Killswitch Engage – Incarnate Review

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”.

Score: 4/5

 

 

February 2016 Album Round Up!

We’re just over two months into 2016, and we’ve already – somewhat surprisingly – been blessed with a ton of exciting releases in the midst of typically low-key winter months. When this calendar year is in the books, will we be looking back at January and February as the peak of 2016? Pretty unlikely. But I still feel like I’ve had a fairly reliable, steady stream of high-profile albums to look forward to (some delivered, some did not). And yes, Kanye dropped. But I’m fucking determined to go as long as I possibly can without hearing it. Not for lack of interest either. Just ‘cause. Anyway, here’s a quick recap of nine albums NOT named The Life of Pablo that I spent some time with this past month. Looking forward to what March has in store!

Khalifa – Wiz Khalifa

In the first project of his I’ve enjoyed since 2011’s smash hit Rolling Papers, Wiz dropped some…well, smoking and drinking music. The production and hooks are significantly more effective – to my ears, at least – than O.N.I.F.C. and Blacc Hollywood (save those two albums’ singles). If you’re looking for great lyricism, steer clear, but I definitely found myself coming back to this record quite a bit for some day drinking and pregaming, especially two exceptional, Kush & OJ-style tracks, “Zoney” and “Elevated”. RECOMMENDED

For All Kings – Anthrax

Welcome back Anthrax! About ten listens in, I’ve evaluated For All Kings as “dangerously close” to the Thrash mastery of 2011’s Worship Music. The difference is really just a filler track or two. But the middle chunk of this record is some of the best Anthrax music I’ve ever laid ears on. Joey Belladonna gets the MVP. My full review is available here. YouTube review here. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Day One – From Ashes to New

This studio debut from Lancaster, PA outfit From Ashes to New made me want to vomit. They’re like an even more cheesed-up version of Twenty One Pilots meets Crown the Empire. I appreciate what they’re trying to do, but it just made me cringe. This guy Matt Brandyberry sounds like an even more melodramatic Mike Shinoda when he utters (well, raps) the words: “I lay awake and look at the ceiling and wonder why/I’m so afraid to face all these feelings and want to die”. And that dubstep-y breakdown? Fuck outta here wit dat. Not to mention the clean vocalist sounds fucking IDENTICAL to the guy on Escape the Fate’s self-titled album. I mean, is Day One heavy and appropriately angsty? Passionate even? Sure. And it’ll dominate with the Hot Topic crowd. But holy fuck is it not for me. NOT RECOMMENDED

Sittin’ Heavy – Monster Truck

Simply put, this band’s sophomore effort is the best fucking throwback hard rock record I’ve heard since perhaps Kyng’s Burn the Serum. It’s all there: it’s energetic, passionate, and wholeheartedly convincing. Fans of ‘70s and early ‘80s Rock should check it out immediately! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

This Unruly Mess I’ve Made – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

This one certainly hurt. Macklemore is someone I really root for, if not always for his talent but for his passion, honesty, humility, and sometimes ruthless self-awareness. The Language of My World is phenomenal, The Heist is a near-classic, but Mess, his second with Ryan Lewis, is a huge disappointment. Save a few shining moments (“Light Tunnels”, “Kevin”, and the must-listen “Need of Know”) this thing is all over the place in a BAD way this time. My full review is available here. NOT RECOMMENDED

I Like it When You Sleep – The 1975

Ok, LP number two for these guys, who seem utterly ubiquitous at the moment. I am absolutely in love with the tracks “This Must Be My Dream” and “Somebody Else”. On the latter, those snare drums with the 80s-style reverb are borderline euphoric. While we’re on the topic of the 80s, the standout “She’s American” could’ve squeezed right into an early Huey Lewis and the News disc. But we didn’t need 17 frickin’ songs here. “UGH!” kind of drags in the wake of hit single “Love Me”, and are BOTH “If I Believe You” and “Please Be Naked” necessary when the title track brings all the dynamics this album needs? Still, at a bare minimum this is a wonderful soundtrack to a night drive in the city. Though I tend to think it offers a whole lot more. And yes, I do think Matt Healy eerily resembles Patrick Stump at times. But we’ll agree to disagree. RECOMMENDED

Victorious – Wolfmother

Ugh. This record has one of the strangest dichotomies in any track listing I’ve ever encountered. The first 5 songs are excellent and on par with some of the best moments on Wolfmother’s debut, and the second 5 songs are pure throwaway filler garbage. “Uneven” is an understatement. My full review is available here. NOT RECOMMENDED

X (No Absolutes) – Prong

Album number 11 for Prong – but their 10th of original material – wastes no time with opener “Ultimate Authority”, some excellent Crossover Thrash which would be right at home on a classic like Cleansing (although I know mentioning that record is understandably played out). I love the dissonant yet super-catchy riff in “Without Words” (and, for that matter, “Soul Sickness”) X (No Absolutes) has an impeccable combination of melody and heaviness that all these scream/sing Metalcore bands can only dream about. It stays completely true to the Prong aesthetic, and it’s a set that is sure to devastate in the live environment. I have yet to catch these legends live, so I’m hoping to get the chance on the cycle for X. RECOMMENDED

Dead Dawn – Entombed A.D.

Dead Dawn (Deicide anybody?) is the second album from Entombed 2.0 since the legendary band’s legal battles and break up. One of Entombed’s distinct qualities is how much more groove-oriented they are than the majority of Death Metal, showcased in the title track, and they’re not afraid to get downright melodic, like in that song’s bridge, which sounds like something Arch Enemy would do.There’s nothing in these ten tracks that’ll blow your mind, but there’s some certainly some heavy-ass (surprisingly fun) metal! I’m especially a fan of “Down to Mars to Ride” and the dynamic “Hubris Fall” And it’s still really not THAT far off from Left Hand Path, so there’s that. RECOMMENDED

 

 

Anthrax – For All Kings Review

Evil Twin Write-Up

The official edited version of this review is available here.

Four and a half years ago, after enduring a messy revolving door of singers for nearly a decade– featuring reunions, re-reunions, and one virtual unknown in Dan Nelson – Anthrax mustered up a modern Metal classic against all odds. 2011’s Worship Music, the band’s first with ‘80s-era frontman Joey Belladonna in over 20 years, marked not only a return to form for Anthrax, but arguably a career peak. An album that once threatened to become the Chinese Democracy for headbangers emerged as a definitive statement from one of Thrash Metal’s Big Four.

The genre’s notorious Mount Rushmore – rounded out by Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth – historically joined forces on stage for the first time in Summer 2010, celebrating nearly 30 years of American heavy metal’s most essential movement, culminating with a show at Anthrax’s hometown Yankee Stadium the following year. In addition to capitalizing on an increasing nostalgia for the art form, all four groups have enjoyed reinvigoration in the studio as well, with Slayer and Megadeth both unleashing new albums to critical acclaim, and Metallica’s follow-up to the platinum-selling Death Magnetic due out later this year.

Anthrax once again enters the fold with For All Kings, their 11th full-length and a worthy successor to the monstrous Worship Music. One of the main ingredients that ultimately distinguishes the New Yorkers from their Bay Area peers is having a melodious, powerhouse singer in Joey Belladonna. As opposed to the gruffness of Metallica’s James Hetfield or the snarl of Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine, Belladonna’s vocals are akin to hearing Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson backed by speedier, more muscular riffs. His pipes afford Anthrax the ability to be noticeably more tuneful in some instances, albeit still ferocious.

At fifty-five years of age, For All Kings finds Belladonna delivering his most commanding vocal performance to date, elevating these meaty chunks of speed metal to astonishingly anthemic heights. Even when the rest of the band seems to briefly lose a step, an impossibly huge chorus always seems to be lurking around the corner, showcased best in the otherwise run-of-the-mill “This Battle Chose Us” and the non-essential but excellent title track.

As a five-piece, the middle of the album is where Anthrax make a seriously convincing case for their place on the Metal pantheon. “Defend Avenge” gets the gold medal in the riff category with rhythm guitarist Scott Ian’s uptempo Black Sabbath worship. “Evil Twin” and “Breathing Lightning” both turned out to be excellent choices for singles, as they contain some of the record’s best moments. “Lightning’ is equipped with an almost radio-ready chorus and infectious riffing from Ian, and “Twin” is the Thrash Titans at their most pummeling, also making some poignant political statements about “ideology used as a weapon”. Belladonna once again asserts his crucial role on “Blood Eagle Wings”, a thunderously epic masterwork that, simply put, none of Anthrax’s peers could pull off.

For All Kings is also the band’s first LP with former Shadows Fall axe man Jon Donais, who replaced the talented Rob Caggiano in 2013. Donais proves himself more than a worthy addition and an exceptional fit, especially on the appropriately larger-than-life solo in “Blood Eagle Wings”, the squealing, harmonic-laden licks in “Monster at the End”, and an extended lead that gives album opener “You Gotta Believe” a sharp kick in the teeth just as it begins to coast. As for the Anthrax rhythm section, legendary blastbeat pioneer Charlie Benante continues to be unparalleled in his line of work, maintaining a breakneck pace alongside his nephew, bassist Frank Bello.

The lackluster moments don’t emerge until the final three tracks. “All of Them Thieves” is the sole glaring piece of filler. “This Battle Chose Us” simply underwhelms in the wake of the murderer’s row that occurred in the middle of the album. Chaotic closer “Zero Tolerance”, while certainly a battering assault, occasionally feels like aggression for aggression’s sake, but is a satisfyingly jolting conclusion nevertheless.

While For All Kings might not have quite the staggering greatness of its predecessor, it comes dangerously close. It’s an affair that should leave fans fully satiated, and it sits comfortably in the upper echelon of the band’s celebrated discography.

Score: 3.5/5