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The most ironic thing about Killswitch Engage’s music is that their lyrics are so often about moving forward, about growing, and about evolving, yet their actual music rarely does such a thing. For Killswitch Engage’s output has remained mostly unchanged since, well, forever. It’s honestly quite bizarre, that the motivation behind the veteran metal bands lyrical content to open up new perspectives and improve one’s life is never taken on board when it comes to expanding their sound and songwriting.
This is a shame, as with such a talented, seasoned act like Killswitch, them thinking outside the box and taking real risks could yield some interesting and impressive results. Even if such a shift in gear didn’t create their best record, at least it would be something different. And I’m so fucking starved for something fresh from one of my favourite metalcore bands; from a band who meant so much to me a as younger man in my teens. For ‘Atonement‘ is severely lacking, and when I see statements from them about how”it’s musically the most diverse record we’ve done as a band“, I cannot help but snort with laughter at the utter lie right there.
‘Atonement‘ has a little bit of everything that they’ve done in the past. Yet it’s not like a killer, no-filler “best of” record like say, Comeback Kid’s ‘Outsider‘ (2017). It’s more like a safe, too close to the chest record, one that sounds exactly like what you’d expect from Killswitch Engage if you’ve literally heard any of their other albums. Just more 4/4, chugging melodic metalcore. From some darker arpeggios and harmonic minor work to the riffs, breakdowns, syncopation, and pinch harmonics, to the dual-vocal delivery and typical metalcore anthems, to even guest featuring Howard Jones, this is just Killswitch Engage. Nothing more, nothing less. (More on that Howard track shortly.) If you’re thinking about starting up a KSE tribute band, don’t bother: these guys are covering themselves at this point.
Breaking it down to individual components, Jesse Leach is, as always, a solid vocalist; in both singing and screaming ranges. His open-sleeve lyricism is a saving grace of KSE’s music, even now. He doesn’t shy away from addressing his own problems and demons, nor what he believes: whether about himself, politics, people, or the world today. Ergo, this new album shares both many personal musings of himself, as well as a few “Us vs Them” solidarity anthems about the broken system and The Man. Guitarists Adam D and Joel Stroetzel are up to their usual chugging, harmony-loving, squealing shenanigans. There’s really not much else to say in that respect; metalcore fans and metal guitarists who enjoy the same style of riff and chord progression on each new record will adore it because it’s all they wanted. As for bassist Mike D’Antonio and drummer Justin Foley? Well, they showed up. They definitely played on this record, I can say that much. Killswitch’s strengths have never laid in the technical prowess or eccentricity of their rhythm section. Those two have always played for the songs but have never had time to properly show off.
I’ve spoken about ‘Unleashed‘ before, so let’s address the other songs. On every listen, it’s around when the phone-hating and anti-authoritarian ‘Know Your Enemy‘ (not a Rage cover) and the tired, fret-running metalcore stomp of ‘Take Control‘ appear that I start feeling fatigued. Maybe I’ve out-grown KSE? Or maybe they didn’t grow? Perhaps it’s both? But what I do know is that ‘Atonement‘ runs out of steam quick. The minor-scaled ‘I Am Broken Too‘ is clearly the mid-tempo radio single, and is a “nothing” song for the record, ultimately. It’s too short for what it is to leave any sort of meaningful impact upon the album. Right afterwards, ‘As Sure As The Sun Will Rise‘ is a worship/spiritual piece, with some gang vocal calls layered in with some singing, as well as some blast beats and busier drumming. Yet this track exemplifies the record at its absolute peak, at its seldom best: meh. And that “pull from the darkness, reborn in light” pit-call is SO much louder than the rest of the song, in a seriously distracting manner.
The galloping pace and generic metal riffage combined with the sixteenth-note ride-bell time-keeping on ‘The Crownless King‘, along with a hilarious “GO!” scream to start it off, are all completely mundane. (The only recent song where I haven’t minded a vocalist yelling “go” as the song kicks in is this.’) ‘The Crownless King‘ is just there; completely inoffensive. Even a guest feature from Testament’s Chuck Billy does little to aid things too. Elsewhere, the chunky, palm-muted closer ‘Bite The Hand That Feeds‘ wraps itself with a goddamn fade-out. As an album’s final song, that should be some kind of a cardinal sin for most bands. As a closer, ‘Bite The Hand That Feeds‘ leaves the record feeling super anti-climactic, fading out on a dull, drawn-out marching half-time chug section that’s about as lame and as complacent as they come. In fact, the whole album feels like all of these 11 songs could’ve been sequenced better too.
In featuring Howard Jones, the albums second track, the fast and heavy ‘The Signal Fire‘ (an allusion to the name of Howard’s band, Light The Torch), is the most hyped song of the lot. Yet it’s anything but when it comes down to it. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Jesse and Howard would nut out some killer screaming inter-play during a sick breakdown or some fuck-off heavy verses, before perhaps bouncing off of each other in the choruses with their clean singing. While there’s admittedly some of that, and while it’s rare to see two singers from two different eras of the same band go off on the same track, it’s underwhelming for the gravity of what is such a special moment. ‘The Signal Fire‘ is a stock-standard Killswitch song, with Howard given a little more air-time than what any other guest vocalist would’ve received. Howard shares the choruses with Jesse, gets the second verse and a portion of the bridge before the guitar solo, coming back in for the final chorus with the duo layering their respective vocals. Yet there are no standout harmonies, and there’s not as much chemistry between their parts as I would’ve hoped. Howard is a metal singer fronting a hardcore band, and Jesse is a hardcore kid fronting a metal band. Together, their shared vocal efforts should make for one of KSE’s finest tracks. And somehow – some-fucking-how – that isn’t the case. In a back-handed compliment, ‘The Signal Fire‘ is better than most of its peers.
But hey, it’s not all doom and gloom, as there are a couple of highlights to be had. ‘Us Against The World‘ has one of the album’s better refrains, seeing a HUGE chorus stroking the band’s never-ending spirit and determination, something that is absolutely true given the great records they’ve written and the uncountable hard yards they’ve put in. KSE can still pull off some decent hooks, it seems. ‘I Can’t Be The Only One‘ has one of the catchiest guitar harmonies on the whole bloody album, and while it’s a classic KSE part, it’s matched with the right chorus and accompanying heavier passages to make it over the line. Elsewhere, ‘Ravenous‘ has some balls, with plenty of speed and drive, enough to make it a genuinely engaging, gritty metalcore number. And as mentioned, ‘The Signal Fire‘ is one of the record’s coolest songs. It’s not much, sure, but at this point, I’ll take whatever I can damn well get.
Funnily enough though, literally everything I’ve written could be used by die-hard KSE sweaters or by other reviewers to share why they like the record; that its the band staying true to themselves, that they don’t need to change, etc. As it’s an album so scarily in line with the previous (what number are we up to now?) six records, and some people just want the same thing over and over again.
Obviously, some readers will think it quite poor of me to deride this because KSE has better records in their catalogue. However, I’d argue that if as a band you barely change from what you did on your old records, and you’re releasing very similar albums every two or three years nowadays, then no shit people will compare your new releases to your earlier ones. Precisely the case here! ‘Atonement‘ dwells low and deep under the long, dark shadows cast by ‘Alive Or Just Breathing‘ (2002), ‘The End Of Heartache‘ (2004), and ‘As Daylight Dies‘ (2006). Hell, even their second self-titled album, the final record with Howard, is a far cry better than this thing. And if you’ve properly heard that particular 2009 release, then you’ll know that no fan worth their salt would ever say that lightly. There’ll have to be some serious atonement for KSE after this album drops, that’s for sure.
Am I being unfair to Killswitch Engage and their new album? Most likely. Because if an album like this came from a band half their age with half their relevancy, then I’d probably be much more indifferent and mild to it. If ‘Atonement’ was released in 2004, it’d be a genre-defining album. Except it wasn’t: ‘The End Of Heartache’ was released in 2004 and it still holds up well today, in both production/mix and in the songwriting. In 15 years time, no one will speak of ‘Atonement’ with anywhere near the same kind of revered breath. As it’s Killswitch Engage – a band who has created infinitely better releases before now, a band with such a legacy behind them – this latest LP is immensely disappointing. The only thing “new” about ‘Atonement’ is that it’s their most recent release. That’s literally it. And it’s a sad state of affairs when one of the few positives I can offer about it is that the artwork is kinda sick. In short, this is just more Killswitch Engage. And shorter still, this is boring.
The Signal Fire (feat. Howard Jones)
Us Against The World
The Crownless King (feat. Chuck Billy)
I Am Broken Too
As Sure As The Sun Will Rise
Know Your Enemy
I Can’t Be The Only One
Bite The Hand That Feeds
‘Atonement’ is out Friday, August 16th via Sony Music.