Review Summary: Better than you might expect.
The world of CCM (short for “Christian Contemporary Music”) is essentially the realm of preachy, force-fed anal waste meant to appeal to a crowd who doesn’t want to listen to church hymns; just look at bands like Jars of Clay and Newsboys diligently following the pop hits around them to create bland “soft rock” hits for the masses. Keep in mind that I’m not trying to beat a dead horse by bashing CCM (Lord knows so many people have already… no pun intended), but finding a truly memorable artist in the genre is immensely difficult. There are always bright lights in every genre however, and for every Casting Crowns, there’s always a band like Skillet to keep things interesting.
While Skillet may not be specifically inclined with CCM, their style certainly taps in the genre quite a lot; the biggest difference is in how heavy their sound is compared to that of, say, Dc Talk. Skillet’s sound started out as industrial alternative rock, but evolved into a heavier, grungier style with 2004’s Collide. With the total reinvention of their sound, you’d think that maybe the band would play it safe with the next record, maybe let Collide’s successor be a nice rehash; that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth when you sink your ears into 2006’s Comatose.
Instead of following straight on the heels of Collide, Comatose brings in a cleaner production, more orchestral elements for a grander feel, and a much darker atmosphere (whereas a lot of Collide sounded more angst-ridden than dark). The lyrics, while containing familiar Christian concepts, add a secular flavor and thus are able to relate to a wider audience. The most refreshing aspect of the lyrics is that they aren’t so preachy and blunt; the Christian elements (much like with As I Lay Dying) are much more subtle than with other Christian rock/CCM artists.
Getting down to the music, the eleven tracks contain a balanced mix of alternative metal, symphonic touches a la Evanescence, ballads to even out the heavy moments, and dynamic vocal work from singer and bassist John Cooper. Every song is relatively short, which is actually a good thing since Skillet are adept at leaving their mark without sounding overbearing or starting to drag. For instance, album closer “Looking for Angels” uses spoken word to get its point across, but never comes off as sounding contrived or out-of-context with the music; plus, despite it being the longest track on the album, the narrative keeps the song progressing smoothly without any bumps in the road. In essence, that’s the best way to describe the whole experience: smooth. Songs like “Yours to Hold” and “The Older I Get” represent the band’s more vulnerable side, but in no way that threatens the atmosphere created by the clean guitar chords and layered keyboard effects. Similarly, the heavy tunes like “Rebirth” and the fantastic title track mix crunchy guitar backbones with a symphonic touch on the keys to give a nice balance. Sure, the band can abuse the formula sometimes to play it safe; sure, bands have adhered to this style before. Nonetheless, it still works wonderfully, and makes for very effective dynamic contrasts as well as extra little nuances of atmosphere here and there.
Unfortunately, the record starts to get a little stale in its second half. The album starts to get that “been there, done that” syndrome as it wears on, eventually running out of the ideas it had so plentifully before. The other issue is that the lyrics can get a touch too heartfelt, sometimes to the point of blandness or cheesiness. “Yours to Hold” is a decent ballad (if a real step down from the songs before it), but the blatant simplicity of the poetry John sings really bogs it down, and the chorus is almost unlistenable because of the same issue.
The rest, however, is alternative metal gold. In a genre (or style to be precise) like Christian rock, Comatose is Skillet’s big stand; it proves that with some real effort, bands in this style can really strike a chord with the public and find praise from even detractors of religious music. Even if you aren’t a Christian rock fan, this still manages to be an impressive balance between the grit of hard rock and the polish of clean, well-composed alternative music.