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.
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Pine – Pine
Pine’s debut album is a kind of hypnotic melancholia
Where did Ottawa’s Pine come from? It’s a question worth asking after listening to their painfully gorgeous self-titled debut album. Pine use the phrase “doom and gloom never sounded so sweet” to describe their sound, and true to that, this 11-track outing is filled with the kind of hypnotic melancholia that became the playbook for a great many Midwestern emo bands that emerged in the late 90s/early 2000s. The biggest difference here is that while Pine have the heartbreak down pat, their musical sense of loss is lifted slightly by the airy, more wistful sounds of their guitar-strewn songs. Sure, there’s a lot that sounds like a great Mineral record or a Gloria Record album, but there’s also traces of Florida indie/emo band The Rocking Horse Winner and at times, bands like Rainer Maria.
Pine are buoyed by the great vocal work of Darlene Deschamps. Her voice soars through tracks like “Memento” and the terrific “Lusk”. The latter in particular is a great example of how Pine lull you into a sense of calm before it explodes in a collage of symphonic distortion and post-rock twinkling. In “Sunder” they ascend to louder, more expansive sounds. The song is a great combination of thick, fuzzy guitars, mid-tempo percussion work, and that pained vocal delivery that gives the song an extra punch in the guts.
The album took an impressive 2 years to finish, and you can hear the trials and tribulations of that gestation period through the songs. There’s pain, sadness, anger and frustration in songs like the intro “Within You” and the more new emo-esque “Swollen”, but also beauty, and as the album concludes, a sense of incredible catharsis. The record SOUNDS great too, with production values (by a production team that includes Will Yip, who has helmed records by Circa Survive, Braid, Saosin, and the Bouncing Souls to name a few) adding to the grand cinematic finish of the record.
For those who love what emo was in the mid to late 90s will find much to like about Pine just as much as those who like Explosions in the Sky and their post-rock brethren. Pine have been crafting their sound over the last few years and while their previous EP Pillow Talk showed a solid foundation, this new self-titled record is the work of a band close to the height of their abilities. Moving, beautiful, and littered with life’s roller coaster of emotions as songs, Pine is definitely recommended listening.