(In this post NCS contributor Gonzo reviews the new album by Killswitch Engage, which is out now via Metal Blade Records.)
Perhaps no band in modern American metal has been able to pull off what Killswitch Engage have in their 20-year career: Ascend to the Billboard charts with one vocalist (Jesse Leach), then weather the storm of his departure with a serviceable replacement (Howard Jones), then weather the storm of his departure with the return of Leach, all while never relinquishing their crown as one of the genre’s stalwart kings.
With Atonement, released on August 16th, the band have shown no sign of slowing down. This is the third installment in Leach’s return, and the combination of its blazing riffs, masterful songwriting, and standout individual performances on every instrument might make it the best of the three.
Opening with the foreboding discordance of “Unleashed,” guitarists Adam Dutkiewicz and Joel Stroetzel join forces to grind out syncopated, crushing riffs on top of one of Leach’s best vocal performances to date — especially impressive on Leach’s part, as his throat issues caused the band to cancel seven shows unexpectedly in 2018 while he underwent surgery.
Post-surgery, Leach sounds as commanding and confident as he ever has. Trading vocal duties with none other than Howard Jones on “The Signal Fire” and with Testament’s Chuck Billy on “The Crownless King,” Leach effortlessly switches between throaty roars and soaring serenades. The rest of the band follow suit with some of the most nuanced songwriting in their career, most notably on “Us Against the World,” “Take Control,” and the savagely heavy closer “Bite the Hand That Feeds.”
Never ones to shy away from stirring lyrical content, KSE range from exploring the depths of mental illness (“The Signal Fire”) to fascism (“The Crownless King”) and further into cautious optimism (“I Can’t Be the Only One”). Given time, it’s just as easy to envision fans chanting the chorus of “Take Control” in front of a sweaty barricade as it is with past anthems such as “Fixation on the Darkness” and “Rose of Sharyn.”
2013’s Disarm the Descent was a solid release for the band with Leach returning to the helm. Three years later, Incarnate was a good but not great follow-up. But with Atonement, KSE have taken the Gothenburg-inspired melodic death metal of early In Flames and Arch Enemy and thrown it into a blender on top of the thrash riffs of Destruction and Kreator with the setting on “pulverize.”
All that being said, the band have always known when to stave off the unrelenting heaviness with shades of something, dare I say, lighter. The vulnerability of songs like “I Am Broken Too,” both lyrically and musically, remind us that through the rage and urgency of Killswitch’s music, there’s a heart and soul that’s perceptible. As has been the case since 2002’s Alive or Just Breathing, this band is firing on all cylinders when they’re as vulnerable as they are ferocious.
Through and through, Atonement is Killswitch Engage’s finest hour in over a decade, and one of the year’s strongest moments in metal so far.