Being a pioneer of an entire movement in music is quite the title to be tagged with. Earning that divine right of accountability means other musicians heard your music and followed in your prestigious footsteps. This is certainly the case for Massachusetts metalcore veterans, Killswitch Engage.
If one traced the lineage down throughout the metalcore movement of the past seventeen years, it would always lead back to Killswitch. Since their self-titled debut record in 1999 the five-piece have crafted a refined mixture of raw aggression and uplifting melody that has slowly become more prolific over time. As time would also have it, the changing of singers has never hindered the band. When original vocalist Jesse Leach left the band and Howard Jones entered KSE’s name was associated with an incredible amount of hype. Likewise when Howard Jones left and Jesse Leach re-entered, what seemed like a spark burning out became a fire quickly ignited once again. Jesse’s step back into Killswitch Engage was the revitalization of the group’s more aggressive edge that permeated the Disarm The Descent record in 2013. While Disarm The Descent was certainly sharper and more passionate than anything KSE had done in years, it still possessed plentiful amounts of melody making it more energetic than heavy. Speculation followed that with Jesse’s return the band would go on to make an even more aggro follow-up record. Here they are, three years later with that very record, dubbed Incarnate.
Firstly, where Disarm The Descent was a great balance of the elements that comprise Killswitch Engage Incarnate brings with it a clear rear-view mirror to both the self-titled and Alive Or Just Breathing. The anger and command that Jesse gave off on those records is here in full force on Incarnate. His wise ways with words and intelligent lessons to be taught through experience are the lyrical subject matter of the record. What truly is a callback to the first two Killswitch records is the consistently magnified commentary of the skewed ways of the modern world. Alive Or Just Breathing addressed this too in a way that, at the time, was spot-on and in age has only gained more credibility. Clearly the goal with Incarnate is to carry on in that spirit.
Beginning with the juxtaposition hardcore thrash of “Alone I Stand”, Incarnate throws its listeners in head-first. Notably, the album is divided into two “sides”, each with six tracks for a total of twelve. As a means of bringing about nostalgia Jesse opens the song with impassioned yells over a triumphant melodic leading line that calls to mind “Numbered Days” from Alive Or Just Breathing and “No End In Sight” off Disarm The Descent. Later in the song the bridge section is reminiscent of “Self-Revolution” from Alive Or Just Breathing. These types of subtly familiar moments occur throughout the record. “Alone I Stand” is literal defiance against a system Jesse would clearly like to never associate with. The well-telegraphed tempo changes from verse to chorus create a familiar, but totally new vibe for the Killswitch sound. The towering chorus isn’t so much built up to as it is a natural occurance. Adam D and Joel Struetzel’s riffs in this song are some of their best on the entire record, coordinating perfectly with Justin Foley’s mathematical style of off-time drumming in this track.
A refusal to let up is translated perfectly in the album’s second “Hate By Design”. It continues the thrashy nature of “Alone I Stand”, but with riffs and tempos that can be described more as punk rock. “Hate By Design” is a contrary call to comprehend empathy rather than embracing hatred. It brings with it a ton of double bass, a massive melodic chorus and Adam’s only guitar solo on the record. Jesse’s gritty, bluesy singing perfectly compliments this track.
It’s in third track, “Cut Me Loose”, that a change of tone takes place. This track possesses a dark ambience that makes it more of an alternative rock song in the vein of “Arms of Sorrow” from As Daylight Dies and “Always” from Disarm The Descent. The panicked chorus and mid-song vocal harmonies between Jesse and Adam make this one of Incarnate finest (and most Grammy-worthy) moments. The haunting vibes given off by the song also make it one of the album’s most emotional and weighty songs. A thrashy tempo change into the bridge balances the song out. Jesse’s vocals in this song are some of his career best, hitting incredible high notes in the chorus.
The next three tracks are varying degrees of fast, swaying tempos and passionate emotions. “Strength of The Mind” carries on the punk rock meets melodic metal vibe of “Hate By Design” but to a greater degree of success and with a more interesting rhythm section. Jesse’s chorus in this one is one of the biggest on the album and Justin’s creative usage of cymbals in the main rhythm is especially excellent.
“Just Let Go” is one of the album’s most familiar songs. It falls in line with Killswitch’s well-known blend of melody and hard-hitting aggression. Clean guitar sets a somber and melodic tone for this soaring track.
Where “Just Let Go” can be seen as a climax, “Embrace The Journey …Upraised” is one hell of an explosive finale for the first half of Incarnate. It’s begun with what can be described as a classic Killswitch build-up, with bassist Mike D. given much of the spotlight before the track completely drops down into a heavy breakdown. As it settles into a fierce rhythm it completely stops before driving forward into the album’s most intense moment, a thrashy verse that Jesse sets off with some of his most violent vocals ever. “Upraised” is an odd one, especially when it goes through its choral ascent that features such a goosebump-inducing chorus that the line uttered during it, “A feeling I can’t explain”, best describes it. It’s possibly the album’s heaviest track overall.
The second half of the record continues the album’s uninterrupted flow. It’s powerful, but in a more subtle way that moreso involves Jesse’s vocals and their position over the instrumentals. “Quiet Distress” begins with a beautiful clean guitar interlude that could have easily stood alone as an interlude track between “Upraised” and this track. It soon speeds forward as a perfectly tuned definitive Killswitch song. Its themes regarding self harm are powerful, though I would never associate Jesse Leach with using the overused “Over and over again” line in the bridge. Even if it fits context, it’s a lyrical phrase that should be retired and slightly takes away from the power of the melodies and message. However, the memorable line “The victim becomes the victor” more than makes up for it.
“Until The Day” is a bit of a first for the band, as it’s more of a straight-forward rock & roll song but executed with the Killswitch ingredients. A melodeath-style lead surfaces more than a few times in the song and Jesse’s signature bluesy voice really shines in the verses of this track. The chorus’ scream-sing pattern is a departure from the rest of the choruses on the album, but isn’t quite as ear-worming because of the minimal melody. It’s also more than a bit peculiar that this track, a song so rooted in the 80’s glam way of doing things, doesn’t include a guitar solo. One can’t help but feel an opportunity was missed.
“It Falls On Me” reminds of “Cut Me Loose” in its slower, depressed nature, but that doesn’t hold it back from being a touching song. Much of the song revolves around a slanted rock rhythm and an atmospheric instrumental delivery that creates the perfect tone for Jesse’s emotive voice. At one point, he even sings in the lowest register he’s ever sang in on record. The stress and weight that is being conveyed in the song is reflected perfectly and makes it one of the album’s best tracks as well as another potential Grammy contender.
The final three tracks vary, but of these three the personal favorite was certainly “We Carry On”. Though it’s the softest song on the entire record, it touches on a new type of ambience and atmosphere for Killswitch Engage that hasn’t been heard until now. A massively textured chorus progression draws Jesse’s soaring, touching voice in without a hitch. It’s overall one of the most beautiful songs the band have ever made.
“The Great Deceit” and “Ascension” return to thrashy, aggressive territory with huge melodies. As the album closer, “Ascension” gives off a similar feel to “Alone I Stand” which bookends the album perfectly. Jesse hits his most intense screams in this track, specifically his high shrieks are blood-curdling. It closes with a classic Killswitch breakdown with an alerting melody that is led into expertly. “The Great Deceit” is one of the album’s most aggressive tracks, but its overall style of thrashy metalcore has been done better on previous Killswitch albums. It’s one of the only lesser moments on Incarnate, despite being another song of defiance.
Here in 2016, Killswitch Engage are still more than welcome. Their musicianship, heart and faithfulness to their genre are all extremely admirable qualities that are rarely executed better by any other bands. Incarnate is impactful from beginning to end and even if there’s a few slight moments of deja-vu, some of KSE’s most interesting musical moments are heard on this record. Don’t call it metal, that’s too limiting. Killswitch helped bring about an entirely new execution of heavy, passionate music and they continue to carry a torch that refuses to burn out.