People seem to underestimate what Breaking Benjamin are capable of, not in a musical sense, but what that music can actually do. For a band firmly entrenched in the world of down-tuned 2000s radio-rock, they managed to get their 2015 single Failure to break onto the Billboard Hot 100, as well as the lead single for this album Red Cold River breaking into the top five of the Bubbling Under chart. If nothing else, Breaking Benjamin represent the final pillar of strength to hold up that brand of hard rock into a mainstream consciousness, succeeding where so many of their former peers have fallen.
Whether that’s a good thing or not is purely subjective, but honestly, they haven’t reached where they are now thanks to some insane, daring innovation in their work ethic. It’s definitely a cut above some of the utter dreck to ooze out of the post-grunge landscape, mostly thanks to frontman Ben Burnley’s imposing presence and more realistic angst that made albums like Phobia connect as much as they did, but Ember is still Breaking Benjamin by numbers with very little to remedy that.
In a nice change of pace for this sort of rock though, it’s actually Ember’s instrumentation that proves its defining feature. At face value, it’s nothing special, particularly when compared to anything even vaguely more progressive, but where so many of these bands seem to be regressing into vapid radio hooks with little substance, Breaking Benjamin are at least trying to push ahead with something heavier. Here, there’s a much clearer employment of gruff, low-slung tones akin to nu-metal or a heavier strain of alt-metal, and particularly in the two opening tracks proper Feed The Wolf and Red Cold River, there’s some significant kick there. It’s not that long-lasting though, and even if this album isn’t that long, tracks like Save Yourself sink deep into repetitiveness that feels all the more dull and dirgelike with each passing track. It reaches a point where swelling mid-album ballad The Dark Of You feels more like a necessity than anything else, if only to serve as a change of pace.
It’s the same with Burnley too, initially starting out with a throaty growl that lends a real sense of gravity and intensity, but one that rarely varies beyond some slight passages of melancholy. Even worse are his sporadic bouts of screams that are presumably there to lend an even greater sense of snarling angst, but paired with vocals that can already feel hemmed in and distressingly rigid like on Blood, there’s little ground that’s actually covered here. Granted, it’s not like there’s much to work with overall, as Ember feels encased in an increasingly stagnant array topics that, yet again, highlight how much of a tortured soul Burnley is. To the band’s credit, they’re never as directly on-the-nose as they rightly could be, but that doesn’t stop the likes of Tourniquet or Psycho from growing increasingly stale with each passing listen. Even if imagination does seem to be a greater factor here, that’s by the incredibly low standards of radio-rock; outside of those boundaries, there’s very little worth getting excited about.
But somehow, it feels as though Breaking Benjamin themselves are well aware of that, with Ember being little more than another effort to please their existing fans. Undoubtedly it’ll succeed in just that, but even the most dedicated diehard has to admit that this is far from groundbreaking or any sort of departure from their past material, and such an unashamed recycling of work seldom leads to positive results. But still, Ember manages to elevate above radio-rock’s most uninspired efforts, but this is purely for those who’ve been there all the way through; for everyone else, it’s there to embrace or avoid as per want.
For fans of: Five Finger Death Punch, Three Days Grace, Chevelle
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Ember’ by Breaking Benjamin is out now on Hollywood Records.