The official edited version of this review is available here.
With Incarnate, the Massachusetts quintet’s seventh full-length LP, Killswitch Engage faces a similar challenge that Thrash Metal veterans Anthrax faced on last month’s For All Kings. In 2011, Anthrax’s reunion in the studio with classic-era frontman Joey Belladonna yielded Worship Music, an album that shot past its impossible hype and thrust itself into the top tier of their storied discography. But once the reunion magic fades, delivering an equally worthy follow-up is the ultimate test, one that Anthrax, by all accounts, passed with flying colors on For All Kings.
Despite Killswitch Engage being part of a different generation of Metal, 2013’s Disarm the Descent was, in a sense, their Worship Music – the riveting return of original vocalist Jesse Leach that exceeded all expectations, wrestling its way into consideration for KSE’s best since 2002’s groundbreaking Alive or Just Breathing, the landmark that established a blueprint for the entire Metalcore genre. Arriving in the wake of such a triumph as Descent, Incarnate is thus a pivotal record, as the band has the opportunity to reassert their staying power, something they achieve in superb fashion here.
Before the band streamed over half of Incarnate ahead of its release in true 2016 fashion, the two initial singles were “Strength of the Mind” and “Hate By Design”, both quintessential Killswitch: delicate balancing acts between rage and beauty. Riff-wise, “Strength of the Mind” is pure Pantera, with an uplifting Jesse Leach chorus slapped on top, while “Hate By Design” takes an impassioned stand against the destructive legacies that prejudice and discrimination can leave, urging listeners to “redefine your life”. Both tracks undoubtedly hinted at greatness, a standard that is upheld by the majority of the remainder of the LP.
The aforementioned singles – both standouts in their own right – are surrounded by a remarkably consistent track list. There’s the defiant opener “Alone I Stand”, the soaring “Cut Me Loose”, and the sludgy “It Falls On Me”, which brings sharp contrast with its desolate aesthetic. “Embrace the Journey…Upraised” is perhaps the album’s apex, boasting one of Incarnate’s most crushing guitar riffs, a chunky bass riff, and an impeccable mixture of heavy and melodic, which is perhaps Killswitch’s strongest asset when firing on all cylinders. “Until the Day” is another highlight as the band channels Colony-era In Flames for the song’s lively refrain. Elsewhere, the riffs continue a familiar Thrash worship, answered with thunderous double bass drums and the occasional blast-beat. Even when Incarnate does lose momentum, it’s not until the final pair of tracks – the relatively forgettable “We Carry On” and “Ascension” – which by then are easily forgiven. And perhaps most importantly, from a sonic standpoint, the listener has access to every instrument; the production doesn’t stray from guitarist Adam D.’s winning, accessible modern Metal formula – crystal clear and pristine without being glossy.
Where Incarnate shines brightest is vocalist Jesse Leach, who outperforms himself as a clean singer, as a screamer, and as a lyricist. Lyrically, Incarnate is a deeply moving affair, transitioning from an empowering, hopeful first half to a bleak, despair-ridden second half (Leach spoke about this here). What makes his lyrics resonate with such strength is that Leach is the everyman when it comes to depression and mental illness – Incarnate finds him seeking solace in his pen and paper in the same way his fans seek solace in him. The aura surrounding Leach’s words is that of a very public exorcism of demons, of a man determined to conquer his own internal struggles through occasionally brutal but thoughtful catharsis. And his intense soul baring allows listeners to have a similarly powerful experience. By the LP’s conclusion, one particular lyric embodies the Incarnate journey for both fans and for Leach: “Ghosts of the past no longer torment me/I release the anguish”.