As a music critic, I feel that it's my duty to be at least informed in all manners of my chosen genre. So, I find myself led to Skillet, and their chart-topping new studio album "Awake." I can hear you already: Christian metal? Is that even possible? Well, I wasn't sure myself, it seemed like a contradiction in terms. If I've learned anything over the years, it's to never take anything for granted, and not judge anything until I've actually listened to it. So, I figured I had to delve into this subgenre and see what it's about.
I have to say, it's not terrible. I had a lot of preconceived notions of what "Christian metal" might sound like (Anne Murray with a distortion pedal,) and as far as Skillet is concerned, I was right on few and wrong on a handful. As you might expect, Skillet lacks the savage imagery, brutal lyrics, and beer swilling party atmosphere associated with most metal. The music, while not as insistent and doom-inspiring as the conventions of metal would suggest, does not lack for power or emotion. Rather, the dirges we've all become so accostomed to are replaced with energetic themes of hope and optimism. Stripping off the vocals, the music itself is no different than any number of more mainstream radio metal bands. If the radio metal of the late 90's and early 00's had never happened, it would be much more cumbersome to draw a connection between Skillet and the "metal" label.
Skillet wins bonus points for being a Christian band that does not insist on pushing religion on the listener. Most of the songs are focused on the more universal issue of struggle, both from outside and within, and are clothed with only a thin veil of prayer-based inspiration. If you're not listening for it, you might not even notice.
Musically, Skillet certainly isn't lying when they insist that their influences are bands like Breaking Benjamin or Seether. Their guitars are loud and spill forth battering riffs of classic pop metal. In an attempt to round out their sound for a more mainstream, broad appeal, Skillet brought in producer Howard Benson, who lists in his accomplishments Hoobastank and POD. Both of those bands can be heard in the echoes of Skillet, particularly POD. "Awake" is possessed of sweeping, dramatic choruses, and mixes in ominous keyboard overtones. The album's two signature singles, "Hero" and "Monster" both are built from this same construction. They bite hard and play from end to end, with deep heavy guitar lines and lighter, more airy keyboards that set the tone for the two singers to pace the melody.
As you also might expect though, "Awake" does have its share of ballads and other pop metal fare that can often plague an album of this nature. By that, I don't mean a Christian metal album, but rather a pop metal album of any sort.
Skillet has more depth than any of their pop-metal brethren, and can be both engaging and complex, if not especially innovative. They sidestep a lack of showmanship by creating a sound that is a solid mix of all their elements, becoming more as a whole than they are apart.
To wrap up, Skillet's "Awake" is more than I thought it would be, and I might even call them a pleasant surprise. I don't know that it's completely up my alley, and most diehard metal fans, like me, will be turned off by the eminently acessible but ultimately radio-metal sound. I'm also not going to stand up and start pontificating about the tenets of Christian metal. I will say though, Skillet was an interesting listen. If you just can't get enough POD, give it a spin.