If there’s one word that could be best used to describe Killswitch Engage, it would be ‘reliable’. For a band considered among the forefathers of what metalcore would come to be today, they’ve had a pretty noticeable baseline of quality regardless of prominent lineup shifts, and that’s been imperative when it comes to how high of a standard they’re held in today. Saying that though, it’s been a few years since they’ve had an out-and-out great album; Disarm The Descent almost had to be out of necessity to prove that the return of Jesse Leach on lead vocals was a strong move, but Incarnate rarely rose above good enough (especially nowadays when its stock has drastically fallen), and a fair bit of the Howard Jones-fronted material struggles to crack the ceiling set by the milestone of the first Leach era Alive Or Just Breathing. Indeed, for as vaunted as Killswitch Engage have become within metal – and it’s honestly easy to see why that’s become the case – they’ve had a bit of an issue with pushing the boat out, especially when metalcore has proceeded to morph and evolve so profoundly around them.
But regardless of that, it’s felt like their previous albums have had a purpose; with Atonement, the niche it fills seems to extend to ‘a new Killswitch engage album that we’re about due because there hasn’t been one in a couple of years’. There’s not the same amount of weight behind this one, even if there’s been no great change sonically, mostly because it’s a decidedly less exciting album. It’s undoubtedly a step down from a band who are capable of true greatness, and who have delivered it on multiple occasions, but it’s so nondescript that it doesn’t even feel worth summoning up any great anger towards it most of the time. The prominent emotion is more of a combination of mild disappointment and profound disinterest, though for a band like Killswitch Engage, that’s probably even worse.
Again, it’s not like there’s any sort of compositional problem here; that’s pretty much as strong as ever across the board. The generally no-frills presentation is made up for by guitars that soar and roar in equal measure for a typically ironclad foundation, built upon by another remarkably solid layer in Leach’s vocals, particularly the fluid, expressive cleans that always have such enormous poise and verve like on I Am Broken Too and Take Control. All the pieces are there, but where Atonement majorly stumbles is finding a way to effectively utilise them in a way that, up to now, has rarely been a problem. Here, this doesn’t feel like Killswitch Engage’s A-material at all, as they alternate between slower, more meandering cuts that struggle to ramp up into their usually anthemic selves like Us Against The World, and pure forgettability on the likes of Ravenous that have ‘filler’ plastered all over them. It’s disappointing to see how many of the moves here feel perfunctory, and doubly so when they aren’t even that far away from working. As Sure As The Sun Will Rise isn’t exactly top-tier in its own right, but it’s one of the few instances that capitalise on some power-metal bombast to have that edge, rather than just hanging around the mid-level.
That’s probably Atonement’s main issue, at that. This feels like a very safe album, doing its job well enough but never committing enough to go for broke and do something exciting with it. It’s highlighted even further with guest vocalists that are wealths of power and presence in their own right, like Testament’s Chuck Billy and even ex-frontman Howard Jones, but they might as well be glorified backing singers seeing as nothing remotely useful is done with either of their contributions. Add on to that the lyrics which feel like the broadest populist metal anthems possible with the faintest, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smidge of political commentary on The Crownless King, and Atonement simply runs like a checklist of expectations for a Killswitch Engage album – or indeed, any modern metal album – rather than a suitably creative endeavour.
And even then, it’s not like this is outright awful. The parts are all there and they function well enough, but the fire feels so diminished that it’s barely an ember at this point, and that’s where the problem lies. For one of modern metal’s premier bands, Atonement does so little justice to Killswitch Engage’s legacy, mostly feeling like a placeholder or an album waiting for the better trimmings to be added on. Instead, it’s barebones and uninspired, threatening to break into something of a glow in spots but otherwise, comfortable to trundle along and fall well below the previously set watermark.
For fans of: Trivium, Miss May I, Light The Torch
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Atonement’ by Killswitch Engage is out now on Metal Blade Records.