With the unfortunately ironic exception of their second self-titled LP, the Killswitch catalog has consistently comprised quality ‘core compositions, and their signature blend of leprosy-grade infectious hooks and rifftastic rhythms has made quite the name for itself. Since the departure of vocalist Howard Jones (Light the Torch, ex-Devil You Know) and subsequent return of original mic-bearer Jesse Leach (Times of Grace), KsE have been steadily increasing the fretboard and emotional intensity on each album, exploring and challenging the full potential of each band member. All in all, they’ve done a pretty remarkable job of defying AMG‘s Law of Diminishing Records, and yet that very fact made me a bit apprehensive of Atonement. Wouldn’t it be just my luck to score reviewing rights to such a renowned and personally beloved1 act only for it to be their Cold Lake?
Thankfully, apparently not. Atonement comes in hot with the aptly titled “Unleashed” and things only go up from there. As with any KsE offering, any fretboard fireworks are largely confined to a rhythmic role, with guitarists Adam Dutkiewicz (Times of Grace, Serpentine Dominion) and Joel Stroetzel typically getting squirrelly during any given song’s chorus rather than launching off into noodly solos a la Times of Grace. With this being the traditional Killswitch way, the minimal presence of solos is hardly a surprise or detriment – and it makes them all the more satisfying when they do show up, such as during “The Signal Fire” or “Take Control.” Don’t get me wrong, there are passages and even entire tracks on Atonement which are dedicated solely to senseless chuggery – this is metalcore, after all – but by and large there’s a coruscating sense of passion and liveliness to the album, an atmosphere of urgent honesty that’s palpable and unmistakably Killswitch. Some might take issue with the relative absence of solos from such skilled string-slingers, but that’s what Unearth are for, yo.
For better or worse, formulaic compositions are kind of a key component of the Killswitch catalog, and it’s a bit hard to fault them for being themselves. Various vocal viewpoints centered around personal strife are another key component of Killswitchdom, and Atonement accordingly is stuffed to the gills with ‘Fuck you, struggles!’ anthems for the underdogs. As such, the tonal scenery here is often bright and vibrant, though as always there’s still a track or two here for when upbeat just ain’t your thing. Leach’s commiserative languishing on “I am Broken Too” is set against a darkened backdrop of minor scales, recalling a similar sound and effect as Disarm the Descent‘s “Always”, and “Know Your Enemy” is just straight up rage.2 The rest of the time, Killswitch continue to be the chuggy, screamy cheerleader that we need…
…though not necessarily the one we deserve. While Atonement is certainly a more impressive and challenging effort than
the thing that should not be 2009’s Killswitch Engage, it’s still no End of Heartache, Daylight Dies, or even a Disarm the Descent. While the songwriting is tight and effective, with all instruments wielded aptly and admirably, there’s no “The End of Heartache” or “My Last Serenade” to stand atop the shoulders of their fellow tracks; Atonement is a textbook example of Killswitch goodness, but it offers fairly little Killswitch greatness. This is not to say that there aren’t some cool moments to be had here: not only does Howard Jones have a guest spot on “The Signal Fire,” “Crownless King” features Chuck fucking Billy of Testament, and both artists’ performances set high points for their respective songs and the album as a whole. This is fine and dandy, but it also means that the best moments on this Killswitch album came from not-Killswitch.3 Atonement is a competently delivered album, but hardly one for the history books, both for the band and the genre in general.
As someone still dealing with PTSD from Self-titled Again, I’m always happy when Killswitch release a new album featuring songs that are fully alive and not just breathing. However, as someone who has waited for a new KsE album and been rewarded with Daylight Dies and Disarm the Descent in the past, it’s tough to be too excited about Atonement; there’s nothing to hate here, but there’s relatively little to love as well. If you’ve spent the last few years praying for a mediocre Killswitch album every night, wish granted yo. Otherwise, for better or worse, Atonement is the very definition of a 3.0,4 and after 20 years and only one dud, I can live with this… for now. If there is a Jørn, may he see fit to grant us with another End of Heartache before the light takes us all.
- I’ll admit that I’ve cooled on Killswitch and metalcore in general over the years, but they were integral to my dive into the depths ov metal nonetheless, and I say thank ya. ↩
- As angry as Killswitch really get, anyway. ↩
- ‘But Muppet, Howard was Killswitch for-‘ *SMACK* The fuck on outta here with that technical bullshit, yo. ↩
- ‘An album you enjoy in its entirety, not just select scattered tracks. It may have flaws or nagging issues but you still enjoy it as an album and expect to return to it in the future.’ ↩