I remember buying Skillet’s self-titled debut (on cassette) back in 1996. It was competent, but typical, post-Nirvana guitar-driven hard rock. I also remember buying their 1998 follow-up Hey You, I Love Your Soul, and wondering what in the world had happened. The distorted guitars were still present but there was also a distinct electronic element to the songs. This would remain a part of their sound for the next two albums (2000’s Invincible and 2001’s Alien Youth) with the one exception being a live worship album that really didn’t sound like them at all.
Even as their sound slowly evolved, there was always a pop element that included catchy guitar riffs and singable vocal hooks. They were an entertaining live band as well, in spite of several line-up changes. Skillet were a formidable act in the Christian music scene throughout their early career and then something happened in 2003. Another change in musical direction, this time less subtle, came with the release of Collide. With this shift came interest outside of the Christian market.
Comatose (2007) and Awake (2009) saw Skillet settle into a stable line-up and continue to polish the modern hard rock that had become popular. The addition of female vocals on some songs added an extra dimension to their sound that only increased their pop sensibility and potential audience. Massive touring in both Christian and secular circles drew in more fans, as did the inclusion of their songs in major sporting events. By the time Rise was released, Skillet had signed with a major label and had become a top band in not just the Christian scene, but in the mainstream as well.
Rise doesn’t break any new ground but it is a solid effort from a band that is hitting on all cylinders. While there is nothing earth-shattering here, the songs are tight, well constructed, and stick in your head long after hearing them. I saw them live not long after the album was released and the new songs sounded great live and had the crowd chanting along by the second chorus. Some may write Skillet off as a generic hard rock band but I have to give them credit, they put together rock anthems with positive lyrical content and are sincere about it.
My track-by-track commentary
Rise – This feels like it could be sequel to P.O.D.’s seminal hit Youth Of The Nation. It is a fist-pumping anthem that literally shakes the audience when performed live. Although it is stylistically different, it has the feel of an Eighties’ metal anthem.
Sick Of It – Another head-banging slab of power chords and singalong choruses. It’s as of John Cooper and company deliberately sat down and tried to write an album’s worth of rock anthems. I know that is the second time I have used that word and we’re only two songs in, but that is exactly what it feels like.
Good To Be Alive – Their poppier side peeks out on this one. While not a true ballad, this mid-tempo rocker sounds custom made for Top Forty radio. It almost hearkens back to the early Nineties’ alternative rock that was around during their early days.
Not Gonna Die – This one begins with chaotic strings (synths?) and razor-sharp guitars. Cooper’s voice is not quite screaming, but has a rough edge that adds power to the delivery. The female vocals (provided by drummer Jen Ledger) mesh perfectly. The change in dynamics accents the different vocalists perfectly. This is the first tune to have a true guitar solo and it is a good one.
Circus For A Psycho – Another frenetic hard rocker. The opening guitar riff (which repeats throughout the song) is absolutely insane. One thing that I really didn’t notice until I saw them live is that there is very little noticeable bass guitar on this album. Cooper has been the bassist for the band since the beginning and he does bring one out on some songs, but you can’t hear them on the album.
American Noise – This one begins with subdued piano. Cooper displays the mellow side of his range here. There is still a ragged quality to his voice when he goes for the higher notes, but it isn’t grating or annoying. Like most of their lyrics, this one isn’t overly religious, but it does offer encouraging words to those paying attention.
Madness In Me – A lot of Skillet’s lyrical content seem to be focused at young adults who struggle with the issues of the day. Self-esteem, doubt, anger, and fear are just some of the topics Cooper addresses. Musically, they use commercially accessible rock music to spread the message.
Salvation – Skillet aren’t afraid to address spiritual issues in their lyrics or from the stage. They don’t make deep theological statements or quote Scripture but it is evident that they are coming from a spiritual (even if not overtly Christian) viewpoint. They also do it in such a way that they don’t have to resort to cliches or bumper sticker slogans. I enjoy Ledger’s vocals on this one.
Fire And Fury – This album is a little more subdued than their two previous efforts. Well placed keyboards and vocal harmonies stretch them beyond three chord hard rock, even though the guitars are still present.
My Religion – I can almost hear shades of Gary Glitter on this one. The organ and plodding rhythm give this one a retro feel. Tone down the guitar a bit and put Mac Powell on vocals and this wouldn’t sound out of place on a Third Day album.
Hard To Find – The acoustic guitar and keyboards are nice start to this one. Cooper (even though he is in his Forties) has a knack for capturing young adult angst and translating it onto catchy rock songs.
What I Believe – They crank the volume back up with this one. This one follows the formula they put into place two albums ago: strings (synth?), dueling vocals, crunchy guitars, and dynamic changes. It works too well, at times it feels like you are listening to the same song over and over again.
Battle Cry – The title suggests a heavy metal onslaught, but this one begins with keyboards and drum loops. Once again, the lack of bass guitar is noticeable (to me it is) but the gaps are filled with synths and droning chords.
Everything Goes Black – I kept waiting for one final sonic blast but this one is a straight ballad. It’s a nice ballad and once again, the dual vocals lend a nice feel to it. This one would not sound out of place on Christian radio if the lyrics were a little more evangelical.
Freakshow – I like the almost tribal drum beat that begins this one. It builds up to the point where you are anticipating vicious guitars…but that never happens. The guitars are there but are mixed along with the keyboards to the point that they sound like one instrument. There is a nice riff but it is used sparingly. This one almost sounds like one of their earlier electronic efforts