A key question to ask when watching successful rock bands progress into their second and third decades is simply “what are they going to do with what they’ve accomplished?” After reputation and sales success, it offers a lot of insight into a band’s ethos to watch what they do once they can do anything.
In many ways, that’s the question Breaking Benjamin is answering with Aurora. With three platinum records, two gold records, and countless active rock radio hits, Breaking Benjamin has been one of the most consistent and successful voices in hard rock for the past 20 years. Aurora revisits some of those hits and recasts them in acoustic form while also revisiting some of the friendships that Breaking Benjamin has built along the way.
The collection begins, suitably, with a rendition of “So Cold,” one of the band’s earliest chart-climbing singles. Although built with acoustic guitar and a cajon, the energy manages to feel just as intense as the original rock arrangement. Here we get a glimpse also of some more unique instrumentation as the bridge introduces what sounds like an oboe in a chilling solo.
All of the songs that are Breaking Benjamin alone strike a skillful balance between reimagining themselves while retaining the ferocity of the originals. “Angels Fall” is haunting and wistful in its defiant cry: “When angels fall with broken wings / I can’t give up, I can’t give in.” “Tourniquet” hones in on the ebb and flow of rage in Benjamin Burnley’s vocals. “Never Again” and “Torn In Two” both add layers of pathos with their raw reinvention of the original melodies.
The true standouts on this album, however, are the collaborations. It could easily be argued that there has never been a more star-studded features list in our current era of hard rock. Michael Barnes of RED lends his voice to “Failure,” leaning heavily on the melodic part of his skillset to offset some grit from Burnley: “Tired of feeling lost, tired of letting go / Tear the whole world down, tear the whole world down.” RED and Breaking Benjamin have long had a back-and-forth creative relationship (Breaking Benjamin’s current lead guitarist, Jasen Rauch, was originally a member and key creative force in RED). To hear the two vocalists finally on the same track perfects their synergy.
Spencer Chamberlain (Underoath) contributes to “Red Cold River,” his vocal tones perfectly suited to dialing up the flood of despair and determination unleashed in the lyrics. Scooter Ward (Cold) contributes to Aurora‘s single and only new track, “Far Away.” The song stands shoulder to shoulder with the classics in terms of quality, offering a mournful melody from the two legendary rock vocalists: “When the broken fall alive / Let the light take me too / When the waters turn to fire / Heaven, please, let me through.”
Possibly the strongest collaboration on the album is with Adam Gontier (Three Days Grace, Saint Asonia) on “Dance With the Devil.” The tone of the original song is perfectly suited to Gontier’s voice, and given that Three Days Grace and Breaking Benjamin were definitive of a whole era of hard rock, hearing the duet is both nostalgic and also jaw-dropping as they masterfully weave their way in and out of the lyrics. The album closes on another high note with “Dear Agony” featuring Lacey Sturm (Flyleaf). Lacey contributes a unique dynamic with a voice that effortlessly transitions between delicate and ferocious. She has shared that for her, she held the image of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane in mind while singing this song, and that anguish is channeled into a soul-piercing refrain: “Dear Agony / Just let go of me / Suffer slowly / Is this the way it’s got to be? / Dear Agony.“
Aurora is a rare opportunity to hear the energy you might find in a Breaking Benjamin radio or bar acoustic performance captured in digital form. Although the instrumentation and musical arrangements are largely not flashy, they are raw and organic and personal.
But more importantly, Aurora answers the question of what Breaking Benjamin is choosing to do now that their past success puts them in a present position to do whatever they want. The answer is pretty simple: they choose to give back to their fans. They choose to deliver personal performances of favorites. They invite some of their friends to sing along. And in the process, they subvert the rockstar archetype and create a shared experience. In an era of big production and internet stardom, that sense of community Aurora captures is truly priceless.