Given the current musical climate, bands like Skillet are few and far between. Debuting in 1996, John Cooper and company have stayed in the game for the long haul, becoming one of the biggest acts in their market with an ever-growing fanbase. But in reality, it wasn't until 2006's Comatose that Skillet became the household name they are today, and the last seven years have seen the band operating within their specific niche, even when the band's lineup has changed considerably (most recently with new guitarist Seth Morrison). And continuing the album title progression, from Collide to Comatose to Awake, comes the next logical title with Rise, an album with plenty to both admire and scrutinize.
After Comatose proved to be a game-changer for the band's market possibilities, 2009's Awake was a disappointing effort for many. While it had delivered on the facets of Skillet's recent trends with plenty of power ballads and monster riffs, it merely fulfilled the definition of Skillet's sound without attempting to exceed it (track titles like "One Day Too Late," "Should've When You Could've," and "It's Not Me It's You" should say it all). For any "panheads" that felt alienated by Awake's less-than-impressive showing, Rise tends to steer clear of this level of "sameness" and does shake things up a bit. What Rise does differently from past Skillet albums is its attempt to be a "concept album," where the entire album attempts to tell a story that reflects the American teenager growing up and realizing the terrors of real life in the present and ahead. While the band claims that this concept grew organically and wasn't planned from the start, this delivers a level of confusing structure to the album. The truth is that it's hard to trace one cohesive story through the entirely of Rise even when it's called out, except that each song could relate to one person facing similar struggles. And these sorts of themes aren't especially new, either; since tracks like Comatose's "The Last Night" and "Those Nights" hit the scene, similarly-themed tracks from the same band seven years after the fact don't resonate nearly as well as they could. It's not that these themes don't merit discussion, but Rise's concept has undeniably been realized before in smaller doses from the same band. It's at the point where this method of songwriting is creating similar themes not out of purpose, but out of replication.
Skillet has proven in their recent history to be a consistent band that doesn't deviate much from their self-set standard. Still, consistency should not be confused with repetition. Even when the album seems to check every box to be a well-rounded effort, it's unshakably hindered by a pattern of retreading. In their spirit and feel, tracks like the title track, "Not Gonna Die," and "What I Believe" are really not all that different from "Comatose," "Hero," and "Awake and Alive," which doesn't bode well for Skillet's range and notoriety. All the elements that have made Skillet distinctive in recent years - John Cooper's signature gravelly voice, hard-hitting guitars, serene strings, and Jen Ledger's background vocals - are all present here, but Skillet still have yet to break out of a likable, but ultimately predictable, mold; for Skillet to continue to grow as a band and expand their craft, their creative ceiling could always climb higher, even if that means taking some extra risks (the daring "Better Than Drugs" or the honest "Open Wounds" come to mind).
If the story ended here, Rise would be a recyclable album that would dissatisfy just like Awake. But fortunately for Skillet's fans of all types, there is enough here to keep the album afloat. "Good to Be Alive" and "American Noise" are introspective and realistic outlooks on reasons for existence, leading to redemptive musings that deserve note ("this life can almost kill you/when you're trying to survive/it's good to be here with you/and it's good to be alive"). It's simple, but prominent truths like these that permeate Rise and make it relevant to the listener beyond the surface-level rock album. In other areas, Rise takes aim at destructive ideas that tend to plague the teenage mind. Dead religion gets a tongue-lashing with "My Religion," while the dangers of suicide get accentuated with the urgent, past-picking guitar on "Circus for a Psycho," and "Sick of It" is a call to arms for dismissing self-loathing. "Salvation" proves to be a fairly compelling ballad that outdoes anything on Awake, praising God for his provision in the midst of an unloving world ("I feel you keeping me alive/you are my salvation/hold me, hear me, keep me near/my heart will burn for you"). Like Skillet has done all along, their message is countercultural and liberating at the core, giving Rise a deserving foothold in the minds of their listeners.
If it wasn't clear by now, Skillet knows how to cater to their audience and speak truth in the process. Rise represents a seasoned band who, while fairly acting on the success that Comatose garnered nearly seven years ago, continues to play their cards frustratingly close to the chest, cautiously standing their ground to keep using what has worked for the last several years of their career. While not as homogenous in its approach as Awake, Skillet's eighth studio album doesn't showcase the truly unleashed talent that Comatose and earlier albums boast, but it's a crowd-pleasing record that's just interesting enough to keep Skillet in the conversation. Hindered by precedent but supported by virtuosity, Rise is set to frustrate, enthrall, and polarize in 2013.- Preview Review date: 5/5/13, Review date: 6/23/13, written by Roger Gelwicks of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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