Album Review: KILLSWITCH ENGAGE Atonement
The heavy music world owes a lot to Killswitch Engage. Emerging from the Massachusetts hardcore underground, the band played a critical role in the musical explosion of the early 2000s that would be known as the New Wave of American Heavy Metal. The band combined the riffs of melodic Swedish death metal, the attitude of the post-Youth Crew hardcore scene of the 1990s, and a smattering of other influences including post-hardcore and classic thrash. This mix produced some of their generation's greatest anthems: "Fixation on the Darkness," "Temple From the Within," "The End of Heartache"—the list goes on.
Their movement's commercial zenith coincided with the final years prior to the music industry's incredible decline. The good timing helped the band secure two gold records (The End of Heartache and As Daylight Dies) and made them one of the most successful extreme bands of all time. It's satisfying and affirming to know that records with songs as brutal as "Unbroken" or "When Darkness Falls" managed to sell 500,000 copies. This is partially why Killswitch Engage is such an important band.
They emerged at just the moment they were needed: when nü-metal had become stale and boring and audiences were due to be reintroduced to the real, raw thing. And in our moment of need, KsE helped bring screaming vocals, blast beats, breakdowns, dual-guitar harmonies, solos, and riffs into the popular consciousness. Sure, someone might be an expert in the oh-so-important field of obscure whatever-metal nowadays, but much of that style's viability was built by KsE and others feeding a vast fanbase with the essentials.
The band doesn't have any bad albums, but it definitely needed a creative boost after 2009's by-the-numbers self-titled album. That boost came with original vocalist Jesse Leach's return. The two albums since have followed a similar pattern. Disarm the Descent and Incarnate each lead off with 4 excellent songs, and then plateau into somewhat predictable decency. Now, if you're a gigantic KsE fanboy—like me—you're probably fine with that. Yet, this is a band that put out some truly essential albums and songs that endured and transcended the limits of their core fanbase. We're talking legacy here! Disarm showed the band coming back together with Jesse and seeing if the old shirt still fit. Incarnate saw them expand on that reunification, though it could have benefited from some trimming and cutting.
Atonement is an important record for the band, as it will largely determine their creative viability and their place in metal's increasingly fragmented and confusing world. The band made an excellent choice joining forces with Metal Blade Records, as it must have spurred on yet another breath of creative fresh air. With this record, Killswitch Engage should convince anyone concerned that this beast (much like the one on the album's totally rad cover art) is alive and out for blood.
The core elements are all intact here, but there are several spots were the guitar work of Adam and Joel really stands out. The band took pains on this record to emphasize their extreme metal influences, which are, of course: At the Gates, Dark Tranquility, and early In Flames, among others. The album is loaded with heroic dueling guitars on songs like "Unleashed," "Take Control," and "As Sure as the Sun Will Rise." That familiar riffing style still shines through as well.
The album's most brutal moment comes on "The Signal Fire," which features former vocalist Howard Jones on the second verse. The pairing makes for an awesome fan-nerd moment, and a welcome combination of two of metal's most forceful voices. Speaking of nerding out, here's how Jesse describes the inspiration for the song: “I had an image from Lord of The Rings when they climb to the top of the mountain and light a fire to signal for backup.” Does that make Jesse Gondor and Howard Rohan? Never mind, don't answer that. Another moment of delicious destruction comes on "The Crownless King," which features Testament's Chuck Billy, channeling his gruff late-90s death metal phase.
The album's production is crisp, clear and sharp, as Adam D (taking the production lead here as usual) faithfully shepherds the record to sound great without robbing it of its raw power. Adam wisely avoided going overboard with compression and noise-gating that became the fashion in the post-djent era. There's hints of it on the album's opening (and best) song, "Unleashed," but it's used tastefully, letting the guitars still sound like…well, guitars!
Atonement is a great Killswitch Engage album, though it still follows the pattern of opening with its four best songs and then hitting cruise control. That said, closer "Bite the Hand That Feeds" totally slays as well. The rest of the album isn't as immediate or effective, but that's not meant as a slight. It's clear from the personal nature of "I Am Broken Too" and "I Can't Be the Only One" that Jesse needed to make this album. The vocalist has been open about his struggles with trying to find and sustain happiness, meaning, and purpose in life and these songs carry on his and the band's message of forceful and aggressive hope. Throughout the album, his voice belts out his best harsh vocals, along with memorable and catchy clean choruses ("Us Against the World" being the best example).
Perhaps forceful and aggressive hope is the band's core artistic value. Much of extreme metal's core canon of death, black, and doom metal uses evil, hate, and despair as an artistic muse. It's a fascination with these things that draws us to metal in the first place. Still, with their background in the hardcore scene, Killswitch Engage looks to this and acknowledges the reality, but remains resolved to fight and say to Babylon once again: "The time approaches!" May they fight, riff, and scream on for years to come.
Favorite songs: "Unleashed," "The Signal Fire," "Us Against the World," "The Crownless King" and "Bite the Hand That Feeds"