Welcome to Throwback Thursday! This is the place where we get to indulge in nostalgia and wax poetic about excellent metal of years past. For this, the 54th edition of this series, we revisit an album that every metal fan seems to have a soft place for in their wormy, blackened hearts. Alive or Just Breathing received oodles of critical-acclaim and accelerated Killswitch Engage to a national spotlight thanks to their melodic take on the essentials of hardcore music. A staple of what is now known as metalcore, this album established a sound to an emerging genre rebirth and breathed new life and a new energy into the American metal scene.
KILLSWITCH ENGAGE'S ALIVE OR JUST BREATHING
Release Date: May 2002
Record Label: Roadrunner Records
It's crazy to me that this album, Alive or Just Breathing, is over 15 years old. This release became essential listening for me in the early 2000's and I happily let the album cycle through all tracks on my car stereo over and over again – even though the speakers of my sea-foam green Ford Taurus could barely handle the heaviness. I just loved the songwriting and I was drawn to the strong melodious skeleton that frames the riffs and vocals. The opening is iconic, and every time I heard "THE TIME APPROACHES" I thought to myself, "whelp, better listen to this album again".
I had no clue how beloved Killswitch Engage would become, or how Alive or Just Breathing would evolve to become an important staple in the diet of the modern metal consumer. Arising in the midst of an American metalcore rebirth along bands such as Trivium, Shadows Fall, All That Remains, and Unearth, Killswitch Engage managed to connect with audiences with Alive or Just Breathing in an unprecedented way – just as it had with me.
The band took Alive or Just Breathing on a 10th anniversary tour with original recording vocalist Jesse Leach, who despite recording the vocals for the album, never got to tour with Killswitch Engage for it's initial release. The split of Leach from the band ushered in a new era for the group which featured Howard Jones as the lead vocalist from approximately 2002 to 2012 when Leach re-joined the band. Mike D'Antonio, bassist and founding member, recalls the moment Leach joined again in a 2012 interview with Hornsuprocks, "So we actually did a lot of auditions here in New York City [for a new lead singer], and management wanted to make sure that we left no stone unturned. We started at 11:30 in the morning, and had people come in about every about 15-20 minutes and we'd play the same 3 songs over and over and over again. Fast forward to like, 4:30 in the afternoon – everyone's tired, pizza just came in. We're ready to eat and not play anymore – we just had it. We were at our wits end. Jesse walks in the door – we get up and start playing- and we proceed to play 14 songs in a row. That's how much fun we were having. And, we could care less about fatigue or any of that stuff. It was just a blast." Check out song "Fixation on the Darkness":
D'Antonio goes on to say, "There's this weird synergy that you feel if you're a musician when you're playing with like-minded musicians that is really hard to explain. It's this energy that you get. You don't have to say 'do this or do that' – the other person kind of knows. And Jesse had it with the band."
If you want to read an excellent article breaking down the foundations of Alive or Just Breathing and the fundamentals of it's creation, check out this 2017 article from Jon Wiederhorn of Loudwire magazine. If you are someone who has never checked out older Killswitch, this album is where you should start. Everything on the album is executed so well that the the recording has become timeless. It is just as good today as it was over 15 years ago. There is no doubt that Alive or Just Breathing crafted a sound that established an entire genre. Check out the crown jewel of Alive or Just Breathing, "My Last Serenade":
Much of Killswitch's fan base seems to be divided among those who prefer Jones and those for prefer Leach and their lead singer. As a fan of the album, and Killswitch in general, I think the 'Team Leach' and 'Team Jones' debate is just another place for folks to insert their unnecessary and pretentious metal elitism. The squabble over 'who's better' steals the attentions from where it is best focused – the musicianship of the band. Adam Dutkiewicz, Mike D'Antonio and Joel Stroetzel have been with the group since day one. The guitar tone of Alive or Just Breathing is instantly recognizable as Killswitch's signature, and the riffs are as crushing and aggressive as they are interesting, tight, and controlled. Alive or Just Breathing exemplifies really smart smart songwriting that has a focus, voice, and catchiness that establishes the signature 'sound' of the band. Both vocalists are memorable in their own way and I don't know why it has to be a competition. Their separate energies helped make Killswitch craft different eras of music. No matter who your favorite singer is, Alive or Just Breathing introduced really heavy metal to a whole new generation of fans and made the genre of metal more accessible to more people.