In 1996, Forefront Records debuted a rock n' roll sampler with label affiliate Ardent Records that featured a song each from two brand new bands as well as a clip montage of additional songs from each as well. These bands were the garage rock quintet Bleach and the grunge rock influenced trio, Skillet. At that time, Skillet was led by a young, shaggy-haired vocalist named John Cooper, accompanied by guitarist Ken Steorts and drummer Trey McClurkin. Two albums later, and after a stylistic change to a decidedly more electronic rock base, Steorts exited to found Visible School, and Cooper's wife Korey soon had also joined for keyboard support. After their third record in 2000, McClurkin bowed out and longtime follow-up drummer Lori Peters stepped in, with current guitarist Ben Kasica joining not too long afterwards. To say this rock band phenomenon has come a long way in fourteen years is a bit of an understatement and fans really can't truly appreciate Skillet without knowing where they've been and how they got to where they are today. Shortly before their current album, Awake, was certified Gold, INO and Columbia records released a digital retrospective compilation of the band's earlier material, spanning Skillet's first four projects from 1996 to 2001, aptly titled The Early Years.
"Growth" is a word that comes to mind while listening to the songs on The Early Years. The track list bounces back and forth between the four records, offering a sort of shuffled collection of hits and standout tracks from these exclusively Christian market years. Having the raw grunge rock tracks mixed in with the electronic and industrial rock doesn't entirely fit, but it would be truly unfair not to include songs like "Gasoline," "I Can" and even the ballad "Saturn." These are essential songs for any original Skillet fan and current fans wouldn't get a full picture of Skillet without a healthy snapshot of their origin. "Best Kept Secret" from their 2000 release kicks off the project. It's also one of the only songs from this batch you might actually still hear live sometime (and it made their Comatose Comes Alive live record a couple years ago). "Gasoline" is next, a stark contrast but a fun listen. "Locked In A Cage," a track that Cooper has even long contemplated remaking, is another must for a collection like this, with the aforementioned rocker "I Can" and "Saturn" following. "You're Powerful" abruptly changes gears, heading back to Invincible, featuring a synth-heavy power rock anthem. The ballad "More Faithful" from their sophomore album Hey You, I Love Your Soul is next, with the more recognizable "You Are My Hope" from Alien Youth and its electronic rocker title track following. The edgier power anthems continue with two title tracks, "Invincible" and "Hey You, I Love Your Soul," before the record ends on a more mellow note with "Rest" and then the quite memorable slow-builder "The Thirst Is Taking Over."
One thing that's especially noticable about this song selection is how many of the songs lean in a spiritual or even straight-up worshipful direction. "Saturn," "Gasoline," "Hey You, I Love Your Soul," and "I Can" all ponder spiritual matters, while "You're Powerful," "More Faithful," "Best Kept Secret," "Rest," "You Are My Hope," and "The Thirst Is Taking Over" all serve as nice worshipful moments -- whether loud or soft. Despite the fact that Skillet's more recent offerings are a lot less openly spiritual than most of what's found on this compilation, their earlier song subject matter will sure come as surprise to mainstream fans who haven't heard anything but the band's two most recent offerings (Comatose and Awake).
For a thirteen track selection of some of Skillet's best songs from the late 90s and into the start of the new century, The Early Years: 1996-2001 does a solid job as a reminder of the band's humble beginnings as well as a fine lesson in some of the best Cooper and company had to offer before they finally hit it big ten years after their debut. If you're a fan of either Collide, Comatose, or their latest, Awake, and have never heard any of Skillet's earlier catalog, this digital release is well worth grabbing. As a Skillet fan, it's difficult to nitpick what should or should not have been included on this release as The Early Years: 1996-2001 really does include a satisfying mix from the four albums. And, as a bonus, fans will get two digital music videos for "Best Kept Secret" and "Gasoline" -- now there's a visual blast from the past to complete the retrospective experience!- Review date: 9/8/10, written by John DiBiase of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: INO Records/Columbia Records
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