Sound — 8
Whether or not the concept of deathcore is an appropriate label for the handful of bands that wanted to make the strongest of extreme metal or a narrow niche that is the loudest shark jump in the history of music, it has been growing into a recognized subgenre within the last decade; though that recognition is generally contemptible within the metal world. With the few bands that have been donned with the controversial label, Chelsea Grin has relished it, not only stating older deathcore bands like Whitechapel and Suicide Silence as inspirations, but lashing back at the sour feelings other metalheads have towards deathcore. With their debut album, "Desolation of Eden," Chelsea Grin kicked down the door into the scene with unrelenting deathcore energy, and while their debut album had a dominant metalcore flavor to it (that was fruitfully enhanced by the hearty dose of death metal influences), their follow-up album, "My Damnation," would ride the metalcore influences into a wall of monotony, and was met with a lukewarm response from critics. Chelsea Grin would start to dabble with other metal styles in their formula in their second EP, "Evolve," trying out progressive/symphonic metal elements, and even a hint of clean singing. This would show some much-needed progress in Chelsea Grin's sound, and a promising foreshadowing with what could be expected for album three - now, everyone gets to see what that will exactly be in "Ashes to Ashes."
Looking at its total runtime that's only ten seconds away from breaching a full hour, "Ashes to Ashes" already shows that this is Chelsea Grin's most elaborate composition to date; though in the similar face-value thought process, the idea of a deathcore album, something that generally appeals to a "sprint" mentality rather than a "marathon" mentality, stretching out to an hour-long listen may not be able to keep things interesting from front to back, with some stumbling here and there. That stumbling takes form in songs like "Playing With Fire," "Pledge of Allegiance," "Sellout" and "Angels Shall Sin, Demons Shall Pray," which end up primarily bearing the chug-happy, breakdown-laden typecast features that people point at in order to berate deathcore. These songs also echo the dimension-lacking characteristics that were rife in "My Damnation," which may also be why the aforementioned songs contain an unsatisfying taste, but it's safe to say that even these relatively hollow tracks on "Ashes to Ashes" are better-grown that anything on "My Damnation." For example, while "Morte Ætérna" also suffers the curse of the "all sizzle, no steak" breakdown, the fact that it also touts a hint of acoustic guitar and some quality death metal energy of frenzied tremolo lines and blastbeat drumming makes for a redeeming factor.
In fact, Chelsea Grin have never sounded better than now. With their debut album being all about raw power, and their subsequent releases attempting to branch out into something more, "Ashes to Ashes" proves to be a branch with an ample amount of fruit. In continuation from the influences in "Evolve," Chelsea Grin utilizes more symphonic sound elements like piano and string melodies throughout several songs (with the most reputable example being "Letters"), as well as dark electronic ambience in songs like "Nightmares" and "Clockwork," adding nice dimension to the primary deathcore onslaughts. Chelsea Grin also kicks into high-gear with their guitar elements, not only properly employing their three guitars to their fullest potential with exceptional layering, but displaying autonomous and interesting dual guitar melodies in "Illuminate," "Waste Away" and "Letters," and some impressive shredding in "Undying," "Dust to Dust" and "...To Ashes." Chelsea Grin have also found the sweet spot for vocal layering this time around, so for those that were disenchanted by the paltry screams in "My Damnation," those wrongs have been righted in "Ashes to Ashes."
Lyrics — 6
Lyrically, "Ashes to Ashes" ends up suffering from its size once again. Numerous songs on the first half of the album come off as an aimless collection of boilerplate metalcore themes - from the pyromaniacal "Playing With Fire" to the pre-packaged anti-establishment monger "Pledge Allegiance" and the stereotypical "f--k the fakes" message of "Sellout," these lyrics only function as something to simply scream. It's not until the second half of the album where frontman Alex Koehler's lyrics begin to develop a trace of canon and articulate thoughts that can connect to one another like LEGOs to build a cohesive message: from wistfully recounting the days of blissful inebriation in "Cheers to Us" and "Waste Away," to lamenting how foolish one was with wasting their past in "Clockwork," and accepting that past and looking forward in the final song "Dust to Dust." Though it may be a message that doesn't ring extraordinarily distinct or memorable, it helps establish something in the lyrical aspect of "Ashes to Ashes" rather than being a total hodge-podge of bitter, directionless rage. It's also kind of a pleasant curveball to see Koehler write some uplifters like "Cheers to Us," and "Dust to Dust," seeing as deathcore usually doesn't have, nor want, room for any feel-good songs, so seeing Koehler acting by his own accord and making room is commendable.
Overall Impression — 7
Chelsea Grin may have ended up shooting themselves in the foot (or rather, slashing themselves in the cheek) by putting too much material in "Ashes to Ashes," but while the bland tracks dilute the quality of the album as a whole, it's not condemning enough to be considered nails in a coffin. After picking out the fillers, you get the most mature Chelsea Grin composition to date, and from the multiple bouts of guitar acrobatics and the substantial guitar and vocal layering to the effective usage of synthesizers and post-production effects, this album shows the band hitting their stride. Perhaps the penchant for overblown breakdowns and staple chug patterns will always be a part of their music (and deathcore in general), but "Ashes to Ashes" is bona fide proof that Chelsea Grin is growing into something that can not only endure the widespread lambasting of the stigmatic deathcore subgenre, but also greet it with a bloody, mutilated smile.