Review Summary: Despite a few high points early on, As I Lay Dying can’t save Awakened from sounding like an uninspired, watered down version of themselves.
As I Lay Dying have managed to stay on the forefront of modern heavy metal music by pushing the boundaries of the genre with their unformulaic, technical playing and exceptional songwriting. Every release has been a consistent showcase of their talents, chockful of technical guitar riffs, furious drumming, and aggressive vocals. Each subsequent album featured more melody and employed more of a thrash metal influence. The Powerless Rise (2010) was arguably their most technical and aggressive album yet, while simultaneously using more clean vocals. It was widely regarded as one of the best metal albums of the year. Instead of building on the success of that sound, As I Lay Dying manage to make Awakened sound like a watered down version of themselves. While still utilizing the same thrash elements they’ve been known for, none of the songs stand out and fall prey to mediocrity due to a reliance on formulaic songwriting and overabundance of clean-sung choruses.
Lead single and album opener Cauterize ends up sounding like a ripoff of past As I Lay Dying songs, primarily “Parallels” from their previous album. It follows the same basic structure and ultimately doesn’t do anything to distinguish itself among similar sounding tracks. From here the album gradually gets better with the next two songs, “A Greater Foundation” and “Resilience.” Both feature the band’s trademark technical guitar riffing with powerful sounding choruses. “Wasted Words” is the highlight of the album, containing one of the best choruses the band has ever written interspersed with Middle Eastern sounding melodies throughout, a first for the band. Unfortunately the album goes downhill from there. The next three songs are standard As I Lay Dying fare except for poppier choruses and a dependence on repetitive metalcore guitar and vocal melodies. “Defender” follows similarly except with some amazing guitar tapping in the bridge, just barely saving this section of the album from complete mediocrity. The last few songs make almost no attempt to break away from the predictable songwriting from the first half of the album.
As I Lay Dying were never known for having especially deep or memorable lyrics, which end up making them sound like a broken record in Awakened. Their blatant and obvious themes of redemption and faith have been exhausted after singing about them for six albums. They’ve never been especially coherent and just sound overdramatic and even somewhat immature. One of the most significant changes in Awakened is bass player Josh Gilbert’s larger role as backing vocalist. Almost every song features his clean singing, and while hitting the right notes, ends up sounding flat and sterile. The melodies in the choruses themselves certainly don’t help the problem.
Despite a few high points, almost all of which are in the first four songs, everything about Awakened feels clinical and uninspired. The fast, shredding guitar riffs and solos are present, but completely restrained and lacking in the ingenuity and imagination As I Lay Dying has been so renowned for. In some cases, the choruses end up ruining potentially decent songs, primarily “Defender” and “Washed Away.” They ride the line between aggressiveness and poppiness and end up sounding like nothing at all. The guitar solos are considerably shortened in favor of repeating choruses, further damaging the songs' potential.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the album is how forced its only redeeming qualities sound. Their trademark aggressive guitar riffs and solos are few and far in between, usually only lasting ten or fifteen seconds before jumping back into playing the choruses again. Awakened feels like a major step back in As I Lay Dying’s progression, and despite a few high points, is ultimately their weakest and most underwhelming release yet.