Killswitch Engage earlier this year in Atonement, the recently reformed As I Lay Dying have unleashed what could arguably be dubbed their greatest offering in over a decade in 2019’s Shaped By Fire. True to the implicit image of a phoenix rising from the proverbial ashes, this is an album born of a furious passion more befitting a band of youthful upstarts crafting a raw, intense debut; yet with the poise of seasoned veterans who have been around the block and memorized all of the landmarks within its borders. It isn’t so much a reinvention of the style, nor does it really even seek to color that far beyond the accepted borders of melodic chorus fanfare, harsh and impact-based verses, and a heavy Gothenburg melodeath-oriented template to tie it all together, but rather a concentrated dose of everything that originally made metalcore work in its early days, refined into a massively produced final package. It retains the commercial accessibility that has generally come with the territory since the mid-2000s and comes in a compact formula, but the intensity factor has been kicked up something fierce.
As with a number of recent albums to come out of the broader metal scene, this album kicks off on a cinematic note with a massive sounding instrumental prelude in “Burn To Emerge”, setting a looming tone with a massive drum sound akin to the march of a grand army. The resulting segue into the thrash-happy cruiser that is “Blinded” is seamless, showcasing a band that one would not guess had been broken up for several years and had not done much together since 2012, not to mention one that knocks how to tie in a fast-paced riff nod to In Flames and a technical edge with a syrupy sing-along romp of a chorus. The sheer ferocity of Lambesis’ vocal assault speaks to a man who is channeling both Tomas Lindberg and Corpsegrinder with the best of them, and Josh Gilbert’s cleaner singing provides a solid melodic foil while not being overtly whiny or thin, but the ones who completely steal the show are Hipa and Sgrosso with their masterful 6-string sorcery. Pummeling thrashers like “Undertow”, “Gatekeeper” and “Redefined” showcase a duo that know how to chug and shred like its going out of style, not to mention up the ante in just how aggressive metalcore riffing can get. That said, even on more moderated and catchy numbers such as “Torn Between” and “Take What’s Left”, the riffing factor is still quite animated and the brief guitar solos prove technical enough to rival the mainline death metal crowd.
Say what one might about the baggage that this band may now carry due to the past exploits of their front man, this is about as clear cut of a case for Voltaire’s famous quote of needing to separate the work from the man as any in recent memory. If there is any flaw to be pointed out in this otherwise amazing example of metalcore’s potential, it is that it betrays the stubborn limitations in the style itself. For all its sheer energy and fury, it finds itself conforming to the cliche verse/chorus formula that has largely dogged the style since its inception, to the point of each of these songs being extremely predictable. Having said that, the sum of this album is a veritable sonic colossus that hits the listener with the intensity of a sledgehammer, and any trustee of old school melodic death metal would be hard-pressed to deny that this showcases about as faithful of an emulation of those consonant heavy metal melodies typical to In Flames and the high-octane thrashing character that typified the early works of The Crown. It may not win over many new converts given its largely orthodox demeanor, but any self-respecting old school fan who first took to metalcore because of albums such as Beneath The Encasing Of Ashes and Alive Or Just Breathing will want to hear this.