I worry every time I see a name like Skillet showing up with a new album. My mission is to listen to new music from across the rock and metal genres and around the world and, while it often makes me cringe, sometimes that means an American band who have been associated with nu metal at some point in the past, and I really don't wanna. I can dismiss a lot of it because I see nu metal as loud pop music more often than it's rock music and covering it can lead to predominantly negative review like Papa Roach's Who Do You Trust? There's too much good music out there for me to take time to review crap unless I'm warning as a public service.
But I've been surprised too. I've enjoyed some albums that I never thought I would or much more than I thought I would. The most obvious example is last year's excellent Chevelle album, which I have to admit to being completely shocked by, as it was utterly not what I expected, but I liked the Foo Fighters album last year and the Powerman 5000 a year earlier. This one turns out to be much better than the Papa Roach, but it's nowhere near the Chevelle. What's important is that it isn't objectively bad, it's just not my thing. If it's yours, then it's done well. Skillet know precisely what they're doing.
It opens with Surviving the Game, a catchy song that features aggressive guitars and chorus, but tempers that with some electronic tampering for effect, so it somehow ends up both aggressive and cute. This is the sort of song my kids were listening to when they were young teenagers, that almost had to end up as WWE entrance music, so Skillet have presumably stayed a little closer to the nineties than some of their peers. Then again, there's a clear use of autotune on the second song, Standing on the Storm, and that's more of a noughties thing, even if it came out only a year after Skillet were founded, in 1997. That's disappointing.
Much of what follows walks that awkward border between pop music and heavy music, with rock a kind of afterthought. The backdrop is almost always electronic or electronically enhanced and the melodies could easily be transferred to a pop song. However, there's a nu metal crunch on many of the songs and there are cool guitar solos here and there. Dominion is a great example of all those things at once and Surviving the Game features a lot of them. These songs half annoy me with the manipulations that seem unnecessary and half impress me because the band really knows how to shift. Dominion, for instance, reaches a drive that's comparable to the Sisters of Mercy, though it is not a cover of their song of the same name. It has a strong solo from Seth Morrison too.
Now, that may be the heaviest thing here and it's easily my favourite song on the album, but they work surprisingly well in a much softer mode, like on Refuge and especially Valley of Death, which isn't as annoying a power ballad as it feels like it ought to be. Skillet also occasionally shift into an alternative rock mode, toning down the nu metal crunch and getting all bouncy with clean vocals. The epitome of this is Shout Your Freedom, again not my thing but capably done nonetheless. It's fair to say that sentiment underlines the whole album for me. I don't like this, but I'm not going to tell you it's worthless because it isn't. I wouldn't turn the dial if anything on this album showed up on the radio and, depending on the song, I might well find my toes tapping along.
I'd even go so far as to suggest that it's a neatly varied album, none of these songs retreading the ground that others had already staked out. There's quite the range between songs like Dominion, Valley of Death and Shout Your Freedom, and others do interesting and unusual things, such as an experimental wild guitar sound on Destroyer and an African hum (and Celtic backing vocal) within Forever or the End that had me honestly smiling. I'd shut this album off more than once as I tried to figure out if I should review it, but I kept putting it back on and, by this late point on the album, I wondered if a band like Skillet were actually going to win me over. And, even though I don't see myself playing this again, they kind of did and that surprised me.