Killswitch Engage's "Alive Or Just Breathing" Performance Indicates Divide In Fan Base; Raises Questions About Future
Band Photo: Killswitch Engage (?)
In the wake of Killswitch Engage’s second self-titled album – fifth overall – in 2009, I heard the trajectory of the band’s career summed thusly:
“If Killswitch Engage were a transsexual, ‘The End Of Heartache’  would be the cross-dressing phase, ‘As Daylight Dies’  would be the transition phase, and ‘KsE II’ would be the full transformation into a woman.”
Facetious and provocative, perhaps, but it rings true. After seven years of frontman Howard Jones’ helmsmanship – which saw a continuous plunge into syrupy crooning and a progressive dulling of the band’s metallic edge – it had become difficult indeed to recall the transformational turn of the millennium, before “metalcore” was nearly the sole province of emo kids and breakdown mongers, let alone an established marketing category for Hot Topic patrons.
“Alive Or Just Breathing”  was a breath of fresh air, a shot across the bow of a stale status quo that desperately needed a good frisking and cavity search. It was a METAL record; a new evolution in the post-Pantera tradition, stirring in liberal doses of Machine Head and In Flames – the latter signaling an impending European invasion that popular American metal had managed to evade for some time. It wasn’t “metalcore” then; it was the shit.
Why do I digress when I’m supposed to be writing about a concert? Because context is everything, and what I saw on Tuesday, December 18th, 2012 in South Burlington, Vermont, left me with a strange brew of conflicted feelings.
As most of you probably know, Jones is now long gone, and original frontman Jesse Leach has returned after a decade-long absence. For this primary reason, and for another I’ll get to soon enough, this full U.S. tour simply could not be missed. In due course I found myself at South Burlington’s Higher Ground, awaiting an onslaught of late-teens nostalgia.
While fans across the country seemed to embrace them, I must confess I have next to zero interest in Boston-based openers Acaro. Competence, proficiency, and hooks are noteworthy, but as far as I’m concerned, why waste time on a hybrid clone of early Killswitch and early All That Remains when half the genuine article waited further up on the bill?
Nor am I inclined to speak at length of direct supporters Shadows Fall. This was my fourth time seeing them play, and what they somewhat lacked in live sound production, they made up for with their famed skill and irresistible songwriting.
They showcased several cuts off latest album “Fire From The Sky,” which I must also confess I’ve not yet heard. The rest were fairly standard live picks, opening with “The Light That Blinds” off the hit 2004 release “The War Within,” and including “Burning The Lives,” “Still I Rise,” “King Of Nothing,” and closer “War.” Frontman and dreadlock contest champion Brian Fair aptly described “War” as the “fastest Bob Marley cover ever done,” although his typical quip “How many of you remember what thrash metal is?” is getting old. In an age with “retro” on the verge of overstaying its welcome, there’s really no need to cop the attitude for its own sake. Just play the damn stuff.
The farthest back into history Shadows Fall reached was with the drinking anthem “Destroyer Of Senses” and proto-core thrasher “The Idiot Box,” both off the breakout 2002 release “The Art Of Balance.” All well and good, but tonight, material from 2000 debut “Of One Blood” was more conspicuously absent than ever before.
Such omissions have never flat-out ruined a show for me. After all, I routinely blast old-timey Gen X thrashers for stubbornly ensconcing themselves in a hazy cloud of ‘80s nostalgia. Then again, when it comes to American New Wave bands like Shadows Fall – bands whose early years I witnessed and lived – I’m among those constantly clamoring for more “good old stuff,” which makes me a rank hypocrite. C’est la vie.
But enough about Shadows Fall. Despite their warm crowd reception, which they did indeed earn, the evening’s main attraction was plainly obvious. Skipping the canned pomp and circumstance of suspenseful buildups and dramatic entrances, I have to hand it to Killswitch Engage for crafting so clever a setlist. The band began with an “End Of Heartache” one-two punch: “A Bid Farewell” and “Rose Of Sharyn.” The latter track is one of a pair of songs that, back in 2004, heralded a new era of epic chorus singalongs that would eventually bypass an expiration date. However, that doesn’t matter much in a live setting, if a band brings enough passion and energy to tear off the roof. This Killswitch does undeniably well.
Leach, looking renewed, fit, and healthy as ever, then addressed the elephant in the room. “We put out a record back in 2002 called ‘Alive Or Just Breathing’ … How many of you are old enough to have bought it back then?” I included myself in the show of hands.
Considering the sold-out 700-strong crowd, the show of hands wasn’t very big. I now must note, channeling Roald Dahl’s Grand High Witch, that the Stench Of Youth overwhelmed the building.
At the risk of coming off like a smug hipster, this is where my feelings about Killswitch Engage circa 2012 (and beyond) began to fissure, and my ambivalence has less to do with the band itself than with the symbiotic fan base interplay that sustains – and sometimes determines – the band’s career.
Leach announced, “We’re going to play that entire record for you right now,” and the reaction, while ecstatic from the smaller old guard and from those simply partial to the earlier material, wasn’t nearly the tremendous, deafening uproar of joy you’d expect to hear if Burton C. Bell announced Fear Factory’s performing “Demanufacture” in entirety.
This puzzled me at first, perhaps because I was high on the fumes of my own memories, but the initial rush would dissipate as the crowd’s behavior became more apparent from song to song.
That hangover was a ways off, though, when Killswitch ripped into album opener “Numbered Days” and Leach shrieked “THE TIME APPROACHES!” A smattering of old guard chimed in with plenty of lyrics, particularly during Leach’s improved clean passages. Moving forward through “Self Revolution” and “Fixation On The Darkness,” the floor sustained some pretty menacing pits and the headbanging seemed to infect the whole room.
I’d traveled through time in the most complimentary sense of the phrase. I was 18 when I picked up “Alive Or Just Breathing” mere weeks after its release, and had barely gotten through my first spin when news of Leach’s departure reached me. It would be another two years before I first saw the band live with Jones behind the mic, and the same went for most of the old guard living outside the Massachusetts metal scene at the time. For the first round, Leach just didn’t spend enough damn time in the band for virtually anyone to see him perform the album he helped create.
Now, ten years later, here we were, witnessing “Alive Or Just Breathing” showcased properly, as originally intended – for the first time.
Of course, a great deal of these first-timers had entered the fold in the interim: the much-debated Howard Jones years, the time of Killswitch’s ascendancy to stardom. This fact is central to my ambivalence about the future, and also helps explain the first overwhelming reaction of the album performance, single “My Last Serenade.” Rightfully beloved as a fantastic song, it nonetheless proved the most fitting prototype for the future singalong template Jones would later beat to death.
Afterward, things started getting a little dicey. It’s difficult to pin down. The band sounded massive and crystal clear throughout the set; Leach was in fine form after several years of voice training; founding drummer-turned-guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz had toned down his clownish onstage theatrics to a fair compromise that saved the show from his outright thievery; and the atmosphere never really soured. It looked and sounded like a hard-hitting metal show, with cheers and applause and nary a “boo” from the throngs.
But something was off, just a little.
The crowd mellowed and held back, creating a sharp contrast with the singalongs. Granted, this does tend to happen in a show’s middle section, when you may see fit to stand back enraptured by the performance and save what’s left of your energy until the finale, but this sorely stood out.
Tracks I would’ve committed crimes to see played live in 2002 – the stomping march “Life To Lifeless,” the At The Gates-fueled epic “Just Barely Breathing,” the neck-breaking thrasher “To The Sons Of Man,” and the riff-laden “Temple From The Within” – received a greeting no better than average. There was very little lyrical participation to speak of, and precious few outbursts of emotion and “Toxic Waltz” style violence that occur when THE song, YOUR song, OUR song, the CLASSIC song, is announced and played. For the first time, I’ll repeat.
As the album’s tracklist progressed, it seemed more and more a by-the-numbers concert – not what I’d expected for such an unprecedented, rightly hyped event.
In an interesting little move, Killswitch bumped up the penultimate track “Vide Infra” – another brutal number – effectively swapping another early singalong, “The Element Of One,” in its original place. For live purposes, this seemed appropriate, as the latter track segued pretty smoothly into the slow-to-fast buildup of closer “Rise Inside.”
Leach casually summed things up: “So, that was the record. What’d you guys think?” Naturally, the crowd gave the band its enthusiastic due, only to electrify with thunderous approval when Leach announced the first of two encores, “My Curse” off “As Daylight Dies.” For a moment, it seemed almost as though the crowd was relieved. Like a hosanna of thanks after discovering an oasis in the desert.
Too harsh? Five minutes later, with the final encore at hand, everything suddenly made perfect sense. I should’ve known this all along. One song above all others can define the essence of the entire Howard Jones era: “The End Of Heartache.” Not the best Killswitch cut, but decent, and one of the most memorable – if only, to me, for the fact that it routinely provokes the loudest and longest singing of the setlist. Tonight was no different.
Look, I can’t blame people for liking what they like. But I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t a tad frustrated with the fan base that had turned out, many of whom were fairly young. By all means, go nuts for the live staples and reserve some energy for the finale, but for crying out loud, you’re also witnessing the band’s seminal work played from front to back – a rarity! Compared to the powder keg at the beginning and end of the show, the bulk of the middle should’ve been Hiroshima. Instead, it seemed a mere bonfire.
Again, such is life, and I’ll admit it’s a bit selfish to expect, let alone demand, that others experience certain music the same way we do, though none of us are immune to those occasional feelings.
Nonetheless, the lingering question on my mind in the aftermath of this otherwise terrific performance was: how will Killswitch Engage’s fan base react and adapt to whatever changes may be coming? You might think this relentless scrutiny and speculation unnecessary, but how else to guess the next moves and their consequences? Like them or not, we’re talking about one of the most influential American metal bands of the new millennium.
I interviewed Leach in February 2012 the week it was announced he’d rejoined the band, and he had this to say about the new material:
“They have fourteen demos… and it’s the best Killswitch stuff I’ve ever heard. Super exciting! It’s fast, it’s heavy, it’s raw, it’s brutal, and our next record together is going to silence the naysayers.”
Those fourteen-plus demos have now become the twelve-track studio album “Disarm The Descent,” out through Roadrunner on April 2nd.
Now, we’ll have all learned by this point NOT to latch onto hype about music we haven’t heard, especially coming from artists themselves, who will never, ever say, “Ehhh, it’s decent – not our best – but you should buy it!” However, in the eleven months since our interview, Leach has never deviated from his admittedly basic description of the music. In some cases, he’s slightly elaborated on it, and has stated that people will be “surprised.”
No one should be expecting another “Alive Or Just Breathing,” but given the evidence at hand, it’s plausible to suspect that Killswitch has harkened back to its menacing roots. Come early April, we’ll find out, but if my suspicions are correct, I wonder how that will sit with a great young portion of Killswitch’s fan base – those milked on Howard Jones’ serenades while the band was being grandfathered into the “emo-core” scene it unwittingly helped spawn.
Hypothetically, that would cause some definite tension between factions. The ground having shifted – perhaps drastically – how will the cards fall? The band might be forced into a bit of a quandary.
Unlike Anthrax’s current set, in which Joey Belladonna can skip over all the John Bush-fronted material without a peep of protest from the crowd, a Killswitch Engage set without the likes of “The End Of Heartache” would spur some kids to riot harder, and their girlfriends to scream more angrily, than they’d mosh or shout along to “Self Revolution.” That’s saying something.
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