Skillet Rises Higher than Ever with the Best Rock Music of the Year | Posted July 16, 2013 Staff Reviewer
There aren't many bands left that can be called true powerhouse headliners, but Skillet is one of the few and by far one of the most memorable. Their signature symphonic rock sound is arguably one of the most defining and legendary sounds of this Christian rock era. Furthermore, their live show is increasingly stronger with every passing year. Their sound has been one of the driving influences of the Christian rock genre.
With a growing rabid fanbase of "panheads," Skillet, coming off their first platinum album with Awake, is finally ready to release another genre-defining album in Rise.
It's been almost four years since Awake graced our ears and met with a fairly mixed response. While it was by far Skillet's most successful endeavor ever (solidified by the aforementioned Platinum status, plus a slew of smash hit singles on mainstream rock radio), it was also the one that met with the most backlash from critics and some longtime fans for sounding too generic and too much like a Comatose sequel.
While I never subscribed to those views, I did have high hopes that Skillet would alleviate any worries with their follow-up record. And now that it's finally with us, I can breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that not only does Skillet still have it, but they're bigger and better than ever.
The album opens with the gritty and powerful title track, "Rise," which is a call to action for us today as we struggle to survive "in a world gone mad." The song sets the tone perfectly for the theme that permeates the entire album. Rise stands as Skillet's first concept album about a teen growing up in our modern, troubled world. This title track perfectly sets up the conflict and gives hope that we can fight back against it.
It's almost spooky knowing that this song, and the others, were largely written before the tragedies in Sandy Hook and Boston reminded us that evil is alive in our culture. It's so easy to take tomorrow for granted, but so often "yesterday is gone, faster than the blast of a car bomb." The lyrics have proven themselves very relevant for our time given the events that have unfolded in recent years, or even since the song was initially written.
Musically, the song is a great balance between the orchestral rock and edgy rock sounds the band is known for, and an appearance of a children's choir really makes it impossible to define the song as anything but epic. The song ends in a transitional track consisting of audio snippets of a 9-1-1 call, news of economic decline, and a parent verbally abusing their child.
This leads perfectly into lead single, "Sick of It." The song is a great rocker about standing up to all the negative influences in our lives. With the return of Cooper's screams and Skillet's old industrial influences, this track should be pleasing to longtime fans.
Crossover anthem "Good To Be Alive" follows next and is another fine track that reminded me a bit of previous hits "The Older I Get" and "One Day Too Late." There are some pop melodies that really helped make the song a standout for me.
A haunting interlude with a girl singing quickly escalates into a full-on adult operatic choir. (Yeah, you read that right: Skillet's gone opera on us.) After what is an awesome kind of over-the-top intro, "Not Gonna Die" bursts forth in all of its orchestral rock glory. This song is essentially the picture of the kind of music Skillet has made its signature, with dual male/female vocals, strings, and a wicked guitar solo. The emotional chorus is also one of the strongest on the album. All of this makes this song an instant Skillet classic.
The edgy "Circus for a Psycho" is next and proves to be another hit for the band. With gritty vocals, excellent guitar work throughout by Skillet's newest member—Seth Morrison—and a soaring chorus, this is another great cut on the album. If you haven't figured it out by now, there are a lot of those. This song transitions into the power anthem and CHR single, "American Noise," which would feel right at home at any patriotic outdoor concert.
"Madness in Me" brings back the rock for what could be the most intense rocker on the album, complete with some throwback electro-industrial flare (which hasn't been seen much since Alien Youth, but which is subtly there on several tracks here).
Following is the album's final interlude, the Coopers' daughter, Alex, provides a powerful reading from Isaiah, leading into what is being defined as the climax of the album's story, "Salvation." The song is when the main protagonist finally discovers Christ. It starts off dark, haunting and subdued, but unexpectedly escalates into a powerful rocker. This song also marks the first time in Skillet history that Jen Ledger takes the lead on a song. John's still a big presence on the song, particularly on the chorus, but Jen takes the verses and pulls this off like a champ. There is actually quite a bit of Ledger vocals on a good half of the album's cuts. They fit in perfectly.
"Fire and Fury" follows in what could open up a new kind of classification for Skillet, an epic ballad of sorts. This song starts off fairly restrained but you can tell that it's just begging to burst forth, and in the second half, it does. John and Jen's vocals are intense and passionate and help make this a standout cut. Lyrically, it feels like the natural follow-up to "Salvation," with both songs confessing a burning passion for Christ.
"My Religion" is probably one of my most frustrating songs in the history of my music listening experience. Stuck between two highly emotional songs, this quirky attempt at a Southern sound is quite the 180 for the musical momentum. Lyrically, I have some issues with it, which is rare for a Skillet song. And while I can't deny its catchiness, I can't help but think that it'd have been much better served as a bonus track, perhaps swapped with one of the songs that ultimately did get the cut. (More on those later.) Still, this song will undeniably have a lot of fans too, and so I can forgive it and understand why they went with it.
"Hard to Find" has an emotional piano opener (with stringed backing) that sounds ripped from a dramatic movie trailer. Again, the emotional relevance is undeniable as Cooper sings "turned on the TV yesterday, so much pain bleeding through, I had to look away." But the chorus proudly declares that Christ gives us faith, even "when faith is hard to find." There aren't many genuine power ballads on Rise, but this one is so strong that it alone can fill the entire emotional quota of several.
"What I Believe" closes out the "regular edition" in grand fashion. While you might expect another slow song based on the title, the classic epic strings of Jonathan Chu and Tate Olsen promise one more trip down the rock-and-roll road on Rise, and that's exactly what we get. While the chorus is the most pop-driven of the rockers, it's still rock. The song proudly concludes the journey through the album as Christ is declared to be what the protagonist of the story believes, and that he or she will live and die for Him. And this is a declaration all Christians can join in singing. He's our light in the darkness; our hope in a hopeless world. The music conveys this upbeat tone so well while still keeping the rock coming. The strings are a fantastic way to send the album off and truly leave you wanting more. And it just so happens, Skillet's prepared for that.
If Skillet had just given us the songs featured on the regular edition, it'd be a stellar album by any standards. But, as they did with Awake, there's also a Deluxe Edition of the album releasing the same day. (It also comes with a live DVD of their 2012 Winter Jam set that isn't reviewed here.) And this one comes jam-packed with three additional songs.
While some B-sides in general are treats that understandably didn't make the cut, every so often a B-side will be so good that you wonder how it could possibly be banished to a lesser-known deluxe edition. And to no surprise, Skillet's B-sides fall into the latter category.
"Battle Cry" is the first of these. It opens up with a brief harp-intro that is almost heavenly. Then the bass picks up and the verse builds to a powerful rock chorus. The song stands as one of the best crossover songs Skillet's ever done, perfectly balancing an energetic rock sound with accessible pop melodies and "ohs" that will make this song destined to be a fan-favorite, despite not being on the regular album. Thematically, it fits right into the story, as it sings standing strong against the world and all it can throw at you, because the world "can't take us down, if we stand our ground. If we live, if we die, we will shout out, our battle cry." It's truly a standout on what was already an album of epic proportions. And as the song fades out, there are still two more bonuses to go.
"Everything Goes Black" might make you think of a head-banging rocker from the title, but it's actually quite a lot more restrained. In fact, the song starts with soft strings and keys and softer, melancholy vocals from John that are a lot quieter than just about anything we've seen from Skillet in several albums.
The song picks up a bit after the first chorus and ends up being a dark and emotional rock ballad. The song's lyrics are among the darkest and most personal on the album, speaking of how empty and painful life is when Christ, the Light of the world, isn't in our lives. John and Jen's dueling vocals return and complement each other to perfection. When John sings, "Whenever you're gone away, the darkness hides the day / whenever you're gone, the bleeding won't stop / it hurts 'til you come back / everything goes black," you can feel the honesty and emotion. The song's softness and simple melody allow the lyrics to truly resonate. One can easily see this being played acoustically and I hope its status as a bonus track doesn't cause it to get overlooked.
The bonus tracks come to a close in the unique rocker, "Freak Show." Opening with an announcer welcoming a crowd to the "freak show," this rocker proves to be an album highlight. The electronic influences are on full display here but there's still Skillet's fierce edge and guitar goodness driving the song.
Thematically, the song plays on the classic "not of this world" theme (literally quoted in the intro) and harkens back memories of Alien Youth both in theme and sound. "Welcome to the freak show / this is where the freaks go / this is the place that they can never take away," might come off as a tad cheesy, but I bet you'll find yourself singing along to it all day long.
When Cooper sings "I'm a freak naturally, it's how I wanna be / you're a freak, just like me," it's a truly relevant and rousing moment and a great thought to leave us with as Rise (Deluxe Edition) comes to a close. It's an overall satisfying entry and completes the trio of delectable bonus offerings that each could've felt right at home on the album.
Those who miss Skillet's lyrically bolder days should find this album refreshing. While the lyrics are still largely what we've come to expect since Collide, this is arguably their boldest faith-based release since Alien Youth, with everything from "Salvation" on being undeniably Christ-centric, and even outright worship. Any basis for Skillet selling out that there was (which wasn't really strong to begin with) is totally washed away with this release.
Deluxe Edition DVD:
In addition to the bonus tracks, the Deluxe Edition of the album comes with a DVD full of goodies. While many might expect some of the behind-the-scenes featurettes that are here, the Awake and Live DVD is actually focused on a live concert captured from a Michigan stop of the 2012 Winter Jam that Skillet headlined.
The set list is only 9 songs, making it noticeably shorter than previous live album, Comatose Comes Alive. Yet that was to be expected, as this is just a bonus on a regular CD release. The Winter Jam set was an ideal one to pick though, as it hits what are arguably the strongest and most memorable cuts from Comatose and Awake. Also included are John Cooper's powerful speeches leading into "Awake and Alive" and "The Last Night." It's great to finally have a professional quality "war for your soul" monologue. My only regret is that Skillet didn't give the powerful story behind "Lucy" during this tour, as it would've been a timely inclusion. But what's here is sufficient.
Finally having professional video of the revamped set intro to "Whispers in the Dark" and the intro/outro to "Rebirthing" alone made this a winner for me. For just nine songs, this one is one of the tightest set lists Skillet's ever had. (Pre-Rise, at least.)
The sound and video quality are more than satisfactory. There are times when the sound feels a bit overproduced and the audience's responses aren't always audible. The video gets up close and personal with the band's performance, which helps you get a much closer view of what's going on than you otherwise would in a sold-out stadium. Perhaps there'd be reason to expect more if this was a full-length live release, but for a Deluxe bonus, this live DVD is exceptional and quite the enjoyable treat. It definitely elevates this Deluxe Edition worlds above Awake's. For once, it doesn't just feel like a cheap gimmick to get you to spend extra money for bonus songs. This one actually feels deluxe.
There are three behind-the-scenes featurettes scattered throughout the concert showing things such as backstage and photo shoots for Rise. These are all very interesting but would've probably been better in the bonus material to avoid interrupting the flow of the concert. There's also a "Making of Rise" featurette. It's more of what you'd expect from such a DVD, but it's still a worthy inclusion. It's always interesting to see the process of what goes into the making of an album and there are several little nuggets of info that are interesting. (There also are glimpses of artwork Jen drew that had previously not been released.) It's a great way to top off a fine Deluxe package.
Rise is the picture of a legendary album. The music is epic and memorable, with every song a classic in the making. It's a thematic renaissance for Skillet as well as a musical one. There's the best of everything Skillet here: the strings, the rock focus, the gritty and dueling rock vocals, the industrial influence and lots of new surprises.
Even in all of these, I can't accurately describe how great this album is. There are so many layers and intricate details that you will discover upon subsequent listens—even after many listens. Add to that a fine Deluxe package, and you have one magnificent album. (The Deluxe looks amazing in it's Digipak packaging, by the way. It felt really good to go and buy it. Just from how cool it looked, I knew I was holding something special. The lyric booklet with poster on back, the artwork, it all contributes to the amped up look.)
The Skillet gold standard has been met, and raised once more. Rise is the quintessential album of the year and one destined to go down in the history books. In short, Skillet is back, better than ever, and ready to send shockwaves through the rock world yet again.
Jen Ledger did the artwork for the album and the album cover. While John Cooper wrote the songs thinking about a boy, Jen drew a collection of artwork inspired by the songs featuring a young girl. The artwork on this record is actually very creative and memorable. Major props to Jen for a job well done.
Song to Download Now*:
"Not Gonna Die" (Get it on iTunes here
(*Okay, you can't really just download ONE song from an album this good, but if you must pick only one, I recommend this one.)