What separates Killswitch Engage from the horde of metalcore bands that have crowded a genre with both talent and surplus? The Massachusetts quintet have been incredibly consistent with their output, even after twice undergoing a vocal transplant that would have seen lesser bands dissolve or at the very least, been disrupted beyond recognition. Now three albums into the convalescence of vocalist Jesse Leach, Killswitch Engage have continued their ascent that sees them push the boundaries of metalcore without becoming burdened by the need to be revolutionary.
Atonement is the sound of a band perfectly comfortable in who they are: relentless metal riffs that blend seamlessly into the soaring choral harmonies. The two tones complement each other like dark turning into light. Atonement is also the signaling that KsE are restless in their quest to find a deeper spirituality (both lyrically and musically) in their music, buoyed by Leach’s lyrical introspection and sublime vocal work. There are few singers and lyricists in this genre that seem to be at a constant searching for understanding with life’s complicated existence than Leach. His intonation, sometimes sounding celestial, adds gravity to the work. In songs like the mid-tempo “I Am Broken Too”, his calls affirming that “he is broken in all the same places as we are too”, is sung with a vulnerability that you can connect with. In “Take Control”, the song’s rapturous start is the preview to it’s melodic refrain and heavier composition, bellowing the call to take control from one’s “wallowing soul”. Its hard rock-esque(!) solo punctuate the song’s (and the band’s) ability to be heavy, but at the same time show some restraint and maturity.
For long-time KsE fans, one song in particular stands out, and that is “The Signal Fire”. The track features former vocalist Howard Jones, who helmed the ship for a decade. The combination of Leach and Jones singing together on a track is a cataclysmic beauty that is as unexpected as it is an incredible turn. “The Signal Fire” itself is a blitzkrieg of a track- amplified chaos of chugga chugga riffs, double bass drumming, and the expected harmonies- accentuated by the dual vocal attack of two of the most affecting singers in the genre’s playbook. But there’s just something about this song- a finality, an answering of any lingering questions of which iteration of the band was/is better. The truth is both Jones and Leach represent the two different chapters of the KsE story- and they both are forever entwined in the band’s lore. Trying to choose between the two is fruitless, and this song proves the two stories can co-exist in harmony.
While some metal bands have a habit of taking themselves too seriously, KsE have never had that problem. With their goofy stage antics and a general looseness, their more carefree attitude to being a band is the great balancing act with the more serious tones of Leach’s lyrical content. The songs hit hard, like the brutality of “The Crownless King” (a great throwback to the guttural sounds of Alive or Just Breathing…) or the anthemic, heavy metal tinged “Us Against The World”, but there’s a relatable, welcoming nature to their music. Certain circles of metal (whether it’s thrash metal, black metal, doom)- all exist for their crowd, and while there is lots to like, much of it never feels welcoming to those who don’t look or act the part. KsE have always felt more like a metal band that people who don’t spend all day listening to metal can like. And it was evident from their groundbreaking work on The End of Heartache and As Daylight Dies onward that their appeal was not constrained by genre norms.
The band’s fearlessness to pursue their own path can be a point of contention for metal purists. “They’re not metal enough”, “too much melody” … but it is their approach that sets them from the pack. Where else can you find metalcore balladry as good as “I Can’t Be The Only One”? It’s as close to being a ballad without it being an actual ballad (it’s not that kind of metal), and it’s probably this writer’s personal pick of the songs here. It’s from songs like these that the band have found a refinement to their music as a whole, and it is this poise in both musicianship and songwriting that elevates them above the overly brooding, the overly serious, sometimes unmalleable tone of the genre’s landscape.
Killswitch Engage’s metal-for-all brand has been at the forefront of metalcore’s constant flirtation with mainstream success. The return of Leach for 2013’s Disarm the Descent meant that the band was in part, writing a new script, but there was always a constant. Whether it was the consistency of Adam Dutkiewicz’s production, Mike D’s bass work, Foley on percussions and the dual attack of Joel and Adam on guitars, it rarely faltered. It may have not always reached the heights you would expect, but it is something that seems to have found a new clarity since Disarm the Descent. There was always a sense of hope that came with their music (even during the Howard Jones era), wisdom to the despair. It is a resonance that is often unmatched in the genre.
They may have been the best metalcore band of the past decade, but with grace, gravitas, and fury, Atonement rings just a little louder, with a little more vitality, signaling that they could well be on their way to becoming metal’s best band, period.
The Ritualists – Painted People
The Ritualists play some determined, strong-willed music
After listening to Painted People by The Ritualists, I was very surprised to learn that this is their debut album. This band shows a maturity in their music that I would not expect from a first album and provides inspirational sounding tracks with ‘reach for the stars’ type of guitar riffs. I hear a modern version of U2 in The Ritualists, along with an influence of Radiohead. Their songs are full, wholehearted post-punk hooks with a lead singer that has a sizeable range.
“Rattles” opens the album, and it’s the type of song that shows their audience that they are here to stay. It has a great build-up of excitement and intensity. The band explains that this song is “A combination of dark, deep-pocketed verses juxtaposed with big, flashy choruses is a key element to tracks”.
“Ice Flower” and “Worthiest One” welcomes an electronic wave to the album and showcases just how impressive lead singer Christian Dryden’s range is. His ability to hit those high notes with such conviction puts my falsetto abilities to shame. “Worthiest One” brings this sort of nostalgic feeling- it’s a rock ballad with a floaty guitar riff.
“She’s The Sun” is a great follow-on from “Worthiest One” as it transfers the mood upwards and directs the music into more of a hypnotic vision, which conveys “the band’s inner Sixties Love Child”. “I’m With The Painted People” has a really relatable background to the song. Dryden felt a larger than life inspiration from people like David Bowie and Simon Le Bon, these artists felt like soulmates, which can be lonely at times. It wasn’t until he ventured out into the clubs of the lower east side of New York which helped him feel comfortable to express his creative vision freely. The song is all about finding like-minded people.
There are hooks galore and catchy choruses in pretty much every song. “With this record, I’ve specifically tried to be anthemic,” admits Dryden. “I’ve always loved going to shows, where immediately after the performance, and even on the ensuing days after, you just can’t help but remember and sing the songs you’ve just heard. It’s almost like a higher form of communication.” The Ritualists play some determined, strong-willed music and Painted People shows hints of variations with different genres explored throughout. They sound motivated and in return have produced motivating music for their listeners.
The Decline – Flash Gordon Ramsay Street
What The Decline get absolutely spot-on is their clinical, unrelenting brand of skate punk
It’s possible that since punk broke through to the mainstream in the mid to late ’90s, listeners outside of Australia think Frenzal Rhomb are the only band to have come from the lucky country. It’s true that during the rise of that Epitaph and Fat Wreck sound, Frenzal Rhomb became the namesake of the genre from Australia. However, Australian punks know that their history stretches long before the release of Survival of the Fattest. From the legendary sounds of The Saints to the rock n’ roll infused punk of Radio Birdman, Australia’s punk rock history is not only rich but very much precedes the genre’s mainstream explosion.
Frenzal Rhomb were another chapter in punk down under and for many, they opened a lot of doors. If not at the very least, proved that there were fertile grounds for new bands to emerge across the vast land. Western Australia’s The Decline formed in 2005 and quickly showed their talent for writing up-tempo melodicore that shred as much as it soared. From their 2010 debut, I’m Not Gonna Lie To You, it was clear that the band were equal parts snotty, urgent, funny, and melodic. Like the Frenzal Rhomb formula, they’ve got all of it in spades with a mean streak of Australianness that is both endearing and extremely relatable. Their latest album is no different.
From the title alone you can tell you’re in for a shedload of fun, and while it’s easy to think that Flash Gordon Ramsay Street is just goofy humor, it’s actually got a lot of pointed commentary too. From the animal-supportin’, veggie-lovin’, attack on meatlovers and meatheads (“Brovine”), to the real-estate market questioning “Smashed Avo”, there’s plenty of current talking points that The Decline run through. Sure, you also get vegan buffalo wing recipes (surprisingly, not the song titled “Bullet With Buffalo Wings”) and a love for The Legend of Zelda, but who says you can’t sing about Marxist theories while talking about your love for Nintendo?
What The Decline get absolutely spot-on is their clinical, unrelenting brand of skate punk; taking plenty of cues from the best of the NOFX / No Fun At All up-tempo, hardcore-derived brand of punk. The hooks on Flash Gordon Ramsey Street are as infectious as horny teens on spring break, highlighted by the endless harmonies on songs like the terrific “It Was Always You” and the call and response male-female vocal attack of “Verge Collection”. Brevity is also key, as the majority of the songs here never overstay their welcome with the longest clocking in at just 3:15 (the wistful closing of “Josh”).
Flash Gordon Ramsey Street is concise, to-the-point, and a furious medley of skate punk urgency that is relevant to young adult life as punks in Australia. Great production values to boot mean you can’t go wrong here.