With a 20 year career behind them, 2 platinum albums in Awake and fan favourite Comatose, 1 gold album in Rise, and many award wins and nominations under their belts, Skillet have not only become a household name in both the Christian and mainstream rock circles, but a massively popular one too. They aren’t without their critics though, with many not liking the introduction of electronic elements and “watered down lyrics” over the last couple of albums since Comatose, which remains to this day the most popular of Skillet albums so far with those critics and many fans alike.
Now, a few months short of being 20 years after Skillet’s debut self-titled album was released, comes Skillet’s tenth album, Unleashed. Vowing to give fans the aggressive rock fans have been crying out for, Skillet may be about to win back some of their harshest critics, and teaming up again with Comatose’s producer Brian Howes once again to record some of Unleashed, should help see to that too. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at Unleashed…
“Feel Invincible,” which was recently used as the theme song for WWE’s Battleground PPV, sets Unleashed on its way with a bang. Incorporating electronic elements to help drive the song along, “Feel Invincible” is an engaging in-your-face poppy rock anthem which features some seriously delicious heavy guitar licks sporadically placed throughout. Jen’s drumming in the chorus packs a punch to it and is a standout musically speaking, and while lyrically it’ll leave many disappointed, it nevertheless gets Unleashed off to a driving and engaging start.
“Back From The Dead” cranks things up a few notches and sees Skillet’s raw rock come back from the dead to great effect. Featuring dark grungy guitars throughout, “Back From The Dead” is a fun full throttled military-esque anthem with the shaky rasp of John’s vocals taking center stage.
“Stars” refreshingly breaks things up with an all-out unashamed worshipful ballad to “the one who holds the stars”. Bathed in airy wondering synths, “Stars” is raw and authentic, and has CCM hit status written all over it.
The orchestral sounding “I Want To Live” will remind many of Rise’s “Not Gonna Die” cut in parts, both in sound and message. In a further similarity to “Not Gonna Die,” the track also sees the first true duet between John and Jen on Unleashed and they both trade vocals and combine to their usual great affect throughout, albeit perhaps with a little too much tuning on Jen’s vocals. An emboldening statement that “I want to live” amidst the seemingly overwhelming cloud of darkness that surrounds us, “I Want To Live” will act as a rallying call for many and kicks Unleashed back into its high paced gear. “I want to live my life, the choice is mine, I’ve made up my mind, now I’m free to start again, the way I want to live, to live and breathe, the way I want that’s right for me, I may not know nothing else, but I know this, I want to live.”
The fist pumping “Undefeated” turns up the rock factor to an eleven. The grungy guitars return as part of an overall grungy feeling soundscape, as “Undefeated” acts as a self-empowering pump up track. Seemingly tailor made to be a sports team’s anthem or TV show theme tune, expect to hear “Undefeated,” and other cuts off the album, across various media platforms in the near future.
Prior to hearing Unleashed you’d have never thought that “Skillet” and “dancy number” belonged in the same sentence but, alas, with “Famous” those would be famous last words. “Famous” is, yep you’ve guessed it, a dancy number. Built around the concept of Christians being placed here on earth to make God famous, “Famous” is easily the poppiest of the tracks on Unleashed and, although fun, won’t be to everyone’s liking.
The roaring worship anthem “Lions” follows and provides a bit of respite, not necessarily after the prior numbers but in advance of the onslaught the next few tracks provide. Although it’s another nice sounding worship track, “Lions” doesn’t sound anywhere near as authentic as “Stars” and many will suspect it’s been made specifically for the CCM radio market. Whether that is the case or not, and clichéd lyrics like “if we’re going to fly, we’re going to fly like eagles” and “if we’re going to walk, we walk as Lions” certainly doesn’t help its case, “Lions” is still a very solid song.
That aforementioned onslaught arrives first in the form of “Out Of Hell.” Everyone who’s heard “Out Of Hell” so far before Unleashed’s official release, be it through the proper routes or the disrespectful leaks as of late, have all come to the same conclusion, “Out Of Hell” rocks. Plain and simple. Lyrically and thematically, “Out Of Hell” is a desperate cry out to God to save us from hell and to pull us “out of the dirt”. “Can you hear me screaming for you, I’m afraid I’m going to die down here, I need you because no-one else can get me out of hell.” It also features the stand out lyrical offering on the album in the form of “I’m suffocating down here, because the angels don’t fly down here.” Musically speaking it’s a driving, adrenaline pumping heavy tune, with Jen’s drumming again packing a seriously punch, John’s vocal delivery containing an extra bit of force, Seth’s stunning guitar work on full display (especially during a sublime solo two thirds of the way through) and Korey complimenting them all well throughout. Put simply, “Out Of Hell” is the song all the “Skillet were good back in the Comatose days” critics have been waiting for and is undoubtedly the best cut off the album (and one of the best of Skillet’s whole discography).
The onslaught is continued with the seriously hard hitting “Burn It Down.” Sounding similar to a Five Finger Death Punch or Papa Roach joint in some ways, “Burn It Down” is another fist pumper and foot stomper, and journeys a little into metal territory music wise. Featuring dirty guitar riffs and aggressive militant drums throughout, it’s hard not to let yourself get carried away with your engagement with the song and listeners would be advised not to listen to this track in a heavily populated public place out of fear of punching someone accidentally. Again, “Burn It Down” is one of Skillet’s finest heavier tracks in their entire discography, and takes “in-your-face” aggressive rock songs to a whole new level.
The slow and gentle love ballad “Watching For Comets” faces the tough challenge of not only following two of the strongest Skillet songs to date but also providing respite from the heavy attack, and, aside from the first few listens through Unleashed where it’ll seem bland at best, it flourishes in its role. Picture a crowd at dusk with lighters lifted high and you have the perfect setting for this song.
Many will question the theology behind “Saviors of the World” off the back of “We are the saviors of the world and I will not be moved” on first listen, but with a deeper listen they’ll discover the true perspective the song is written from. Unabashedly stating that “we will not conform” to the ways of the world, “Saviors of the World” not only implements synths well throughout but also does a good job of increasing the album’s pace ready for the album’s conclusion, while still being slow enough to ease us out of the very slow pace of the penultimate track.
Unleashed is closed out by “The Resistance,” a culmination of most of the musical styles found on the rest of the album. While nowhere near the aggressive nature of “Out Of Hell,” “Burn It Down,” and to a lesser extent, “Undefeated,” “The Resistance” sees us out on a gritty rock note. Soaring guitars combine beautifully with Jen’s thunderous and once again authorative drumming to drive us through the track, which acts as a battle cry against the rest of the world. Helped along by the vocals of Jen and some dirty sounding fizzy synths, “The Resistance” is another highlight from a really strong offering from Skillet. A slightly out of place and unnatural feeling, but nevertheless stunning, guitar solo sees us out with the help of the drums after a false finish to the song. One can’t help but think it would have been better placed three quarters of the way through the song, but it still ends up leaving a nice taste in the mouth.
There’s one important question to consider when determining one’s stance on Unleashed, and that’s “why do you listen to music?” Do you listen to it to enjoy it? Or do you listen to it to critique it? If the former, Unleashed is straight up one of the best rock albums of the last few years. If the latter, then Unleashed has its flaws, most notably a bit too much tuning/production at times, and they will niggle away at you, but there will still be cuts off Unleashed that will satisfy you completely. Whichever party you belong to though, there’s one thing everyone will agree on; “Out Of Hell” is one of the best songs you will hear this year, if not for longer.
So will Unleashed win over the “nothing’s been good since Comatose” critics? As a whole, no it won’t, but cuts like “Out Of Hell,” “Burn It Down,” “Undefeated,” and “The Resistance,” will at least start that process. If there is to be another album from Skillet the fan cry heard worldwide will surely be for a complete album of these types of songs.
Recent Skillet albums have garnered criticism for how the synths and electronic elements were used, but with Unleashed Skillet have mixed them in really well. The synths not only add to the worshipful and reflective nature of the ballads, but they also add a grungy/dirty feeling to the rock tracks, elevating them to new heights in the process. Sure, the synths detract from the music occasionally and if replaced with more strings some parts would be improved, but overall Skillet have found a way to effortlessly mesh the synths with their natural raw rock music to create something truly special.
In many ways, Unleashed is a rebirth for Skillet. Not only have they found a way to incorporate the electronic sounds that have sounded a little out of place on prior records, but they’ve done so with a heavier sound harkening back to the Comatose and earlier days, while also staying up to date with the latest rock trends. Add to that sound some seriously stunning musicianship, a return to stronger and bolder lyrics, and some really tight production, and you get a really strong and addictive release. Unleashed is the strongest Skillet release to date.