Perfect Sound Forever


Can You Handle This?
by Spikey Jay, NYU '08
(June 2008)

So you're a middle-aged parent and your son is a metalhead. You constantly hear him "shredding" on his guitar in the basement, playing along to a wall of deafening noise fronted by an obnoxious vocalist who thinks it's okay to scream and call it music. You wonder why your offspring, or anybody for that matter, enjoys listening to such disorder. It's not like there could possibly be anything pleasant about it. All metal is pretty much incessant, unintelligible hollering from a very angry man (or woman, in the case of Arch Enemy, but wait—who the hell is Arch Enemy?). Right? Well, have you actually taken the time to think about this intense genre? Probably not. Though you may be right about the blistering sound of most metal, there are a handful of hardcore bands whose music has the potential to appeal to everybody, young and old alike. How do I know this? Because my mother, a 53-year-old British woman who is probably more conservative than your grandparents, was humming a Killswitch Engage tune the other day.

Amidst the Massachusetts underground metal scene back in '99, Mike D'Antonio, ex-bassist of Overcast, crossed paths with Adam Dutkiewicz and Joel Stroetzel, guitarists of Aftershock. They decided to form a new band, Dutkiewicz switched to drums, and the three began their hunt for a capable front man. The search ended when they met Jesse Leach, triggering the birth of Killswitch Engage, a name inspired by an episode of The X-Files. In 2000, the release of their self-titled debut by Ferret Records sparked the interest of Roadrunner Records, and the band made their move. Metamorphosing from a four-piece to five-piece, they enlisted Tom Gomes, former drummer of Aftershock, with Dutkiewicz reverting to guitar. Shortly after they released Alive or Just Breathing in 2002, vocal problems forced Leach to leave the group, and Gomes soon followed. What saved the band was the recruitment of vocalist Howard Jones and drummer Justin Foley, both from Blood Has Been Shed—the rebirth of a new and improved Killswitch Engage.

Take a listen to some Killswitch songs and you'll notice that most of them lack a crucial hallmark of nearly all progressive/heavy/hardcore metal music today: technical virtuosity—solos that say, "I bet you can't play this." This absence, however, by no means diminishes the quality of their music—in fact, it plays a crucial role in their success and likability. "Success? Likability?" you ask. Yes—after all, there must be something about their music that can account for sales of 2004's The End of Heartache extending into the hundreds of thousands, not to mention earning a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance. By excluding solos that leave behind a trail of awe, Killswitch Engage allow their music to penetrate the minds of someone who has never picked up an instrument. It is not an absence of musicianship, but rather a presence of musical appeal.

Nor does this absence take away from their technical credibility: Dutkiewicz not only attended Berklee as a bass major and guitar minor, simultaneously studying music recording and production, but currently he also produces, engineers, and mixes the band's albums as well as those of a handful of other metal acts; Stroetzel, another Berklee student, took lessons from the electrically-fast, world renowned guitarist Joe Stump; and when Foley is not working with the band, he's playing with an orchestra as a classically trained percussionist with a master's in music from Hartt School of Music at University of Hartford. There is no question of whether or not the guys have the chops—they clearly do. They just don't feel the need to challenge your ears or musical proficiency with them.

The lack of finger-breaking solo sections not only says something about their music, but also about their persona. If you were to ask Killswitch about their albums, the answer would be (and has been) something like: "I didn't think [The End of Heartache] was that much of a success, per se. It was just a bunch of crappy songs," or, "If we're selling okay, that's just because somebody couldn't find a Shadows Fall CD. They must have run out at the store that day." Constantly downplaying themselves and their music, they are pessimistic for a reason—it drives them to strive for improvement each time. Rather than present themselves as musicians doing the best they can, they emphasize that they haven't reached their best yet. Killswitch Engage are not trying to outdo other metal acts. The only thing they are outdoing with each and every new song is themselves. The fact that, in reality, they have indeed bested many other metal groups comes as a fiscal, secondary reward. As self-deprecating as they are, one thing's certain—they sure don't suck.

Instead of testing your virtuosity with the "I bet you can't play this" metal mentality, Killswitch tests your compassion with an unrelenting intensity stemming from the heart of Howard Jones's vocals—"I bet you can't play this" transforms into "Can you handle this?" This tone was missing in former vocalist Jesse Leach. On both Killswitch's self-titled album and Alive or Just Breathing, Leach's voice seems hollow. The band could have achieved the same results with Chester Bennington of Linkin Park throwing his usual tantrum. If he were to ask any metal depreciator, "Can you handle this?" they would answer his question by turning the music down. When Jones poses this camouflaged question, it's an altogether different matter. The tenderness and warm tenor of his voice is intriguing and invites continued listening. There's a tonal quality present, even in his screaming, that makes it seem as if he could break into a melody at any moment, and on The End of Heartache this is exactly what he does.

"A Bid Farewell" opens Heartache with an ominous guitar line followed by a murderous scream—not much different from what you expect from your typical hardcore metal band. But after dodging Jones's verbal attacks in the verse, we find ourselves immersed in a sung, single-sentence chorus. What's that—vocal pitch? That's something new. This uncharacteristic introduction tells us that there is something different about Killswitch Engage, though we're not able to put our finger on it until two tracks later.

The opening and verses of "When Darkness Falls" reintroduce the stereotypical sound of a hardcore metal tune. Jones rips through each verse in a sinister fit of rage supported by nonsensical chromatic power chords. To top it off, Foley's pounding drumbeat sounds as if it were in a tribal and repetitive 1/4 meter with no sense of beat two, three, or four. How can any chorus top this? How can it possibly get any more intense? But it does. Catching you by surprise is the pre-chorus, a 180-degree turnaround. The chaotic hammering of beat ones metamorphoses into an organized six, the illogical guitar lines into a dual-octave unison before splitting into harmony, but most importantly, Jones sings. No. Jones pours. The phrasing of melodic intervals cries out, and the cracking of his voice mid-pre-chorus makes you wonder if he himself was crying during the performance. No longer is his timbre a shadowy abyss, for the darkness in his voice turns into a warmth, and in a desperate, last attempt to fully unleash his pain, the chorus arrives—an eruption of a feel-able and groove-able four coupled with a standard IV-V-VI guitar progression. Although the drum rhythm returns to the monotonous style heard in the verse, this time Jones's melody tag-teams with the guitars to guide you to beat one, and show you where two, three, and four are. Jones is aching, but he pushes forward with legato articulation and some of the most melodic phrasing in metal today. The vocal outpouring in the chorus surpasses any and all intensity in the verses. For a moment, we forget that those two polar opposites are in the same song. Not only do we hear Jones—we feel him.

The following track, "Rose of Sharyn," opens up in the same destructive manner and follows a similar pattern. With no introduction, Jones immediately begins to holler in our faces with rough, unarticulated jibber-jabber. At first, it seems as if the rose he dedicates to Sharyn is wilting, black, and thorned, devoid of all love and affection. We don't know who Sharyn is, but it sounds like she was a real bitch for doing whatever she did to Harold. But wait—what makes "Sharyn" so different from "Darkness" is that he uses the power of content to reveal his true intention and ultimately hit home. In the chorus he weeps, "It won't be long / We'll meet again / Your memory is never passing / It won't be long / We'll meet again / My love for you is everlasting." When's the last time you heard that pussy-love shit in a hardcore metal tune? Thus, the only prerequisite for understanding "Rose of Sharyn" is having loved someone in your life. Imagine rocking out to this, lip-synching the chorus alone in your room, after you've just been dumped—chances are that by the time you get to the second phrase you're on the verge of breaking down in tears if you aren't bawling already because of what happened. By the end of the final chorus, we find ourselves supporting Jones—we will help him find his Sharyn—because we know that he and his lyrics will always be there to console us when we need them. What was first thought of as an angry disdain we now recognize as loving devotion and a heartbreaking loss. The rose dedicated to Sharyn is now redder than ever, brilliant, and filled with the hope that the two will one day be reunited.

Yet the climactic peak of the album, the moment when Jones's talent shines in the spotlight, does not come until halfway in. "The End of Heartache," having received radio play and been featured as the main track for Resident Evil: Apocalypse, is the epitome of melodic metal. It says to us, "Yeah, this guy can really sing," and if that wasn't clear enough on "When Darkness Falls" or "Rose of Sharyn," it's undeniable now. You hear Jones's vocal gift in the perfect intonation of his interval leaps; you hear it in the trailing vibrato at the end of particular lines; you hear it in the warmth from his diaphragm as he sustains pitches.

"The End of Heartache" is also what accounts for the success of the album, and of the band—the version cut for radio is significantly shorter, but more importantly all of Jones's screaming on the full-length track is either removed or replaced by an actual melody. Deprived of all vocal viciousness, devoid of the quality that distinguishes metal from the rest, Killswitch Engage momentarily transforms for four minutes and five seconds into your standard, radio-worthy rock band. If only this practice was maintained throughout all of their songs, then maybe they would be reigning supreme in mainstream hard rock. But the next track arrives, and no matter how melodic it is, Jones's vocal delivery soon reminds us of why they are "metal."

Killswitch does not merely combine diametrically opposing elements within their music—they place them in perfect balance: blood-curdling screams versus heart-warming/heartbreaking melodies; meterless machine gun rhythms versus strict beats that have you swaying or just nodding your head; the tearing dual attack of chromatic distortion guitars versus consonant intervals of harmony; the chaos of metal versus the friendliness of pop. I'm sure the band wouldn't be too happy with their name and the term "pop" in the same sentence, but let's face it—first and foremost Killswitch Engage are songwriters, not solo-shredders, and the structure of "When Darkness Falls" demonstrates just that. It allows us to connect with the music through its construction: intro—verse—chorus—verse—chorus—bridge—chorus—chorus. Sound familiar? It should, because that's what you normally hear on Z-100 or any other pop station.

In an interview with Decibel magazine, Jones observes: "I think the thing that sets us apart from a lot of other bands is that we write hooks instead of riffs. . . . When we're on the tourbus, we aren't ashamed to listen to gay pop music, and I think that rubs off." Killswitch Engage have learned how to appeal to the masses through their writing. They view song structure as a whole created by the sum of sections, not the sum of riffs to form a whole as in the usual metal ideology. Howard Jones's melodies are memorable, and Killswitch's orchestrations reek of traditional song arrangement. Rather than the hardcore-metal-emo-punk-rock band they're said to be, their music boils down to one fusion and one fusion alone: pop-metal. This is where their likability, success, and musicianship lie.

Heartache marks the moment of Killswitch Engage's maturity. Departing from their first two albums, they finally got sensible and learned what really happens when good melody is incorporated, much like Mudvayne on their very successful The End of All Things to Come. Killswitch carries contemporary metal to the level of musical coherence and acceptance. Rewriting the Constitution of Metal, Heartache puts our sensitivity and emotionality on trial, and Howard Jones tells metalheads all over the world, "Yeah, it's alright to be angry, but sometimes you need to cry, and that's okay too." The album not only determines whether you have ears, but whether you have a heart.

So if you tell me that you don't like metal because of the violent vocal onslaught, then yes, I understand—it's not for everybody. But if you try to say the same for Killswitch Engage, then you're either lazy for not taking the time to fully listen through The End of Heartache, or you have problems accepting truth. Sure, Howard Jones's vicious screaming may cause metal haters to lose their hearing and metalheads to knock somebody the fuck out, but the emotional strain of his melodies will force everyone to find a shoulder to cry on. Listen to the notes of the choruses rather than the timbre of the verses, and if you find the lyrical lines of The End of Heartache melodically attractive, simultaneously heart-breaking and uplifting, then I've proven my case. Not all metal is brutal. Not all metal is incoherent anger. Not all metal is just pipe-ripping vocals. Not all metal sucks.

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