Killswitch Engage – Atonement

Killswitch Engage have had a bit of a rough go of it over the last decade. The once trailblazing popularisers and perfecters of modern metalcore have maintained both a steady output and flawless live reputation since the first broke through with now-legendary albums like Alive or Just Breathing (2002) and The End of Heartache (2004). Yet, even with the much-coveted return of iconic vocalist Jesse Leach, the band’s releases in recent years have been uneven at best, and the once-untouchable Massachusites have seen their stock fall to the (upper) middle among a scene they—perhaps more than any other modern act—helped shape. As a result there is perhaps less expectation surrounding the quintet’s eighth album than there has been since their debut or, at least, Alive or Just Breathing—which is a shame, because Atonement is the kind of album that would have rocketed Killswitch Engage into the metal stratosphere had it come hot on the heels of The End of Heartache or even As Daylight Dies (2006).

Not that you’d be able to tell from the two singles they’ve released so far, but Atonement is the best Killswitch engage album since the classic one-two of End of Heartache and Alive or Just Breathing. Disarm the Descent (2013) and As Daylight Dies have their fans, and are fine records in their own right, but this album has a hunger and a polish to it that hasn’t been felt since the band’s glory years. Everything about Atonement is faster, harder and more aggressive than anything they’ve put out since 2004, while also boasting a level of song craft and presentation that the band and many of their peers haven’t achieved since the the early/mid-2000s, when modern metalcore was first coming into its own.

The quintet’s previous offering, Incarnate (2016), was a solid-if-uninspiring effort that had a tendency to come across a bit flat. Atonement, by comparison, is utterly overflowing with vitality. The album boasts some of the most intricate and involved musicianship of Killswitch Engage’s career, with Adam Dutkiewicz and Joel Stroetzel‘s guitar playing coming across as particularly inspired. Leach is, likewise, in top form – delivering a particularly powerful performance that is made all the more impressive in light of his recent vocal-cord surgery; Justin Foley sounds absolutely ravenous behind the kit, and even Mike D’Antonio (winner of metalcore’s least distinctive bass-player award 20-years running) ensures his presence is felt throughout the record. All of these outstanding performances are bolsted by the record’s phenomenal production, which was presumably again handled by Dutkiewickz. As a producer, Dutkiewickz had a big hand in shaping the modern metal(core) sound. His more recent efforts may have slipped over into overly-processed territory. However at his best, his work was nigh untouchable and, on Atonement, he is back at peak performance – bestowing the record with a muscular production that capitalizes on early-2000s nostalgia while also sounding undeniably modern.

Atonement‘s individual songs and performances are all near flawless. However, they aren’t necessarily presented in the most effective manner – leading to the albums only, glaring fault: its sequencing. Particularly during the early stages of the record, the songs are arranged in such a way that the album feels unable to build up any momentum. Its early tracks often alternate between harsher and softer fare, which can lead to a sense of unevenness and even confusion as to the discrepancy between the album’s net output and its apparent quality. The problem largely resolves itself come the record’s second half, which doubles down on the more aggressive offerings, delivering a more even and energetic experience. The album’s early unevenness, however, may mean that many listeners might be put off before they get there or, otherwise, irritated by the discrepancy between its front and back halves – as was the case with my own early experiences with the album. In fact, it wasn’t until I re-sequenced it into (what I believe) is a more consistent and effective package that it finally clicked with me, which it ended up doing in a BIG way.

For the remainder of this review, then, I’m going to do something a but different. I’m going to go track by track through Atonement, but not in the order it’s presented in. Rather I’m going to step through each of the tracks in my suggested re-sequenced running order – offering overall evaluations of each track, but also providing the rationale behind why I think each track works better in its alternate order.

Straight out of the gate, I’m flipping the first two tracks. Rather than the slow build-up offered by “Unleashed”, this alternate running order gets right into it with the “The Signal Fire”. The track opens with a death growl from Leach atop some pummeling double bass drumming. The effect is similar to “The Hell in Me” from Disarm the Dissent, except the song itself is far tighter and more memorable. The thrashy tone sets the stage for much of what’s to come while also putting its strongest foot forward with the collaboration between Leach and Howard Jones. The song was apparently inspired by a dream Leach had (probably after binging a bunch of Game of Thrones) of him scaling a mountain and lighting a signal fire, with the similarity of the subject matter to the name of Jones’s new outfit Light the Torch inspiring the collaboration Killswitch Engage fans have long been waiting for. Jones’s contribution is a touch underwhelming when he first shows up on the chorus—with his vocals sounding as if they’re mixed slightly lower than Leach’s fuller contributions. However, the moment the song drops back into its half-timed verse and Jones’s distinctive harsh vocals kick in provides a perfect reminder the power and charisma that established him as the trademark metalcore vocalist.

From this blistering opening, we’re dropping into “Unleashed”. Killswitch Engage have a history of weightier second offerings—think “Take this Oath” or “Hate By Design”—and bumping the album’s original opener to second position allows it to hit with far more impact once the energy has already been built up, rather than waiting brooding about while waiting for things to get going. At heart, the song is still a more angular imitation of “The End of Heartache”, with its open staccato rhythms and call and response of “Decieve me… Release me… Unleash Me…” but it carries a lot more emotional and musical heft when allowed to contrast with its more frantic surrounds and Leach’s phenomenal vocal performance likewise lends the track more power than it perhaps inherently inspires.

Speaking of juxtaposition, up next is arguably Atonement’s (ahem…) crowning achievement: “The Crownless King”. The track is another thrasher that even recruits Testament’s Chuck Billy into to help bolster the band’s already potent thrash metal credentials. In a telling case of inspiration coming full-circle, Billy’s contributions are far more reminiscent of Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe’s hoarse hardcore growl than his own distinctive death-thrash tones—leaving one to wonder just how and why Blythe and Killswitch Engage haven’t collaborated already. Regardless, the song remains an outstanding blend of traditional thrash aesthetics with Killswitch’s modern metalcore take on the genre’s tropes, and the lead sections provide this version of the running order’s first glimpses into the absolute fire Dutkiewicz and Stroetzel are on on Atonement.

Next, we’re taking things down a bit with “I Can’t Be the Only One”. The song’s opening recalls the classic Alive or Just Breathing “ballad” “My Last Serenade” (which was also, coincidentally, positioned at track four) and its slower pace and predominantly clean vocal delivery perhaps pidgeonhole it as one of the album’s softer offerings. However, the track remains quite pacey and much of it is backed by a collection deceptively rabid melodic death metal tremolo riffs, which help maintain a consistent level of ferocity while also proving that pace and aggression need not be sacrificed in more sentimental settings.

From there we’re picking things back up again with “Ravenous”, which opens with a compelling hardcore beatdown—which, perhaps more than anything on Atonement, harks back to the days of Alive or Just Breathing—before launching back into the band’s trademark thrashy/melodic death riffing. I mentioned above that Atonement’s overall aesthetic recalls Dutkiewicz’s work with the metalcore titans of the early 2000s, and this track in particular brings to mind As I Lay Dying’s cleaner and pacier turn on An Ocean between Us (2007). Yet, while its built on a foundation of nostalgia, “Ravenous” continues to brim with the newfound vitality displayed elsewhere throughout Atonement.

The thrashing (and AILD-proximity) continues on “Know Your Enemy”, which is another contender for potential album opener, which is unfortunately held back by some seriously sub-par lyrical content. Leach has never been the most nuanced when it comes to political posturing but, even by his standards, the song’s catchcry of “Bow down to no one, Resist the system” falls pretty flat, although the (slightly) more concrete instruction to “Protest, [and] Demonstrate” is a welcome addition to the song’s otherwise fairly toothless list of political invectives. Musically, however, the song is nothing if not compelling, with it’s almost Pantera-esque verse riff and uplifting chorus doing enough of the grunt work to ensure that the song is not only effective, but also actually one of Atonement’s more memorable and affective offerings.

Following on from there, “Us Against the World”. The song is another of the album’s quazi-ballads, about which I don’t really have that much to say, other than to point out that its chorus melody strongly recalls that of “A Light in a Darkened World” from the second self-titled. Nevertheless, its  lyrical message of solidarity contrasts well with the preceding call to arms of “Know Your Enemy”.

Leach’s lyrical weaknesses reappear, however, on the album’s second single “I Am Broken Too” (below). The singer has characterised the song, which deals with themes of suicide and depression, as one that “means more to [him] than almost any other [he has] ever written” and the band are donating a(n undisclosed) portion of the track’s proceedings to Chicago-based non-profit Hope For The Day, which helps tackle suicide prevention through the use of musical and artistic outreach—which is all incredibly admirable. Yet, again, the lyrics come across as incredibly cliché or, at best, under developed. The chorus, in which Leach promises to “reopen my wounds, in all the right places for you” carries about as much weight as The Amity Affliction’s “All Fucked Up”. If these sorts of lyrics resonate with listeners, then great! However, this chorus is repeated three times across the course of the song’s sub-three-minute run-time—interjected only by verses made up of two-line platitudes, and the mandatory, semi-spoken breakdown that these sort of songs call for. The riffing remains suitable and engaging throughout but, out of all of Atonement’s compelling compositions, it’s “I Am Broken Too” that feels the most like it needed a bit more time in the metaphorical oven, especially if Leach wanted the listener to truly “feel the urgency, the heaviness of the topic”.

By comparison, “Take Control” provides a far more specific and affecting exploration of anxiety. The song is also undeniably more musically accomplished, with its soaring, climactic solo—reminiscent of Machine Head’s melodic apex in “Descend the Shades of Night”—constituting a high point for Dutkiewicz’s leads, both on the album and possibly beyond.

Atonement’s original closer “Bite the Hand that Feeds” I’ve moved into the penultimate position. Again, the guitar playing is outstanding, and it stands alongside “The Crownless King” and “The Signal Fire” as one of the album’s strongest offerings. The track is built around another frantic melodic death metal-style tremolo riff that only builds in intensity as it approaches the chorus where it utterly explodes. I’ve been fairly critical of Leach’s lyrics in this review, but his lyrics here along with his sublime delivery of “led by liars and thieves” during the chorus are absolutely masterful. The track ends oddly in that it dissipates into a slow chug that lacks a lot of the punch you might expect from such compositions before slowly fading out. I suspect its original position at the end of the album was meant to invoke the idea of marching hordes, trooping off to fight the powers that be. However, it was a somewhat unsatisfying end to an otherwise outstanding album.

…which is why I’ve moved “As Sure as the Sun Will Rise” into the final position. The track’s uplifting air ends things instead on a note of hopeful resolve, similar to that inspired by The End of Heartache’s “Hope Is”, and provides (what I think is) a satisfyingly triumphant conclusion to an implied narrative of resistance that (now) began with “The Signal Fire”’s combative call to arms.

Evaluating an album in this manner may be a tad hubristic and will probably make a lot more sense once listeners have access to the the whole thing. However, re-arranging Atonement’s tracks into the above order has really allowed me to find my way inside the album and quickly made it one of my most listened to and enjoyed records of 2019. Hopefully such an evaluation will allow other listeners the same insight into what is an inherently outstanding, although potentially frustrating record.

Atonement is out August 16 through Metal Blade Records. I promise the rest of the album is better than the two singles we have so far.

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