Tuesday, June 25, 2013

album review: 'rise' by skillet

You know, religious-themed music didn't use to suck.

I mean, look at Johnny Cash or Elvis - both men made pretty solid albums exploring religious themes and styles in a mature, usually intelligent manner. And religious themes tend to crop up all over the place when one examines more gothic acts like Depeche Mode. Hell, Nick Cave has spent most of his career delving into various facets of religion, particularly in his most well-known song 'The Mercy Seat'. But all too often, whenever religion tends to crop up in music, the quality tends to drop exponentially (see the few albums Bob Dylan released when he embraced Christianity in the early 80s). Why is that?

Well, I've got a few ideas. For starters, I think one needs to consider the direction in which these acts are discussing religion and God. To me, the best of them deal with the very human experience of trying to contextualize one's beliefs while living in a very secular world. To me, that's potent material for songs, stuff that can make one think and question their beliefs. And if anything, the best religious-themed music tends to revolve around questions of faith and belief and yearning, trying to find what is at the meat of our human experience.

But you rarely see material that has the balls to ask these questions, and that's where the majority of Christian music tends to lose me in a hurry. At the upper end of quality in this group you tend to see a great of quasi-spiritual satisfaction, worship music without the drama of actual conflict. Now I have issues with this sort of music - basically, I'm not the biggest fan of mellow music as it is, and when you add the subtext of 'I got all of this because I accepted Jesus as my saviour', it can get more than a little insufferable. But on the other hand, it's essentially harmless, and if people are using said music to find solace in religion, I don't really have a problem with it.

No, the Christian music I and most critics take issue with is the stuff with the harder evangelical bent, which combines the subtext above with 'I've accepted Jesus as my saviour... and now YOU should too or you're going to hell for all eternity'. It's confrontational, in your face with its self-righteousness and complete lack of tact, thought, or humility - and as a Catholic, this really bugs the shit out of me. To me, religion should be about acceptance and love and tolerance and compassion and giving - not exclusionary pontificating and hatred. And yeah, the hypocrisy rings high and loud when these acts preach family values or attempt to cast themselves as the underdogs against the rising 'feminists and homosexuals'... and then get caught abusing drugs or getting blown by groupies in the back of a van (hi, Scott Stapp, you worthless piece of shit!). To me, these groups represent the worst of the evangelical movement, particularly in recent years, as they attempt to use the fandom of their music to convert people to their own breed of Christianity. And it really smacks of disingenuous motives when you realize that these bands stand to profit heavily off of their audience's religious fervour.

But those are moral objections to thematic elements in their music - what about the bigger picture? Well, as much as I'd like to say that these acts only signed to Christian labels when no other label would take them (that's untrue and a little unfair), my issues with Christian rock tend to come back to lyrical subject matter. Too often, the acts refuse to actually delve into the implications and deeper meaning behind their material, instead relying on shallow platitudes, emotionally-manipulating tragedy porn, or evangelical fervour. And the really frustrating part is that too much of the material quickly begins to repeat itself, with few new ideas other than an unearned, rather intolerable defensiveness against the rational progression of music and society as a whole.

And look, I'm not saying that on a musical level these guys aren't talented. Hell, I'll give Icon For Hire, an alternative metal act that exploded in 2011 with their debut album Scripted, a lot of credit for having extremely solid guitar and vocal work (to say nothing of lyrics that were actually had the balls to ask questions of religion and go deeper, which earned them praise from Christian and non-Christian review outlets). But too often you get acts like Creed or Evanescence (okay, Evanescence technically only signed to a Christian label and never really had evangelical music, but I really hate Evanescence) that are so dour and humourless and teeth-grindingly tedious that cast a pall over the entire genre, so much so that the majority of mainstream critics won't even touch Christian-themed music anymore, or any band signed to a Christian label.

But as I'm sure you've all realized, I'm not most critics, so let's take a look at the new album from the Grammy-winning Christian Rock act that Icon For Hire opened for a few years ago, Skillet. Starting in 1996, Skillet are widely considered to be one of the better Christian rock acts, and while I've never heard a single song of theirs prior to this album, their last album went platinum in the United States and sold over a million copies. If anything, that would suggest the band does have crossover potential into the mainstream, particularly considering that last album came out in 2009 (in an era where true platinum records were becoming something of a rarity).

And I've got to be honest, I've always been a little fascinated by the Christian metal scene. Just on a conceptual level, Christian metal is a study in dissonance, a genre ostracized by the Christian rock scene for embracing a 'darker' musical aesthetic and roundly disliked by the mainstream metal scene for their evangelical subject matter. In Skillet's case, the band has a reputation for industrial metal of all things - which, I should remind you, includes acts like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry - so I was definitely intrigued when I heard about the new album. I was less intrigued when I discovered that a song on their last album featured on the soundtrack to Transformers III, but hey, if that's not proof of their crossover potential, I don't know what is.

So what do I think of their new album, Rise?

Well, while I can't say it's the worst album I've ever heard this year, it's definitely pretty damn awful, and not just for the reasons I predicted above. And if this album is indicative of Skillet as a whole, I can say for certain that I'm glad I'm not taking a look at the rest of the discography. And while pretty much everything I expected with Skillet, all of those aren't quite the reasons why I find this album to be terrible.

First, let's the meager positives out of the way: occasionally, they rise to the point of passable mediocrity. They're clearly trying to be epic and impacting - which is more than Jack Johnson will ever try to be - and I do appreciate that on some occasions they go for arguably darker subject matter. The two best songs on the album, 'Sick of It' and 'Madness In Me' work a little better because they manage to make the righteously pissed nature of their material work without being preachy. Yes, the songwriting is bland and generic and certainly isn't within spitting distance of good, but it's not aggressively terrible or offensive either on their better tracks.

And that's about it for the positives, so let's stick with the rest of the songwriting, which alternates between being boring and atrocious. Rhymes flit disjointedly against each other, the verses are sloppy constructed, there is an overabundance of completely unimaginative cliches (they use the 'all for one, one for all' cliche twice in different songs - seriously), and some songs just fail to make sense on a conceptual level without even factoring in the religious element! Take 'Freakshow', for instance, a demon carnival song that doesn't come within spitting distance of Nightwish's 'Scaretale' for creepy imagery, and I ask the question: who is the freakshow in this song? Is it the band? That could lead to unsettling implications (I'll get to this). Is it the audience? Are we pulling a George Carlin and referring to the whole world (somehow, I doubt it)? The song is so poorly structured, I can follow the very simple logic of the song, and that's a problem!

Of course, we immediately run into the issue that Skillet is a Christian metal band - more specifically, a Christian nu metal band. I've ranted a lot about rap and nu metal before, but there's a real tonal dissonance with Skillet's choice of subject matter and instrumentation. The issue here is that Skillet is trying to write songs about salvation and believing in God and religious experiences - all of which can make for interesting songs - but when they pair it with the sullen, minor-chord infested songs that feel more depressing than ecstatic, I can't help but feel Skillet's religious experience is becoming a chore! If they were going for something along the lines of power metal, like Blind Guardian, and going for those soaring choirs and majestic sound, it would fit better, but here the songs are just too small and lacking in presence to really land an impact.

Oh, they certainly try to get that impact, and that's immediately where I jump to my second major criticism of Skillet: none of the elements of the band work for me at all. The drumming isn't pounding or complex, the bass is barely there, the guitar work sounds buried and completely lacking in presence, and the lead singers sound like the lead singer of Three Days Grace hooked up with Avril Lavigne and received injections that sucked away all of their emotive charisma and personality. The best thing I can say here is that some of the keyboard hooks are decent, but nothing special and in comparison to other heavy metal acts like Deep Purple, the chintzy electronic piano Skillet uses would be blown out of the water.

None of this is helped by the production, which cripples this album in multiple ways. I don't know whose bad idea it was to slather the vocals in autotune and distortion, because it certainly doesn't help the singers establish a presence on the tracks and strips away the little charisma the singers do have. And that's to say nothing of the mix as a whole - besides being cluttered and very poorly layered (the volume on certain parts of the instrumentation ebbs audibly at points and not in a good way), nothing about the production adds size or energy to the band. Forget reaching the soaring expanses of a band like Daft Punk or Deep Purple or Nick Cave, I'd argue James Blake - who I will remind you all is a post-dubstep singer-songwriter - has more of an expansive, powerful sound than Skillet will ever have.

You all have probably noticed by now that I haven't made much of a point regarding Skillet's more Christian message, which is as heavy-handed and completely lacking in depth as I expected from the band. Well, here's the thing: I don't like being in the business of criticizing art for its message. As I've said before in my essay on transgressive art, the key elements are recognition of the transgression and then delivering the nuance and message effectively. And in most cases, Skillet doesn't exactly fail here so much as not try - they push no boundaries, they aren't really that offensive or even all that anti-progressive.

What I do hear, however, is defensiveness, and it's immediately established in the first song (the title track). The song ends with a selection of samples of conversations, one of a school shooting, one of a radio announcer talking about the shitty state of the US economy, and one of an angry parent. The problem here comes in the framing, because the rest of the song is set up as an evangelical anthem (complete with child choir, one element guaranteed to piss me off). And look, I'm Canadian, and religion doesn't play nearly the same role in our society as it does in the States, but am I really expected to buy into this emotional manipulation suggesting that a lack of religious belief was responsible for school shootings, the bad economy (?) and the collapse of 'family values'? Am I really supposed to buy this message, completely devoid of nuance? Really? And this just doesn't happen here - all throughout the album are places where it is outright stated your life only gets better if you believe.

And frankly, I don't buy it. My faith is personal (and complicated), but I can definitely say it wasn't improved by listening to Skillet, mostly because they fail painfully in any way at selling the religious experience as something I might want. Say what you will about hip-hop, but the best of their acts do a pretty impressive job selling the 'money-cash-hos' archetype as something I might want. But Skillet is so humourless and the songs are so poorly written and cliched and the music is so subpar that I can't care about the message they're selling. And that links to my final problem with the album: when it's not pissing me off, it's boring as all hell. And having gotten through all of Depeche Mode's discography and having sat through some seriously tedious material, I'm a more than a little amazed that Skillet managed to beat them for making me completely not give a shit!

So, I heartily recommend you avoid Skillet at all costs, and this album Rise in particular. And if what I've read is true and Skillet is arguably one of the better acts of the Christian rock/metal genre, I completely understand why mainstream critics avoid this genre like the goddamn plague. 

Ah well, you can't say I didn't try.

No comments:

Post a Comment