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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Ardent Records/ Atlantic Records
11 tracks/ 42 minutes
Skillet has a back catalogue that lives up to their name – garage rock, electronica, industrial, hard-rock, and even a worship album under their belt. Now with Comatose, the band has switched things up again, fusing melodic metal with ccm-style pop, interspersed with keys and female vocal back-up, all super-slick and spotlessly produced. The end result is a sometimes thrilling yet also poorly paced “hard-pop” recording, a more accessible sound that still has much of the spirit of past Skillet releases, but suffers from problems that may unfortunately make Comatose qualify as a misfire in the band’s catalogue.
Comatose is more about energy, less about muscle than Skillet’s previous release. Poppier melodies, more expansive use of piano and strings, and more straight forward drums all lend Comatose a more propulsive feel than Collide, and is somewhat reminiscent of their danceable electronica style from Invincible, but with melodies that have the feel of modern goth/pop/rock artists like Evanescence.
Skillet has always tucked in a ballad or three in each of their major releases, so it isn’t a surprise that they include a few within _Comatose_. But the worst that could be said for their past ballads was that they choked up the flow of their albums from song-to-song. In fact, some of Skillet’s most affecting material has been of their softer balladry. Comatose suffers from a similar problem in its flow, yet it is made worse by ballads that seem to lack strong hooks or interesting musicianship. The beauty found in past songs like “More Faithful” or “A Little More” simply isn’t felt in the new material’s softer moments – instead, we get tiresome, sometimes groan-worthy pop-punk.
Even the harder songs feel somehow tainted and lessened by the poppier new direction John Cooper has taken his song-writing: though starting incredibly with the momentous and jaw-dropping “Rebirthing”, which features awesome backup by Korey Cooper that’ll make every “panhead” – devoted Skillet fans - whoop for joy, most of the following hard rockers suffer from a feeling of sameness and sometimes cheesy lyrical themes. Things are made even worse by production that is far, far too slick – the return of keyboard sounds and effects, which had originally been largely responsible for stretching the band’s sound in their sophomore effort years ago, feel dulled and lost in the mix. Lori Peter’s drumming suffers a similar fate – instead of the driving force they were on Collide, they have barely any impact on the new material, only noticeably registering in a select couple tracks.
Comatose doesn’t lack at least a few good spots though. As mentioned, the opening “Rebirthing” is one of the most epic songs the band has ever attempted, and it’s pulled off incredibly well, and the record’s closing track, “Looking for Angels,” is a surprisingly moving spoken-word entry, with a simple yet effective chorus. But the overall album suffers from too many detractions in style and overly slick production to make it a recommendable Skillet album. This is not the loss of a really good rock band so much as it is a misstep – their energy, spirit, and skill is still apparent, but Comatose is overall one of Skillet’s lesser albums.
Jonathan Avants 10/08/06
Skillet's music has soundtracked a good portion of the last eight years of my life. I have unabashedly been a "panhead." I took the Greyhound eight hours to see Skillet at one of their rare Canadian appearances (a youth conference in Calgary, AB.) The first five records (four studio + the worship album) each occupy a special place in my heart. "Hey You" is probably my favorite record, but I have a soft spot for "Invincible" - not only does it have what I consider Skillet's best song ("Angels Fall Down"), but my future wife and I bonded over it, spending many a late night in the summer of 2000 driving aimlessly, belting out the tunes at the top of our lungs.
I remember her face-down on my living room floor while I did dishes, worshipping God to "Angels Fall Down." We fell out of contact. I certainly did not forget her, especially when I listened to Skillet...
So to say that a new Skillet cd is at the top of my new music list, well, that would be an understatement. Not only was it a new Skillet record, but it would be the first record my new wife, the girl from 2000, would buy together. Our first Skillet record. And to top it all off, the first single "Rebirthing" was a hard rockin' good time, heavy with synth strings, containing hints of all the Skillet sounds. I'm a clear-minded enough Skillet fan to acknowledge that they won't ever be considered one of the most artistically innovative groups ever, but I was expecting some good things from Comatose. The album arrived, two weeks late; the wife and I sat down to lunch and the new Skillet for the first time.
"Disappointment" isn't a strong enough word. Appalled would be better.
"Rebirthing" (which I bought from the iTunes store prior to the record's release) kicks things off. It carries on the heavy, Linkin Park/Evanasence sound that characterized the previous record Collide, enriched with a strong dose of synthetic strings. Guitarist Ben Kasica gets to display a wicked (yet all too brief) guitar solo. The quality level promptly takes a sharp nosedive for tracks two to eleven, AKA "the rest of the album."
Let's start with the overall songwriting. Have you been listening to Top 40 rock radio? Heard bands like Theory of a NickleFault or any of the other interchangeable "bread rock" acts (Puddle of Mudd, Three Doors Down, Trapt, etc) that churn out four-chord "rockers" and power ballads? So has Skillet. "Say Goodbye" uses the same key change outro as Nickelback's atrocious faux-sincere "Far Away." "Yours To Hold" and "The Older I Get" feature more of the same, including requisite chippy piano. On the other end of the spectrum, the band continues the Linkin Park/Evanesence sound-a-like contest they started on Collide. Unlike the previous record, however, the band fails to make the sound their own. "The Last Night" and "Better Than Drugs", take a bow. "Comatose" and "Falling Inside The Black" are mildly heavier versions of Avril Lavigne or Kelly Clarkson's latest hits. I'm not joking. "Comatose" and "Looking For Angels" are blatant attempts to capture the hip-hop fan's attention (the opening strings on the title track only sound unique on a rock> album - too bad the rap world's been doing stuff like that for years). Then, in a completely eyebrow-raising moment, the band enters Sum41/Jimmy Eat World pop-punk territory with "Those Nights." Every song on the album> has been done before and overplayed on modern rock radio in the past three years. Skillet isn't merely evoking other acts, they're culling Comatose from the "best of" top 40. There are three entire rhythms and tempos on the album. Everything comfortably fits into the "mid-tempo radio rock" category with two "heavier" exceptions. Every song is a radio-perfect three-and a half minutes, excepting the two tracks that crack the four minute mark.
The sole musical highlights include:
1) The synthesized strings are well-orchestrated, not the usual sappy "droning" string sound used to give songs more "emotion."
2) Korey's return to back-up vocals after being inexplicably absent on Collide.
3) Ben Kasica is given several opportunities to really solo. The longest he's given to do so is only 12 seconds, of course, but he shows flashes of brilliance in those solos. The boy sounds like he could do Iron Maiden justice given half the chance.
The technical performance is, of course, much "better" then the performance displayed on the first few Skillet records. But regardless of how well you play derivative and by-the-numbers. Sure, it's played well, but it's all power chords and "duh-nun-nun" four-chord rhythms and formulaic staccato riffing. Every Skillet record has marked a significant style change but somehow remained "Skillet." Comatose fails in this regard. John Cooper's breathy vocals have somehow been molded into a Chad Kroeger clone. He sings in exactly two modes: Over-earnest Idol star and "whispery" hard rock guy. He's never been the most diverse vocalist, but he's never sounded so incredibly generic. And while the word "generic" is tossed around too easily these days, it's rarely been as applicable to a record as it is to "Comatose."
And then... then there's the lyrics.
John Cooper has been accused of being a clumsy lyricist in the past. He's been responsible for some serious cheese in the past ("Worldwide Jesus Domination/Love Conquers All" - Alien Youth), but the earnestness and picture-painting usually overcame that. Overall I've always enjoyed Skillet lyrics because of the concepts and emotions Cooper attempted to illustrate, frequently with evocative and uncomfortable imagery. Recall "Locked In A Cage," "Gasoline," "Scarecrow," "Eating Me Away," etc. "Collide" was an impressive step for Cooper lyrically: The worst lyrics were on the track "Energy", which weren't bad, and he really outdid himself on the songs "My Obsession," "Savior" and "Fingernails." Comatose, however, features none of that. The lyrics can be summed up by the overuse of the words "you" and "I." Cheesiness can be forgiven, but the lyrics have no creativity to them. Every second line is "You were (insert action/feeling)" or "I was (insert response)." Sometimes the "I" might be God, or perhaps a girl, or maybe a friend... sometimes the "you" is God, or perhaps a girl, or maybe a friend. Which is to say Comatose is one of the shining examples of how irritating the "God or Girlfriend" christian-crossover lyrical style is. The mainstream press gets it, guys. They're not fooled by this particular xtian trick. Some of my favorite (read: most painful) lyrics include: "Your parents say everything is your fault / But they don't know you like I know you / They don't know you at all / I'm so sick of when they say / It's just a phase / You'll be ok / You're fine / But I know it's a lie" ("The Last Night"), "Feel your love comin' on so fast / Feel you comin' on to get me high" (the irritatingly cliche "Better Than Drugs"), or how about "Remember when we we'd stay up late and we'd talk all night / in a dark room lit by the TV light."
The goal on Comatose, according to Skillet's mailing list and interviews, is to reach out to a hurting young generation. The album addresses cutting (with nowhere near the humanity, grace and real emotion displayed on the recent Plumb track "Cut"), certainly deals with the theme of feeling misunderstood and lonely... the problem is that John Cooper seems to think the best way to reach out to 14-19 year olds is to write like one. Teenagers are far more intelligent than your average adult gives them credit for... they don't need "dumbed down" lyrics so they "grasp" concepts. The lyrics on Comatose would have you believe John has been aging in reverse, that on his 29th birthday he became 16 again. Did he crib the words from an eleventh grade outcast's journal? It wouldn't shock me. There is hope on the record, but it's muddled by a lot of self-centered "don't leave me alone / I'm so alone / I'm so hurt" material. Why in the world is Skillet singing high-school break-up lines like "I don't want to believe it's over / Don't say goodbye / 'Cause I don't wanna hear those words tonight / Don't say anything tonight / If you're gonna say goodbye."
The mind boggles.
The interesting thing to note is that producer Brian Howes (not to be confused with former Bad Company vocalist Brian Howe) has co-writing lyrical credit on eight of the eleven tracks. And while the music is credited to John L. Cooper exclusively, it's hard not to wonder how much of Comatose's sound was shaped by Atlantic/Lava interests. Howe doesn't have much of a pedigree: His EMI biography lists some of his major accomplishments in the producing realm as working with Nickelback/Theory of A Deadman producer Joey Moi, touring with 12 Stones and Trapt, developing, producing and writing for the band Hinder and working with Canadian version of Hinder, Hedley (featuring a Canadian Idol winner.) He's written bread rock, worked in bread rock, and continues to expand his career with bread rock. Ironically, John Cooper has lavished praise on Howes for helping him "write some of his best lyrics" and really shaping the sound of Comatose. I cynically wonder what kind of corporate crack John's been smoking. Of course, John Cooper has also famously stated in an HM magazine interview that Linkin Park's "Hybrid Theory" is one of the best records of the past five years. So, really, who knows.
There are two good songs on Comatose: "Rebirthing" and "Whispers In The Dark." They are notably, two of the heaviest tracks. They're not terribly innovative (thank you Linkin Park!), but they stay closest to the "Collide" sound and are lyrically palatable. A third song almost reaches "good" status, the album closing "Looking For Angels." On the track, Cooper delivers clumsy spoken-word over hip-hop beats until the catchy chorus kicks in. Honestly, it sounds like third-rate Eminem with a lot more guitars. The track is notable, however, as it is the one song on the record that is not self-centered but outward-thinking. Rhymes like "So many homeless scrounging around for dirty needles / on the rise / teen suicide / when will we realize" aren't particularly good, but the track at least attempts to cause people to think outside of themselves, asking "what will you do to make a difference / to make a change? What will you do to help someone along the way? / Pray for your enemies, humble yourself / In the midst of the most painful faces / Angels show up in the strangest of places." There's enough self-centered "please help me, I'm so lonely, so hurt" lyrics out there. I realize Cooper's intent is to get people to realize there's a God who loves them throughout the record, but it translates into insular and self-serving. "Looking For Angels", while certainly not a Skillet song, at least points people's hearts outwards... self-pity only goes so far.
The most depressing part about listening to Comatose is that no matter how bad I think it is (and it is), how much the Christian media falls over themselves to praise it as a landmark Christian rock record (and they are), however big the band gets from it (and mark my words, this WILL be Skillet's best-selling record)...
Is that when John Cooper writes e-mails to the fanbase, his heart is so transparent and open. I hardly believe that Skillet has made the changes to their sound in order to become a rich and famous band. They may have made those changes to get their music out to more people, but they've done that because they want to <i>help them.</i> The band members have their hearts in the right places, and hey, who am I argue with people getting saved, feeling healed, feeling encouraged to stop cutting, to not commit suicide... these songs are touching young people. Skillet isn't a "Christian" band attempting to make a cross-over and distance themselves from their faith for more credibility for sales, their primary purpose is to love people and let them know that God loves them; that there is hope and healing.
Comatose is not a very good record. The real people behind it, however, are good people, and while I will need to give their next album a good listen instead of standing in line to get it on day one, I wish them the absolute best. It's too bad that the record is so narrowly targeted towards a young age group: too bad because Skillet is capable of so much more, sonically and lyrically.
Some things get better with age. To my great disappointment, Skillet is not one of them.
Ryan Ro / myspace.com/hollandrow