It must be tough to be in a genre-defining band. Along with the success of each album comes the pressure to outdo yourself with every release. With that said, Killswitch Engage is an ambitious record which finds the band of the same name stretching their boundaries -- with decidedly interesting results.
The most obvious change is KsE's decision to bring in outside producer Brendan O'Brien (AC/DC, Rage Against the Machine and the Offspring fame), having shredded through four albums with engineer/producer/guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz at the helm. Although this may insinuate a change in sound, rest assured: KsE retains many of the familiar characteristics of previous releases. Standout tracks like "Starting Over" and "Reckoning" (aptly the first to be featured on the band's MySpace) are sure to please die-hard fans and newcomers alike. As in past releases, the band excels in balancing intricate, heartfelt melodies with aggressive breaks. Singer Howard Jones continues to alternate between aggressive screaming and clean, hooky choruses which quickly infect the listener.
Now come the differences. In past albums, the band managed to perfect its own blend of American metal, hardcore and European influences. The new release finds KsE fully embracing the influence of their Swedish brethren (the riff-laden intro to "Save Me" is eerily reminiscent of Soilwork's "Figure Number Five" and the beginning of "A Light in a Darkened World" could be a B-side from In Flames The Jester Race). One can also hear more subtle influences (the chorus melody in "Starting Over" bears a striking resemblance to that of Brand New's "Millstone"; for comparison's sake, try singing alternate lyrics "take me out tonight" to the former).
Other points of the album find KsE making old new again by revisiting their work in previous projects. In opener "Never Again," Howard's harsher, lower-pitched growls hearken back to his days in hardcore act Blood Has Been Shed, yielding some impressive results. Similarly, the guitar work in "I Would Do Anything" reminds the listener of Adam D's lesser-know days in MA hardcore/metal act Aftershock, and bassist Mike D. is unable to suppress some of his signature bass work from MA legends Overcast. The band also treads new ground in some of the backup vocals -- namely in "The Return" and "Forgotten," where atmospheric choral harmonies complement the music. Although the production is slightly better than previous releases, these new elements blend seamlessly with the familiar Killswitch sound.
Perhaps some of the less-successful moments are when Jones attempts to add melody to heavy underlying riffs, which at times seem misplaced (the uninspired verses in "Lost" make this one of the weaker tunes on the album). At times, Killswitch's formulaic screaming/singing combination and open-chugging simply seems tired and repetitive. Compared to the successful singles "Starting Over" and "Reckoning," the choruses in "Take Me Away" and "I Would Do Anything" fall somewhat short. One can only hope the riffs that comprise the first 45 seconds of "The Forgotten" were written tongue-in-cheek.
Lyrically, there isn't much new to report, with Jones tackling the usual themes of lost love, broken hearts and painful memories. Although well-put together, KsE lacks some of the obvious flow of The End of Heartache and Alive or Just Breathing. But after four albums in the same genre and only so many combinations in the rock repertoire, one must give credit where credit is due, and the casual listener should be able to find something identifiable in the mix. (What is the story with all these "The" song titles, though?)
Overall, Killswitch Engage succeed in creating yet another powerful addition to their legacy as one of the premiere acts in American hardcore/metal. With a new producer on board and an ever-expanding legion of fans, the band shows no sign of slowing down. One only hopes that this "self-titled" release does not signify any conclusion to this talented band.