When you have two platinum albums, Grammy nominations, a massive worldwide audience, a legacy spanning over 20 years and one of the best-known names in both Christian and mainstream rock and roll, it would be easy to rest on your laurels and play it safe. However, playing it safe has never even been on the agenda for Skillet, and long-awaited album Unleashed proves it.
The band spent over three years following the release of 2013’s Rise perfecting a new batch of songs. The result is a sonic shift that some fans may consider something of a rebirth– while for others, it will harken back to the early 2000s, Alien Youth and a very different Skillet. Unleashed’s ferocious lead single “Feel Invincible” establishes out of the gate that the band has scaled back the symphonic rock blend that propelled Skillet from slow-burning success on Comatose to overnight worldwide recognition with Awake. The crucial role of providing texture and dynamic that a string section once filled is now shouldered by electronic elements, giving Korey Cooper’s long underrated programming abilities well-deserved prominence.
Rest assured however that these synths are worlds away from slick, cliched pop constructs. On “Burn it Down” the synths scorch a path underscoring hefty guitar lines, adding to rather than detracting from the song’s aggressive punch. On “Saviors of the World,” the back and forth between guitars, synths and John Cooper’s gritty vocals feel like a reference to the best of the 80s. The old symphonic elements do make at least one cameo on “I Want To Live,” the track on the album that most keenly reminds of Awake.
Lyrically, fans are likely to notice a subtle shift as the songs steer clear of deep water and coast through more celebratory and even worshipful territory. Following forays on the last three albums into topics like suicide, violence, eating disorders and self injury, John Cooper has said he wanted to create something a little different. “I wanted to make a record that made people feel the music– an album that would connect people to the music as well as to each other,” John Cooper has explained. “An album, like some of my favorites, that’d be like a party to listen to, where people could sing along together.”
That perspective is crucial to have when approaching Unleashed. “Undefeated” is an infectious sports-ready anthem much more likely to cue fist-pumping than introspection. “Famous” is one of the album’s more pop-leaning cuts, built from the widely used concept that we are here to make God famous. “Watching for Comets” is a wistful summer love song, a ballad worthy of lighters (or cell phones) raised high.
This is not to say that the album is devoid of Skillet’s trademark deep devotion to the gospel, however. “Stars” puts Skillet’s longstanding passion for worship on center stage with a moving affirmation that the God who holds the stars also holds every moment of our lives. One of the darkest and most lyrically intriguing tracks, “Out of Hell,” voices a desperate plea for God’s redemption over Seth Morrison’s blistering guitar riffs: “I’m suffocating waiting for you, because the angels don’t fly down here / I need you because no one else can get me out of hell.”
Inevitably, we can anticipate that some fans will boil down this album to one question: “is this album heavy?” That would, however, be the wrong question to ask when evaluating Unleashed and sifting through this sonic shift that has both brought Skillet closer to their roots and propelled them forward at the same time. There are certainly moments of both thunderous guitars and more delicately constructed melody– often closely juxtaposed (see “The Resistance” for an example of the spectrum). A perhaps better question I have asked myself when listening to Skillet’s ninth studio album is “did they accomplish what they intended to?”
I would offer a resounding yes to that question. The album is simply an enjoyable listen, even when the lyrics are lighthearted and flashy. Skillet shows complete mastery of the electronic elements they have chosen to introduce, seemingly effortlessly nailing a balance countless other bands have tried to achieve in the past few years.
However, longtime fans should approach this album understanding that for them, it may not be much more than that: an enjoyable listen. And for fans who found their home in the Panhead world because of brutally honest yet redemptive masterpieces like “Savior,” “Whispers in the Dark,” “The Last Night” and “Monster,” this album might not land in quite the same place in their hearts.
With Unleashed, Skillet reveals an unapologetically enjoyable foray into electronic-infused hard rock as the Christ-centered core of their mission continues to hold steady. Although this may not be your favorite Skillet record, it’s a record very worth buying and cranking up in the car with your friends– and it proves Skillet’s continued ability to successfully reinvent themselves.
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