[3 September 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Combining the aggression of hardcore, the flamboyance of traditional heavy metal, and the introspection of mainstream rock effectively is something countless bands have been attempting since early this decade, but very few have ever come close to achieving it with any level of consistency, let alone perfecting it. Shadows Fall nailed it for a brief period five years ago. Trivium showed enormous promise before completely losing the plot on their third album. Welshmen Bullet For My Valentine and Sweden’s Sonic Syndicate continue to improve steadily with each new record. As I Lay Dying have a strong fanbase, but they remain one of the most boring bands in the genre. Out of that entire over-saturated scene, three bands in particular have managed to separate themselves from the sound-alike pack; in fact, All That Remains, God Forbid, and Killswitch Engage are now so far ahead of all the lesser talents, it’s almost comical. All three bands bring technical skill, songwriting skill, powerful, multifaceted lead vocals, but most importantly, their music has its own identity.
Of that trio of bands, Killswitch Engage is easily the classiest, as attested by 2004’s breakthrough The End of Heartache and 2006’s very popular As Daylight Dies, the vocal melodies by lead howler Howard Jones refined, the riffs straightforward but effective, the leads by Adam Dutkiewicz and Joel Stroetzel at times gorgeous. Sure, the often weepy lyrics were nothing to write home about and Jones’s cleanly sung vocals tended to veer from soulful to saccharine, but as formulaic as it all was, the New England band sounded so comfortable within the confines of that template that it was easy to give the music’s predictability a pass. This was good, catchy heavy music, and sometimes that’s all one needs.
With each of the last two albums selling in excess of half a million copies in the U.S. alone, expectations surrounding Killswitch Engage’s fifth full-length (and second self-titled album) have been high. That the record would sell like gangbusters is a given, and indeed, Killswitch Engage marked the band’s first ever top ten debut. However, what’s most surprising about this album is how the band doesn’t exactly make it seem like they’re out to conquer the world. Instead, they play it too safe at times, reaching into the same bag of tricks a few times too often instead of coming up with a few new ideas. Whereas the last couple albums had some revelatory moments such as “Rose of Sharyn” and “My Curse”, the new disc simply coasts along complacently.
Granted, there are some strong moments on this album. With its contemplative tone and sense of melodrama, the contagious “Starting Over” borders on post-hardcore and features some of Jones’s strongest vocal melodies to date. “Reckoning” and “This is Goodbye” feature some very effective melodic death metal touches reminiscent of Swedish stars In Flames and Soilwork, while “The Return” is a daring foray into teary-eyed power balladry, a terrific showcase for Jones. Unfortunately, though, the production by Dutkiewicz and mainstream go-to guy Brendan O’Brien strips the guitars of any bite whatsoever, rendering the overall tone surprisingly muddy and often flaccid, something we notice most on tracks like “Never Again” and “The Forgotten”, which play up the crunchy riffs, but completely lack the power they deserve on record. And what’s especially frustrating for Killswitch fans is the fact that they know those tracks, which sound so weak on record, will absolutely kill in a live setting.
Back in 1989, thrash greats Anthrax found themselves in a similar situation. With three excellent albums behind them, they were universally considered to be on top of their game, but wound up disappointing many with the middling State of Euphoria, and it wouldn’t be until a couple years later that they would rebound and truly realize their potential. Similarly, despite the slight misfire, it’s not a stretch to see Killswitch Engage eventually rebound with their own version of The Persistence of Time. Let’s just hope it happens sooner than later.