Let’s just come out with it right away – Skillet are awful. Always have been, most likely always will be. In a hard rock scene that wears its lack of innovative qualities like a badge of honour, it takes a very special band to fall below almost all of them in the stakes of lazy songcraft, sickening overproduction and a sheer starving of imagination, but Skillet have somehow managed that given that they’ve not done anything even remotely worthwhile in over twenty years. They could be comparable to someone like Thousand Foot Krutch in a way (even down to their immersion in the Christian rock bubble), but whereas they have Courtesy Call which is a better song than it really has any right to be, Skillet’s trafficking in overcooked, impossibly formulaic slurry doesn’t even have the good graces to produce something like that. And thus, it’s absolutely mystifying why any society has allowed a band like this to reach their tenth album, not to mention one for whom every previous release has recycled the exact same themes ad nauseum – not just from other base-level radio-metal bands but from themselves – but here we are with Victorious, an album that might just win points straight away for the utter ludicrousness of the title. Imagine Skillet being victorious at literally anything; what a comical notion that is.
It’s not like that’s going to change right away either – that sort of on-the-spot U-turn would have to be of the magnitude to stop the planet from spinning – but for all the justifiable flak and criticism that’s been thrown their way, Skillet don’t even seem to entertain the idea of improving. And thus, we get Victorious, the same usual slog of barrel-scraping from a band who seem to be constantly raising the bar when it comes to how to make rock music as redundant as possible. What’s even funnier is that Skillet don’t even seem to realise that; this is simultaneously about as hollow yet high-mindedly self-congratulatory as music comes, neither of which work in conjunction with one another. Of course, that’s nothing new for this band, but for all the confidence that Victorious plasters upon itself, there’s a certain comic irony that it’s just as bad as ever.
And because this is a Skillet album and nothing ever extends beyond the very surface level, it doesn’t even take much effort to see where this album goes horrendously wrong. Here, the customarily synthesised production of modern hard rock congeals with the sanitised edgelessness of Christian rock for a flavourless, vaguely nu-metal-ish slop spread across forty-five minutes with barely a moment that sounds like it was produced by an actual human being. To give Skillet the most fleeting sliver of credit, the vocal performances are at least passable, with John Cooper able to get fairly authoritative when the situation calls for it and Jen Ledger’s poppier accompaniments breaking away from the norm if nothing else. But that’s about as much presence as Skillet can actually muster, at least without the help of crushing, overbearing layers of production of This Is The Kingdom and Terrify The Dark to sound as artificially imposing as possible and mask just how much any real guitar work or rock snarl has been suffocated under the overworking. For an album that wants to sound as grand and big-budget as Victorious clearly does (and given Skillet’s past successes, they definitely have the means to achieve that), it’s actually shocking how little this pays off in any conceivable way. There’s no semblance of a groove or a bass tone anywhere for a start, as tracks like the title track and Save Me think that flat, slapped down guitars buried under fake strings and overdone synths counts as grandeur, and Anchor draws from the schmaltziest well imaginable for the sort of lumpy power-ballad that’s chaste enough to only come from a Christian rock band. Reach actually does the unthinkable and shows basic competence with its heavier, galloping riffs, but given how it’s surrounded by the horrendous, static-inflicted guitar work of Never Going Back that might be one of the most disgustingly synthesised sounds put to record this decade, and the lolling, lumbering globster of Finish Line, it becomes clear how anything deemed positive about this album is more than likely a fluke.
Even among the hard rock pantheon of bands trying to distance themselves as much as possible from sounding like actual rock bands, Skillet are far ahead of the pack with this one, but at least Victorious remains securely within the lyrical rubric so not to sacrifice any potential radio play or playlist spots. And even for a band like Skillet who’ve never been brilliant wordsmiths in any capacity, Victorious feels horrendously lazy, both when viewed simply as a rock album in its mercenary wrangling of any possible lyrical trope it can get its cybernetic hands on, and as a Christian album for eschewing any subtext or depth whatsoever and throwing out its message with next to no layering at any point. Sure, the argument can be made that a track like You Ain’t Ready falls exclusively into hard rock’s chest-pumping self-esteem paddock, but it’s not like Legendary or Rise Up aren’t kept vague enough to meet both their radio-ready and evangelical quotas, or Anchor gives as little detail as it can in its power-ballad mould to be either a standard relationship song or a wider-reaching celebration of God (and given how clandestine it is, it’s most likely the latter). And to some extent, Skillet deserve credit for catering to both sides of their audience when possible, but the cold, calculated nature of it all means that anything distinct to them is promptly sloughed off, and what’s left is a dozen empty husks that have been painstakingly crafted for maximum safety and potential to apply to whichever situation needs them the most. It’s about as close to being literal as the phrase ‘rock-by-committee’ gets, as Skillet willingly drain themselves of the last dregs of their creative intent, and replicate whatever tropes and clichés will disturb the status quo as little as possible.
And to that extent, it’s not hyperbole to say that Skillet may be the most useless, inessential band operating today. There’s not one kernel of an idea on this album that hasn’t been done exponentially better hundreds of times before, and even for all the negative effects that a band like Imagine Dragons have had on the rock world, they at least started a sound themselves. Skillet, on the other hand, have gotten this far on pilfering whatever they can and replicating it in the least engaging, most heavy-handed way possible, only getting so far thanks to dual insulation from both radio-rock and Christian scenes who aren’t willing to admit how fucking terrible such a lucrative money-printer is. Because at the end of that day, that’s what Victorious is; it doesn’t disturb any sort of scene too much, but it’s safe enough to insidiously worm its way in and get Skillet the next batch of hits that they demonstrably do not deserve. The worst thing is it looks like this is their existence for the long haul now, embracing the cycle of a band guaranteed to find success through their tepid, unfulfilling means, and if calling this album Victorious is the taunt that Skillet know how well this works for them, that’s just an unnecessary amount of extra salt in the wound.
For fans of: Starset, Thousand Foot Krutch, Red
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Victorious’ by Skillet is out now on Atlantic Records.