Sound — 7
Having a reputation as one of rock's hardest working bands, Christian rockers Skillet return with the follow-up to their gold-certified 2013 album "Rise." The band fuses alternative metal guitar riffs with pop hooks and electronic melodies, and consists of a lineup featuring husband-and-wife team John (lead vocals/bass) and Korey (rhythm guitar/keyboards/vocals) Cooper, Jen Ledger (drums/co-lead vocals) and Seth Morrison (lead guitar).
Musically speaking, the band sticks with simplicity, with not a single song on this album featuring a structure more complex than the typical verse-chorus-verse layout, and not one song being outside of the three to four minute mark. Seth Morrison occasionally breaks the monotonous structures with his actually fairly decent guitar solos, but for the most part, the songs are pretty similar. The closest we get to experimentation is shown in aspects like the lower tuning in songs like "Out of Hell," and the heavier electronic elements in songs like "Watching for Comets" and "Famous," the latter of which sounds tailor-made for the current pop radio scene. Fact is, any one of these songs could be a rock radio hit, it doesn't really matter which one, since they all follow roughly the same melodic and songwriting structure and there's very little variation beyond that.
The band's playing is actually quite decent, considering the simplicity of the music on this record. As mentioned, Seth Morrison is actually quite a decent guitar player, and his solos are definitely the album's high points (check out the one on the album closer, "The Resistance"!). Jen and John hold down the rhythm section fairly well, never overplaying. Korey's rhythm guitar playing is nothing really special, but she also performs the keyboard parts, and some of them are quite good, even if they are fairly run-of-the-mill for this style of music.
The production is as shiny and polished as any modern pop record these days, though the heavy use of electronic elements (though nowhere near as heavy as other pop/rock bands out there like Imagine Dragons and recent Fall Out Boy) does kind of make the album feel a little muddled at times. There also seems to be very heavy use of quantization on drum parts and there's definitely more than just a slight hint of pitch-correction to the vocal parts. If there ever was an album whose production would have it approved for radio airplay immediately, it's this one.
My biggest complaint with this album is that much of the songwriting is rather bland and uninspired. There are a few decent tracks here and there, I especially liked "Saviors of the World" for its jumpy sort of shuffle-rhythm instrumental section, but for the most part, this is a very safe-sounding radio-rock record.
Lyrics — 6
Let's get straight to the point on this one: Skillet are a Christian rock band. If you, for whatever reason, are not a fan of Christianity, you're going to have a bad time. This is probably not the album for you. But for the rest of us that either follow some kind of faith or simply don't care either way, this album is full of the kind of Christian positivity you'd come to expect from any typical Christian rock band. "Feel Invincible," at face value, definitely sounds like the kind of song that capitalizes all of the "He's," with a chorus of "You make me feel invincible/Earthquake, powerful/Just like a tidal wave/You make me brave/You're my titanium/Fight song, raising up/Like a roar of victory in a stadium." This is pretty much the theme throughout the record, with most of the other songs reading pretty much the same way. While the album may not be full of actual Bible verses or "ramming Christianity down your throat" (clearly, this band is not trying to convert us in any way besides simply singing the praises of The Old One), the album is full of verses like this one (from "I Want to Live"): "All I ever needed was a reason to believe/You help me hold on, you ignite the fire in me/You always come for me, you know just what I need/Don't make me wait for this, save me from this darkness/I reach for the light." Admittedly, this kind of lyric does nothing for me at all, and when I'm looking for religious themes in my music, I definitely prefer it when artists or bands use historical themes or darker imagery (prog fans, check out Neal Morse's "Sola Scriptura" for an example of GREAT lyrics on a Christian rock album).
The singers in this band (I'm pretty sure all of the members of this band have some vocal talent, but the focus is definitely John and Jen) are alright, and they can definitely hold their own as vocalists, but the production of the vocal parts just makes what could have sounded powerful and maybe even lent some weight to the lyrics just sound robotic and a bit uninspired. It's all just a little too perfect, with each pitch so properly centered that you can't help but feel like there was plenty of studio trickery at play, which wouldn't be all that uncommon for this style of pop/rock.
Overall Impression — 7
Skillet may still be one of the hardest working bands out there right now, with a relentless tour/record cycle year in, year out, but it's hard to say whether that work has really paid off on this record. There are certainly some moments of light on this record, mostly in the form of some pretty decent instrumental performances, and let's be honest, part of the reason safe music sells so well is that it's usually got a bit of decent songwriting in it. There's nothing really inherently wrong with any of the songs on this record from a musical standpoint and if you're going to listen to it based entirely on a love of guitar solos and riffs and hearing how music is produced, this can be a pretty rewarding listen. And there are shades of some pretty respectable classic bands on this record ("I Want to Live" is about as close as we'll get to a new Evanescence single this year), so they do wear their influences on their sleeve fairly well. The Christian themes to their lyrics are obviously not going to be for everybody, and your mileage may vary depending on how well you regard religious content in your music, but the lyrics, even taken in the proper context, still feel kind of uninspired and are definitely not the reason I'd pick this album up.
It's a tad safe and a little forgettable, but overall, it's not all that bad of a record. It's definitely an album that's better listened to in the context it seemed to be made for: as a series of singles, whether it be on the radio or just listening to individual songs one at a time. And there are some fairly good individual songs on this record. At the very least, check out "I Want to Live" and "Saviors of the World."