Occasionally a tour lineup gets announced that makes you feel a little like you’re living in your own MySpace bulletins from 2008. Breaking Benjamin’s spring tour lineup was that for me, featuring support from Skillet, Underoath, and Fight the Fury (the newly launched side hustle for Skillet frontman John Cooper).
In many ways, the lineup seemed improbable: historically, Underoath has operated in a very different sonic lane than Breaking Benjamin or Skillet. Ten years ago, you probably never would have seen any of the three touring together, because Skillet was once primarily constrained to the Christian market.
But times have changed. Christian rock as an entity now exists almost entirely in the crossover space, a shift that Skillet has served as a frontrunner for since the days of their chart-dominating, double-platinum certified album Awake. Breaking Benjamin and Skillet have toured together now several times as a result. More recently, the rock landscape has changed further still, with “metalcore” bands getting grandfathered in increasingly to the hard rock genre. Bands like Memphis May Fire suddenly getting radio success on Mainstream Rock charts is one example of this. Underoath’s Erase Me single “Ihateit,” one of the mellowest cuts from the 2018 return album, also got traction in that format.
What is happening, in short, is consolidation, and rarely has that fact hit home as hard as when I looked at this lineup. Rock is not “cool” at present. The men in suits aren’t putting resources behind it. The result is that only the bands that already had legendary status, or the newer bands who are extremely adaptable, are surviving. The shrinking playing field sees bands that once existed comfortably in disparate subgenres suddenly coming together on the same bill. And while that speaks ominously of the challenges of rock in our current climate, tours like this one uncovered a vivid silver lining.
Fight the Fury kicked off the night with three tracks from their debut EP Still Breathing and one new track, “Soldier,” that we haven’t heard yet. John Cooper and Seth Morrison both displayed a side of their musicianship that we don’t usually see in Skillet, a raw ferocity that relied less on theater and more on flexing the muscles of heavy riffs and guttural screams. As a frontman, John Cooper has always held the crucial trait of legitimately enjoying every performance. That factor seemed amplified when presenting his passion project to an intrigued arena of listeners.
Out of all the bands on the lineup, I was most curious to see how Underoath would fit, especially given that they are still in the process of fully re-establishing themselves after a lengthy hiatus. If I had any doubts, they evaporated with the first ferocious riffs of “On My Teeth.” Underoath’s presence hit the arena like a tidal wave, consuming and relentless. I’d seen Underoath perform before in multiple different eras, and this was somehow the tightest I’d ever seen them. Every member seemed locked in to their purpose on stage, their role in the songs they were creating, whether they were throwbacks like “It’s A Dangerous Business…” or new tracks like “No Frame.”
One of the things that Underoath’s performance also impressed on me was their humility and work ethic. Lead singer Spencer Chamberlain seemed to fully recognize that the audience was from a corner of the rock world where Underoath has not yet proved themselves. He thanked them for giving Underoath a shot, offering praise to all the other bands on the bill. This is a band who has earned Grammy nominations and a Billboard #2 debut, not to mention the fact that they pioneered and defined an entire genre in the mid-2000s. But they understood the relationship they had to the audience in the room, never taking their attention for granted. I was as blown away by that as I was by the energy that carried them through even more mellow tracks like “Ihateit.”
By the time Skillet hit the stage, the audience was warmed up and ready for the flurry of riffs and barrage of lights accompanying “Feel Invincible.” Skillet plays to a wide array of audiences, and I always find it refreshing how consistent they are, whatever stage they’re on, in messaging and in musical excellence. “Whispers in the Dark” brought back nostalgia for listeners like me, while “Sick Of It” saw a roar of approval from rock radio listeners (encouraged by blasts from cryo canons strapped to John Cooper’s forearms).
With 23 years of experience, Skillet has nearly perfected the arena rock performance. With a multitude of moving parts, from raised platforms that Korey Cooper, Seth Morrison, and cellist Tate Olsen ride alternately on “Awake and Alive” to a raised drum platform that Jen Ledger smoothly transitioned on and off of for vocal solos, Skillet dials up the intensity well beyond the songs alone: they create an experience. And that experience is always marked by a sense of purpose and conviction, evident in the urgency of songs like “Hero,” “The Resistance,” and fan favorite “Rebirthing.”
It was almost hard to believe after Skillet left the stage that the headliner hadn’t even appeared yet. A restless crowd watched the crew drop a billowing white sheet over the stage. When the lights went out, there was a sense of collective breath being held– exhaled to scream along with the eerie opening melody of “Red Cold River.” The sheet dropped with the riffs, revealing plumes of pyro, silhouetting one of the most legendary acts in contemporary rock and roll.
Breaking Benjamin is the kind of rock band that has become a rarity in 2019. Despite the textured complexity of songs like “Breath,” “Blow Me Away,” and “Angels Fall,” Breaking Benjamin refuses to lean on tracks. Almost every sound in those songs was created live, proving the staggering skill of guitarists Jasen Rauch and Keith Wallen in particular. Frontman Benjamin Burnley seemed to effortlessly manage the seemingly impossible task of maintaining the same vocal ferocity captured in the studio, flexing his way through rumbling growls and searing melodies. Songs like “I Will Not Bow” left the audience breathless just trying to scream every word along.
There was also a disarming approachability to Breaking Benjamin’s set, a difficult thing to achieve for songs so intense. At multiple points, Benjamin Burnley left the stage to sing with fans in the audience– often children. In fact, for their encore of “Dear Agony” and “Diary of Jane,” Burnley spent a good 5-10 minutes on the arena floor, finding parents and their kids and bringing at least a dozen families on stage with them. There was something so refreshingly non-rockstar about the entire thing, a proof that Breaking Benjamin understands entirely that their songs stand on the shoulders of the entire rock community.
And indeed, the entire evening was a picture of the rock community at its very best. As I mentioned earlier, consolidation in the rock industry is real, and it has caused some unfortunate casualties. But it’s also caused magical moments in time like this. Not only was the lineup diverse in terms of where the bands were coming from musically– it was a picture of what happens when men and women of widely varying beliefs interact with respect and honor for each other.
Skillet is formed by members that are devoutly Christian, and John Cooper clearly but graciously spoke about his love for Jesus before the band launched into their hit “Hero.” Both Underoath and Breaking Benjamin are groups of men who hold a wide array of beliefs about life and spirituality. For some of them, their relationship to belief has been much-discussed and complex. But for that evening, they all shared a stage, repeatedly voicing praises for each other. Benjamin Burnley fondly recalled the first time he asked Skillet how on earth they ended up with their band name. John Cooper gushed about how exciting it was to tour with Underoath for the first time.
That attitude on stage was reflected throughout the entire room. People of all ages, all backgrounds, all beliefs, were able to join each other under one roof and enjoy music, enjoy songs that served as deeply personal common ground in their stories.
Rock in 2019 is a slippery place to stand. But Breaking Benjamin, Skillet, and Underoath proved what happens when we lock arms as a community and hold each other up instead of letting each other fall. What they effectively created was a picture for the potential of our era, a standard of unity to fight for– and to enjoy with all our hearts when it’s found.