From sin to salvation in 12 hard-churning songs
With “Rise,” platinum Christian hard rock bank Skillet has its eyes set on creating its own rock opera a la Green Day’s “American Idiot.”
Lead singer John Cooper, who comes off like a raspy Chester Bennington from Linkin Park, told Billboard that the album, out Tuesday (25) is filtered through the eyes of a teenage “coming into adulthood and he’s faced by the horrors that we see every day — floods, bombings, earthquakes school shootings... It’s about his path to salvation and wanting to be significant in some way.” Along the way, he is bombarded ceaselessly with images and feelings of horror, cynicism, and despair.
The album opens with the title track, which serves as a call to arms: “The time to change it all... united and fight to make a better life,” Cooper screams. “Tonight we rise,” he says in a clever take off on the more traditional “tonight we ride.” As he and drummer/vocalist Jen Ledger trade off vocals (as they do on several tunes), the song takes on a Paramore-like feel.
At the end of the song, we hear a 911 call from a teacher telling the operator “there’s a guy here with a gun,” as she tells the children to take cover, as well as news reports about economic failure. It’s meant to reflect the stress of the times (our protagonist’s father is also telling him he’ll never amount to anything), but the 911 call just sounds exploitive.
The aggressive album vacillates between the full-throttled angst and anger that comes with being a teen, such as on the hardest-rocking song on the album, single “Sick of It,” and songs that double as traditional love songs or about one’s relationship with God or Jesus, such as on “Fire and Fury”: “Destiny’s gotta hold on me/I guess I never knew love like love knows me/I need to feel you here with me/I will burn/I will die for you.” It’s to Skillet’s credit that the songs never sound watered down,when it comes to faith, but are universal enough in their appeal to speak to whomever is listening.
Skillet goes into overdrive on the tremendously-busy “Not Gonna Die.” Strings are furiously played, drums stomp, all in service of trying to replicate the urgency of the “stand and fight forever” lyrics. Fans of Evanescence will appreciate the “Wake Me Up” feel of the tune.
The one-two punch continues with “Circus For a Psycho,” an unrelenting slab of angst that opens with an Yngwie Malmsteen-like guitar lightning round that threads its way through the song.
From there, the tension breaks into ballad, “American Noise,” one of the album’s strongest cuts, and a welcome relief from the bombast. If we were still in a vinyl era, “American Noise” would start side two. After reaching a breakdown, the rocking isn’t over, but the desire to find some relief and take back some power starts to prevail.
On the swaggering “My Religion,” Cooper declares, “Who’s going to make me whole/nobody but you... you’re the only sanctuary that I know,” before declaring that he needs no steeple or priest or pew, in a song that some will see as heretic, while others will see as a direct profession of faith. The inclusion of “Amazing Grace” is a nice touch.
By the time Cooper and Ledger are singing “Down on my knees, you are what I believe” on closing tune, “What I Believe,” there’s no doubt that one journey has ended, while another is just beginning.
Skillet, which hasn’t released an album since 2009’s platinum “Awake,” takes an all-in approach to “Rise,” and their level of commitment is admirable. Every note of the Howard Benson-production feels like it is there to convey an emotion and there is a laudable sense of in-the-moment intensity that makes up for any of the overwrought moments.