Sound — 8
Though starting out as a standard metalcore act with a penchant for measurement changes, Killswitch Engage soon became one of the quintessential bands for the American melodic metalcore sound that came to prominence in the mid-noughties. With their third album, the gold-status "The End of Heartache," first earning great reception for its melodeath-influenced riffs by founding guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz and a strong harsh/clean singing performance by standout vocalist Howard Jones, the following "As Daylight Dies" would bring forth both some of the band's best songwriting, as well as their ubiquitous cover of the Dio classic "Holy Diver," ushering the apex for Killswitch Engage and, arguably, American metalcore at that time.
After this, however, Killswitch Engage went through a considerable decline. After their 2009 self-titled album garnered mixed reviews for feeling like "more of the same" (as well as unfortunately having to follow the critically-acclaimed status of "As Daylight Dies," in a FFVII/FFVIII-type of complex), Jones' presence began to decline in the band; first starting as an absence for a number of shows, and then leading to his full departure from the band in 2012, in the midst of recording their sixth album. But in this time of instability, Killswitch Engage's resolve strengthened, and after replacing Jones with original vocalist Jesse Leach, the band released their sixth album, "Disarm the Descent," to rave reviews. With its style revitalizing their metalcore sound heard in 2002's "Alive or Just Breathing," as well as showing Dutkiewicz's extensive guitar solo skills, it became the album to truly compete with the highly-lauded likes of "As Daylight Dies."
Now releasing their seventh album, "Incarnate," Killswitch Engage go through the ringer of all their sounds and techniques previously used. One can tick all the boxes of things to hear: the acoustic intro of "Quiet Distress" that basks in the old spirit of "Alive or Just Breathing" or "The End of Heartache"; the "As Daylight Dies"-style tapping riffs heard in "Embrace the Journey... Upraised" and the breakdown of "Strength of the Mind"; the proper guitar solo in "Hate by Design" that continues Dutkiewicz's guitar solo penchant heard in the band's previous album; or the occasional blastbeat/tremolo section that never fails to work itself into a Killswitch Engage album at least once (appearing this time in "Ascension"). As a whole, this reuse of their songwriting repertoire doesn't come off as wholly uninspired, although some moments do feel unambitiously recycled, like the 6/4 riff in "Just Let Go" that flows very similar to the 6/4 bridge riff of "My Curse."
But in the same space where Killswitch Engage show off tricks already shown before, they also do plenty to mix things up from where they last left off. There are much more measurement changes this time around, which expands from their well-established standard-to-3/4 formula and includes more cases off odd time signatures, like the 9/4 heard in "Alone I Stand," the 5/4 chorus in "Just Let Go," and the 7/4 verses in "It Falls on Me." And while "Disarm the Descent" was more affixed on the energy of galloping guitar riffs and dazzling guitar solos, "Incarnate" focuses on tending to lower gears and stronger melodic elements by using more wall-of-sound guitar layers (heard in "Embrace the Journey...," "It Falls on Me" and "We Carry On") and better vocal harmonies (most notably in "Cut Me Loose" and "We Carry On"). This not only acts as a more effective way to articulate emotion in songs, but it also helps weave a stronger dynamic flow between songs, like the slogging morose likes of "It Falls on Me" making the following "The Great Deceit" hit even stronger.
Lyrics — 8
Lyrically, Leach's return to the band in "Disarm the Descent" prompted him to follow up from Jones' last set of lyrics in 2009's self-titled album; parlaying from Jones' dominant theme of misery-filled interpersonal relationships by sticking to the same emotionally-wrought subject matter, but traveling it with a more uplifting and empowering arc. In "Incarnate," Leach now focuses on honing empowerment in the face of a society flawed and corrupt, and a population still apathetic towards such, which he tackles right from the start in "Alone I Stand" ("A time of deception, conflict and unrest / I will not cower in fear and submission / I will hold my ground and resist").
This isn't only a reprise of his lyrical matter brought forth in "Alive or Just Breathing," but given the regressive current events in the U.S. within the past few years, it's all the more pertinent. As Leach had condemned racism and discrimination in "Vida Infra" over a decade ago, he presses on the subject even harder, speaking out on the epidemic of younger generations being taught discrimination in "Hate by Design" ("Fueled by hate, it's your mistake / It's a choice you made / It's tearing us apart"), and invoking chants from the resonant Black Lives Matter protests in "The Great Deceit" ("This disconnection / Through color of the flesh / Blood of generations / Saturate our roots... Violence increased / No justice and no peace / In the great deceit"). Leach also covers the epidemic of domestic violence and abusive relationships in "Quiet Distress" ("Night after night, search for the light, relive the fear and misery / Disguise the pain, the blood will wash away, but the wounds still sing of your agony"), and regarding his pet topic of spirituality, he casts aside the hard-lined definitions of absolution, salvation, and the afterlife that organized religions have drawn for his own search of such in "Embrace the Journey..." ("My soul searches beyond the ether / Beyond the dogmatic haze / I still believe").
Overall Impression — 8
Killswitch Engage's timeline past their apex of "As Daylight Dies" is just as worthy of admiration as their apex itself, especially since that time is tougher for a band to navigate gracefully and successfully. While they experienced the nearly inevitable downtick that comes after such critical acclaim, they persevered by refashioning their pre-Golden era sound in "Disarm the Descent" rather than safely deriving from the same formula that previously earned them acclaim. And it's that strategy of reusing those classic tricks and sounds but still leaving plenty of room to craft something new that makes "Incarnate" succeed. Ultimately, it represents the point of veteran status Killswitch Engage have reached, and they show that they can wield the things that made them stand out in the first place while still continuing to be fresh.