Label: Atlantic Records
Release Date: 06.25.13
Reviewer: Lee Brown
- Sick of It
- Good to Be Alive
- Not Gonna Die
- Circus for a Psycho
- American Noise
- Madness in Me
- Fire and Fury
- My Religion
- Hard to Find
- What I Believe
- Battle Cry (Deluxe edition only)
- Everything Goes Black (Deluxe edition only)
- Freakshow (Deluxe edition only)
Perhaps the best kept secret in the music world last year was that Skillet became one of only three bands to achieve platinum status. For a band that released their first album in 1996 and has spent most of their career in the niche Christian rock market, this is quite a statement to make. Gone are the days when a few dozen pan-heads would meet at their local Church to hear Skillet sing grunge rock anthems like “Gasoline” or modern worship songs such as can be found on Ardent Worship. Now Skillet is co-headlining massive arenas with bands like Shinedown. Skillet’s mainstream success is certainly now undeniable.
Produced by Howard Benson (RED, P.O.D., Blindside), Rise follows the Grammy-nominated Awake and is being released on Atlantic Records. The fear many have with such strings of success on “secular” labels and in “mainstream” markets, is that either the band themselves will stray from their solid faith (and there is not a good track record overall in that department) or that their message will get watered down to obscurity in the process. Certainly, tracks such as “My Religion” could give credence to this fear. Sharing more than a little in common with Backstreet Boys protege Krystal’s track of the same name (from way back in 2001), “My Religion” could leave the listener open to interpret “You are my religion” into any sort of “spirituality” they wanted. That is…if not for the context of the rest of the album.
Allow me to assuage any fears of Skillet slipping into heresy. Rise is an album that is boldly devoted from start to finish. In fact, the final “act” of the album includes a few songs that would not find themselves out of place on an Ardent Worship album, something pan-heads have been waiting over a decade for the band to return to.
Rise is a concept album that looks at a “typical american teen” as she/he faces the pains of the world around her. But it is so much more than just that. In a world filled increasingly with the many horrors that play before the listener’s ears in the opening song, Rise is also a challenge to seek the One true face of redemption. Despite their mainstream success, Skillet is not afraid to boldly point the listener to the only true place such healing may be found.
As a concept, the album is broken up into the typical “three acts” you find in story telling. The opening act (from “Rise” to “Not Gonna Die”) sees the teen face the trials of the world with confidence and optimism. The second act (“Circus for a Psycho” to “Madness in Me”) sees the character come to grips with the horrors of this world, their own failures, and whether anyone can stand in this evil time. The final act (starting with the reading of Isaiah 53 at the end of “Madness in Me” and going through the conclusion of the album) boldly shows the source of true redemption and the only One who has/can truly overcome the world.
Musically, Rise incorporates the now signature sounds Skillet has honed since Collide (and includes some synths that have a faint Alien Youth feel), yet it is not afraid to explore deeper instrumentation at the same time. While tracks like “Rise” and “Sick of It” could fit on either Comatose or Alive without variation, others, most notably “My Religion,” are animals all their own. While Skillet has become notable for their use of keyboards, synths, and impressive female drummers, these elements become even more prominent on Rise. And then there are the interludes/transitions that follow at the end of many of the songs and tell/further the story. These include everything from choirs, to spoken word, and other varied elements.
The first act of the album begins with the title-track “Rise” and “Sick of It.” Both songs are anthemic powerhouses that will certainly become theme songs for our broken generation find solace and strength in. Because both have been available for some time as singles, fans will likely already be familiar with them. Tonally and musically, these tracks stick extremely close to the style found on Awake, yet they certainly reflect increasing musical acumen from the veteran band.
The other two tracks in act one are the complimentary “Good to be Alive” and “Not Gonna Die.” While not quite as raucous as the previous tracks, both play nicely off the duality of the pains of the world set against an innocent confidence and hope. The striking interlude between the two songs (lead by a small girl but bleeding into a choir) also provides one of the more unique moments on the album. Both songs focus on life and death challenges overcome by the sense that life will continue in the end. “Not Gonna Die” becomes another stand out, even anthemic, track as John and Korey/Jen alternate and then intertwine their vocals. All together, the tracks in act one tell a story filled with hope in the face of a lost and fractured generation.
This theme is epitomized through the artwork (amazing artwork, btw) of the album. The cover itself is a very pointed image of a little girl with a slingshot that appears to stand before Goliath without fear. Other images (see the singles of the already released songs) further this bold imagery and give a perfect word picture of what the album’s first and third act portray beautifully.
Act two begins with “Circus for a Psycho,” which also begins the shift to a more painful look at the world. Though the pains of the world are apparent in a big way in act one, the way the character views them shifts with this song. The line “I want off this circus for a psycho… everybody down, gonna burn it to the ground” reflects the tonal shift the character is experiencing. Musically, the song stays in line with past works, but does have some carnival elements with industrial pulsing in the background and female vocals (repeating “psycho…here we go”) that give it a carny sort of feel. Still, there is a glimmer of hope apparent that shines through the chaos.
Attached to “Circus for a Psycho” is another interlude that moves from carnival elements to pure noise before the character turns the noise off in favor of a record starting up. The record begins the song “American Noise” (also released as a single prior to the album’s debut). “American Noise” is certainly one of the slower paced songs on Rise, but it is also one of the stronger offerings. Coming across as a rock ballad of sorts, the hectic pace of modern life is highlighted before the charge is made to “let love cut through the American noise… no matter who you are, you’ve got a voice, why don’t you use it…make it into music.”
“Madness in Me” closes out act two with a very industrial sound that reminds me much more of Skillet’s Invincible days mixed with their newer sound. The idea behind the song is the “madness” or evil/temptation/sin within that claws and scrapes to pull the character down. “The enemy takes over everything, this is the madness in me.” This is the dark night of the soul… it is the Empire Strikes Back moment where the darkness has almost taken over. Yet, as with every song on the album, hope shines powerfully through. As the song properly fades away, the transition to act three begins with a powerful reading of Isaiah 53, the messianic prophecy that points hope clearly to a crucified Savior rather than vague spirituality.
“Salvation” picks up from this transition with true Ardent Worship. “I feel you keeping me alive, You are my salvation… my heart will burn for You, it’s all I can do.” The main vocals on this powerful track are handled by Jen with John handling the chorus, which makes a nice and powerful mix. Anyone who has been to a Skillet show and seen them close with their more worshipful material will likely fall in love with this powerful love song to God.
This is quickly followed by the piano driven “Fire and Fury.” In many ways, this track feels like a continuation of the previous song in that it follows the same vocal palette and styling, yet the key difference is somber intensity. In many ways, “Fire and Fury” is a spiritual successor to “The Thirst is Taking Over.” It is a worship song that all but demands the listener close their eyes, raise their hands, and simply drink in the experience. “I will burn, I will burn for you. With Fire and fury. My heart beats for You. Your love burns within me with fire and fury.” In my iTunes I keep a playlist/genre labeled “Love songs to God.” I save it for only the most passionate songs to where not even many “worship genre” songs fit the bill, but this song will certainly be in that playlist.
As I’ve alluded to and mentioned before, “My Religion” is the most dramatically different track on the album. The lyrical flow and pacing mirror the old hymn: “What can wash away my sin? nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Yet this version contains different lyrics. The musicianship is very old-school rock (maybe even a little rockabilly), and it reminds me of tobyMac’s “Hey, Devil” both in execution and in how it stands out from the rest of the album. As I mentioned before, given no other context with a cursory glace, this song could be taken as vague spirituality. However, once the lyrics are examined, elements of the priestly thread in the book of Hebrews become the backbone of the song. Once John bursts into “Amazing Grace,” there is no more question that “You are my religion, my religion is You,” speaks of Jesus alone.
“Hard to Find” returns to the piano driven rock sounds familiar to other records. “Hard to Find” continues this final act of the record and works as the counter-point to “Madness in Me” as it examines the same theme, but with the hope that “You give me faith to believe there’s a way, to put the past finally behind me, and hope to make it through another night.” Though it is less directly worshipful than the previous set of tracks, it certainly is a faith-filled song that anyone questioning whether or not there should be another tomorrow need to cling to.
The album closes out with “What I Believe,” which is the exclamation mark on both the theme of the duality of pain/chaos/destruction against hope/faith/Love and on the final worshipful act of this concept story. Though it is still more muted than the opening act of the record (the final act is a little bit more like a caged/internal passion against the vocal but more external element presented in the first act), this final track serves to put a bold exclamation mark on the hope Skillet wants their listener will see as the True Light outshines even the darkest of days.
“I live and die for You… You are what I believe!”
Overall: Skillet presents a tale of a young person faced with the pains of the world, broken into a traditional three-part story arc. Throughout the record each song presents the duality of the extreme brokenness of the world and hope that rises in spite of it. In execution, Skillet has left enough room to hook the mass populace with bold instrumentation and powerful rock anthems. As the listener progresses through the story, each track builds to a passionate final act filled with ardent worship and a confession that “You” are what I believe and “You” are my religion. Despite their mass-market appeal, Skillet gives more than enough context, including a direct reading of Isaiah 53 that points every “You” directly to the only One who has truly risen and is deserving of worship; the Lord Jesus Christ.
RIYL: RED, We as Human, Thousand Foot Krutch, Breaking Benjamin, Thrice
Reviewer’s Note: I did not get the chance to review the bonus tracks, as my review copy was not of the deluxe edition. Since they are listed as “Bonus Tracks,” they should have little effect on the overall progression of the album.