Sound — 6
Though plenty of third-wave metalcore acts made their debut in the electronicore-crazed year of 2009, Asking Alexandria's debut album, "Stand Up and Scream," arguably stands as the quintessential album of that time, with its heavy-handed fusing of chug riffs and kitschy rave interludes being a sound as guilty of a pleasure as Taco Bell. The band didn't fumble with that initial success, and their follow-up album, 2011's "Reckless & Relentless," reconfigured some sonic characteristics - swapping much of the electronicore cheese for industrial and orchestral influences - while still retaining their lauded metalcore backbone, and further strengthened their footing as one of the more exciting purveyors of modern metalcore.
However, Asking Alexandria would hit rough waters after the success of their sophomore album, all stemming from growing tensions between founder/lead guitarist Ben Bruce and lead singer/screamer Danny Worsnop. With their third album, 2013's "From Death to Destiny," making a turn into a more contemporary metal/hard rock sound (already a sonic shift at risk of spurring backlash from listeners), Worsnop's refusal to perform on the album hamstringed the band's fullest potential, leaving Bruce to fulfill lead vocalist duties to ambivalent results. Worsnop eventually left the band to start We Are Harlot, and though Asking Alexandria made it clear that they would continue on without him, plenty wondered if they could continue on just fine without his presence.
From the substantial change in vocals and metal style made a couple years back, it's no surprise that Asking Alexandria's fourth album, "The Black," attempts to make a triumphant return to the band's sound from their glory days. Of course, the element most necessary for that comes in new lead vocalist Denis Stoff (formerly of Make Me Famous and Down & Dirty), who makes for a great replacement and more. Not only does his singing/screaming fill in the Worsnop-shaped hole in the band perfectly, but his ability to hit higher notes (heard in "Send Me Home" and "Here I Am") and pull off some softer singing (heard in "I Won't Give In" and "Sometimes It Ends") gives him a Craig Owens-esque quality as a bonus.
As for the whole sound of "The Black," Asking Alexandria cover a decent spread, albeit with mixed results. Along with brazen metalcore displays in "Let It Sleep," "We'll Be OK," "Undivided," "Circling by the Wolves" and the eponymous song, they also continue a bit of their more contemporary metal side in "Just a Slave to Rock n Roll," and play around with their symphonic side in the meager neoclassical cut "The Lost Souls" and more impressively in the stark ballad of "Gone." With a noticeable increase in quality of their softer moments (heard in the well-tended negative space in "Here I Am" and "Sometimes It Ends"), there's a more impressive display of dynamic songwriting, but that quality struggles with the album's pop-minded production job being more rampant than before. The overuse of stutter effect verges on Woe, Is Me absurdity, and the eponymous song takes it to another level, where the chorus vocal melody is Frankensteined by overzealous vocal chopping, and their choice to amplify nearly every chorus with some kind of sing-along melody displays a desire for catchiness that's aggressively desperate.
Lyrics — 7
It's no surprise that some of Bruce's lyrics in "The Black" air out the unresolved feelings he has towards Worsnop, alluding to Worsnop's untreated addictions in "I Won't Give In" ("Every breath you take / I watch you slip away / You're slowly killing yourself"), haranguing his arrogance in "Undivided" ("How can you be the voice of a generation when the only voice you listen to is in your own fucking head?"), and trying to brush off any flak that Worsnop threw at him in "Circled by the Wolves" ("Your words don't bother me / I don't care"), but with the most direct addressing of Worsnop being in interview snippets sampled in "Sometimes It Ends," Bruce states his willingness to not harp exclusively on that negativity and try to move on.
However, another struck nerve dealing with separation and responsive angst is Bruce's recent divorce. Essentially a continuation of these toxic interpersonal troubles articulated in "From Death to Destiny," Bruce spits anger towards his ex-wife and himself in "Let It Sleep" ("There's not a thing you can do / You're fucked and I am too / I can't remember the last time / I can't remember the last time I smiled"), oscillating between mending the bridge and burning it down in "The Black" (going from "Oh god I wish you'd just speak to me / Black is all that I see... You used to be all that I needed" to "I bet you never cared / I knew you never cared"), and lamenting the plague of nostalgia in "We'll Be OK" ("Help me / 'cause I can't live this way / Tell me why / The memories won't fade away"). But in the same spirit of wanting to move forward, Bruce also does what he can to turn a new leaf in "Gone" ("Please don't be lonely when I'm gone / I've been so sad for far too long / And as I gently slip away / This song will only stay") and look towards the future in "Here I Am" ("I'm standing tall for all to see / Here I am / There's nothing bigger / Nothing brighter than a future I see").
Overall Impression — 7
Bruce had stated how, after the considerable restrictions and efforts to change direction in "From Death to Destiny" resulted in something less than satisfactory, he wanted Asking Alexandria's next album to rekindle the band's old sound and charm. Now seeing the result of those intentions, "The Black" does indeed bring the band back to a more familiar metalcore sound for the most part, and though the production pomp gets extraneous and a few songs are flops, there are also some genuine improvements in their songwriting brought forth in the album as well. But the most impressive (and relieving) aspect of the new album is that it's not just a promising first step with Stoff's lead vocals, but it's a damn impressive one.