Sound — 5
Coming up after electronicore became the flavor of the month for third-wave metalcore, The Word Alive ticked all the boxes they needed for their debut album, 2010's "Deceiver," to succeed: bursting chug riffs, stutter effects, cheesy rave synths to spruce up the breakdowns, and canned string sections to spruce up the choruses. By that heavy-handed way to satisfaction, the only way to follow it up was to get even louder, heavier and more decorated, and their Joey Sturgis-produced sophomore album, 2012's "Life Cycles," doubled down on reputable guitar skill and production grandeur. While this indeed one-upped their debut on paper, the extra amount of aural adornments crammed into each song didn't stop the fact that, at the core, The Word Alive were lather-rinse-repeating the same kind of metalcore: heavy chug verses, clean choruses, and oafish breakdowns. However, The Word Alive showed some substantial growth come their third album, 2014's "REAL." With their metalcore bite and instrumental prowess still intact, working with co-producer John Feldmann gave the band more mature string melodies, better moments of softness to juxtapose the heavy parts, and elaborated more on frontman Telle Smith's singing, growing further from the typical clean chorus melodies churned out in the band's past two albums.
With that show of growth, The Word Alive's fourth album, "Dark Matter," continues that growth, although the band's statement prior to its release, calling it their "most dynamic and expansive album to date," is an overstatement needed to be taken with a grain of salt (as is with any PR hype statements). Instrumentally, the band takes another step back from their past songwriting formula of hammering aggression and put more focus on melodies. With little to no harsh vocals coming to play in "Insane," "Suffocating" and "Piece of Me," Smith's clean vocals get even more room to shine; although there's a noticeable increase in poppy vocal processing in "Dreamer," "Face to Face" and "Made This Way." The guitars are also much less aggressive here - as opposed to their previous albums, "Dark Matter" uses almost no throbbing chug riffs (only appearing in "Made This Way" and the eponymous song, where the gated assistance makes the riffs sound almost like slap-bass), but this also shows a decrease in their advanced guitar skills as well (guitar arpeggios also only appear in "Made This Way" and the eponymous song, and no guitar solo is brought forth in the album). But where the guitars ease up, the rhythm section still stands strong, like Daniel Shapiro's leading basslines in "Dreamer," "Trapped" and "Sellout," and Luke Holland's drumming in the eponymous song, "Suffocating" and "Oxy."
With The Word Alive's metal aggression easing back in "Dark Matter," the band's sound around that metal center lingers back to the electronica-influenced production job in "Life Cycles." With Matt Good (From First To Last, D.R.U.G.S.) producing the album, he brings forth a more advanced show of electronica, like the drum 'n' bass influence in "Suffocating," and the IDM-style glitch production heard in "Sellout," "Insane" and "Branded" that compares to the production job of The Dillinger Escape Plan's "Ire Works." Good's production work isn't all improvement, though, and along with a meager melodic dubstep bridge in "Piece of Me," the string melodies found in "Dreamer," "Suffocating" and "Branded" are a clear regression from their strength in the previous "REAL."
This ends up being the big problem with the sound of "Dark Matter," which has essentially been the problem The Word Alive have always struggled with: there's too much stuff going on. With an abundance of guitar tracks and vocal layers already building a healthy arrangement, the extra sounds thrown in - string/choral layers, synth melodies - not only come off like superfluous add-ons rather than depth-expanding characteristics, but they clutter up the mix of songs, heard in the overstuffed "Dreamer," "Made This Way" and "Branded." The most indicative case of this is "Oxy," which clearly tries to poise itself as the "epic closer" by equipping itself with every sound the band can think of, but at a certain point, all of the instruments and production tricks that are simultaneously competing for your eardrums just blur into a lump of loud noise, devoid of definitive direction.
Lyrics — 8
In "REAL.," Smith's lyrics took a notable turn for the positive, building more encouraging messages for the downtrodden and depressed; the latter also being something Smith alluded to struggling with himself. Smith's rallying encouragement carries over into "Dark Matter" at some points (especially in the call of misfit unity in "Insane" and "Branded"), but for the most part, Smith's lyrics in the album elaborate more upon Smith's inner demons and caustic emotions.
With a couple songs being directed at those who've hurt him in the past (like the allusion to an absentee father in "Face to Face," and the regretful post-breakup examination of "Piece of Me"), Smith mostly focuses on his intrinsic struggle. From the postmortem of a sky-is-the-limit optimism in "Dreamer" ("There's nothing left but emptiness / When you realize what you could have been"), straining to gain perspective in "Trapped" ("It's hard to know myself, trapped in my own head") and growing hopelessness in "Suffocating" ("I lost myself in doubt / Waiting for a revelation / Do I deserve this shit / When you feel there's nothing left / That's when you'll find me dead"), to the strengthening of resolve in "Made This Way" ("I still found the strength, hidden deep within me / And I can't, can't ever lose my voice") and the strength through defiance in "Grunge" ("I won't let them destroy me / They won't bring me down to my knees"), this struggle has its ups and downs, but things take a turn for the worse in the final two songs, when the relapse of hopelessness in "Dark Matter" ("These are my last days because hell has been calling for me / Why am I crazy? / I am a disease and hell has been calling for me") ultimately succeeds, ending with the allusion of the narrator committing suicide via pills in "Oxy," where his final thoughts loop in regret over his irrational final action: "What have I done? / (Would you even miss me?)".
Overall Impression — 5
Like plenty of other bombastically-produced metalcore acts, The Word Alive have always prided themselves on a heavily stocked metal sound concerned with being as big and loud as possible. While "Dark Matter" is a step forward in some regards - from the continued growth of composing with more melody and less aggression, as well as bringing forth a more cohesive set of lyrics - the album still suffers from the band's overzealous penchant of wanting to fit in as many things in a song as they can. Like putting every kind of topping on a pizza, songs stuffed with every sound end up with an excessiveness that prevents them from retaining a precise sound or style, and that excessiveness that spans throughout makes "Dark Matter" a tiresome listen rather than an exciting one.