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2 years after their self titled album, Killswitch Engage gained some prestige with 2002's 'Alive Or Just Breathing' and lead single 'My Last Serenade'. Buoyed by favourable reviews, strong writing abilities and a human swiss army knife in Adam Dutkiewicz (a guitarist, drummer, backing vocalist, recording engineer and producer) KsE grasped the opportunity to put together an album worthy of defining the metal-core genre. AOJB is 45 minutes of brutally delivered philosophy, spread out across 12 tracks each averaging 3 and half minutes, 2 of which are found on the previous album, with stronger guitar work and smoother vocals. With the Roadrunner Records 25th anniversary edition (20 tracks, 1 hour & 13 minutes long), you get a thick recyclable case with the original album, a lyric booklet and a second disc with demos, B-sides, outtakes and official music videos. After hearing the single, buying the album was essential, making this my first real introduction to heavy metal music, pushed straight into the deep end, only to find sparkling gems below the surface. As intense as it may seem, its not just solid screaming, double bass pedal and thrashing guitars, thrown into the mix are clean vocals, uplifting chords and acoustic interludes.
"The time approaches. Fall. This is the voice of the voiceless, we have learned by making choices. After persecution and delusion, we have severed a solution - To build our foundation on natural elements to preserve life, we will rise, this babylon, fall." an epic speech tears into the first song 'Numbered Days'. Behind the words are tuning guitars and patient percussion all waiting to crash into life, with chugging rhythm leading the way. 'The ashes of the dead will be a sign, the time approaches' is an almighty cry from lead vocalist Jesse Leach, over vicious upstroke guitars until the chorus sheds light on the albums song structures, going for cleaner vocals. "Arms raised, eyes gaze. Tongues of fire whisper this life will soon slip away" is sang is such a pure manner even with the ferocious backing, a ray of light in a damned song. 'Self Revolution' starts in a similar way, this time wis a chunky bass interlude and sliding guitar scratches. Soaring chorus lines of "In this search for I & I. The truth is always deep inside" and "Rehearsal of oneself, finding the truth" beautifully echo and harmonize in preparation for an angrier song to come. The 3rd song 'Fixation on the Darkness' initially a snarling riff driven, pinch harmonic beast follows the path of the past songs with another melodic chorus. The lyrics are barely a paragraph but are ripe with angst fueled rage, demanding 'Its time for change'. The best technically and catchiest guitar work on the album.
Then comes one of my all time favourite songs - 'My Last Serenade' a superb offering of head bobbing brilliance, gut busting growls and the sweetest sounding chorus' ever known. The verses shine with powerful life changing lyrics, mentioning ignorance, self righteousness and serenity. The steady drum patterns and simplistic riff make it instantly memorable, besides the heavenly intro & outro, and builds up the chorus for a splendid sing along, deserving of being the single track that fired KsE to fame in the first place - as you can imagine, I recommend you hear this before considering the album. 'Life to Lifeless' however, sounds like the gates of hell have been opened and let loose screeching demons upon your soul with equally dark words - "Death unfolds itself painfully, to unmask how fragile we are/teacher of sanity". One of the few songs that is constantly down cast and perhaps a bit depressing and repetitious. The next song 'Just Barely Breathing' based on the albums title, takes its time until it kickstarts, with a dawdling beginning that sounds like a theme for a haunted house with ghostly tones and faint piano keys. When it does get going, the riff is a complex resurgence met by a long scream and double bass. It continues with horrid notes and an evil theme while the the title is desperately shouted in the chorus and broken down with a lethargic "The sky weeps tonight, out bodies washed away. I am waiting for you, deliverance. The sun falls through the clouds, hear my cry".
'To the Sons of Man' is a 2 minute short burst of energy that could possibly get away with being longer if calmed down a tad. Its here that the screaming defines the word demonic, so much so that its obviously an effect sparingly thrown in during "The flesh is temporary, the soul is eternal". Memories of 2000's self titled debut album flood back in 'Temple From The Within'. It was the lead track then and still packs a big punch here with a fantastic chorus that demands grooving along. Its packed with sharp chord progression, breakdowns, squealy pinches and of course the ever potent lyric, "You teach me to inscribe these words upon my heart". The 9th song 'Element of One' is in a similar vain to 'My Last Serenade' with a weepy acoustic introduction, sturdy verses and a melodic, holy chorus. The most 'pleasant' song on the album, one to hear should you be wanting a little taste of metal and screaming. The basic lyrics consist of "Breathe me in, I am forever. Deep within, I am eternal" sang in a mantra like way with pitch perfect delivery and acts as relief from all the hostile growling. The ending is particularly well done as the drums pick up the pace, doubling the tempo and demanding more from everyone else.
Some of the strongest lyrics I've heard are in 'Vide Infra' ('See Below') another track from KsE's debut effort. "No one is placed higher than another - no matter race or creed or gender. We must teach forgiveness and compassion for-all-life". Preachy? Perhaps, but its a positive message and one that all the radio friendly superstarts tend to ignore in their jingles about money, sex and drugs. Brisling with more upstrokes and vocal chord scraped singing, the lyrics are just stunning - "I am not afraid to speak my mind. No matter the consequences, stay true to yourself. Through the humble eyes of a child we will realize true equality. They cannot take me from me". I've never heard anything as passionate and honest as this. After such a brutal awakening of reality, an angelic instrumental acts as a moment of tranquility, as two acoustic guitars gently ring out notes and chords, while an electric riff delicately chimes in over the top. I recall my own mother strolling into my room and hearing this, debating why all the songs couldn't be like this.. Its barely 2 minutes of peace, the calm before the final storm.
"Rise Inside! Free your mind, raise your fist! To signify, we stand in defiance of hatred and deception!" the shaking guitars and weakened symbols play along in verses and afterwards, get to terminal velocity, drums guitars and bass all go incredibly fast and cut out for one last interlude which bursts into more resistance. It poetically ends the way it began, slowly closing out the song with more fat chords and loud symbols. Mind blown, neck and voice weakened by singing along and head-banging, the album comes to strong end, or at least it would do on the original. With the 2 disc anniversary edition, you get 2 songs that missed the final cut in 'Untitled & Unloved' - a cowboy like western instrumental, like 'Without a Name' just longer and sadder, then the quality track 'When the Balance is Broken'. This song really made my day as it hadn't been heard before and after 3 years, were well worth the wait, making this version feel fresh. It starts with long held notes then goes crazy with all the things that made the album work. "Through the loneliness, depression - this is not in vain. Through the tribulation, find redemption - this is not in vain" again the lyrics are empowering and sang with real spirit.
A reworking of 'In The Unblind' was also apparently prepared for inclusion with this album but left over as 3 used songs may have been a too much. It still a blisteringly quick song that gallops throughout and the vocals are just as incredible as always, while the ending is even better with more substance and powerful vibes. Also included on the 2nd disc are 3 demos of 'Numbered Days', 'Just Barely Breathing' and 'Transfiguration' (aka Fixation on the Darkness), all being supreme quality just unmastered. Unfortunately, a Howard Jones (singer for 2003-2012) version on 'Fixation on the Darkness' was thrown in.. I have nothing against the singer as he provided 3 albums with the band, 2 of which were decent, but since this is a classic KsE album, his voice is rather unnecessary and sounds rushed for inclusion. The conclusion track 'AOJB Studio Outtakes' is over a minute of silly messing about, with hilarious improvisation, mistakes and a japanese fish salesman song... Pop the disc in a video player and you'll find three music videos, for 'My Last Serenade', 'Fixation on the Darkness' and 'Life to Lifeless'. Inside the lyric booklet (filled with personal photographs on tour, on stage and on shoots) you'll find lyrics to every song, band member insight to the bonus tracks and interview exerts with the following topics:
Killswitch: From weekend warriors to Fulltime band
Cold feet and nervous talks: Signing to Roadrunner
The writing of 'Alive or Just Breathing'
The making of 'Alive or Just Breathing' (the music)
The making of 'Alive or Just Breathing' (the vocals)
World: Meet 'Alive or Just Breathing'
The first tour: Soilwork, Hypocrisy, and KSE
Exit: Jesse Leach
Enter: Howard Jones
The Killswitch phenomenon
In my opinion, this album is the best way to introduce yourself to the heavy metal genre, as its screams may put you off at first, the melodies will keep you listening long enough to eventually embrace the harder elements. Anyone who claims its 'just a bunch of shouting' doesn't know what they're talking about and is being extremely close minded, although I can understand the mindset for new listeners. Absolutely worth the listen as it can become a real favourite and open your ears to honest music.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Numbered Days
2 Self Revolution
3 Fixation On The Darkness
4 My Last Serenade
5 Life To Lifeless
6 Just Barely Breathing
7 To The Sons Of Man
8 Temple From The Within
9 The Element Of One
10 Vide Infra
11 Without A Name
12 Rise Inside