Review Summary: Sometimes, average is just good enough.
At this point in Skillet
's career, most people know what to expect from these Christian hard rockers. Whenever they make an album, no matter what the explicit theme is, there will be some super emo power ballads, riff-centric upbeat harder tracks, and some symphonic strings in the background. Ever since their hit album Comatose
, this is the formula they've followed and have done commercially quite well with. Most people either really relate to their music or find it derivative of itself and quite bland.
I'm definitely in the latter of the two camps. I really enjoyed their 2003 release Collide
because of its rabid sonic intensity and somewhat rough-around-the-edges sound. Comatose
was slightly less enjoyable for me because of its extra layer of polish, but it still retained some originality with its addition of strings and some subtle electronic elements. However, with Awake
, Skillet lost me. Their over-reliance on either ballads or remakes of "Comatose" were shameful, and it felt like Comatose 2.0
but far, far, far worse. Rise
only continued this trend for me with its forced attempt at a concept album. It's actually one of my least favorite albums in my library because it takes Awake
's formula even farther than Awake
itself did and just shamefully relies on Skillet's tropes.
However, for some reason, I decided to give Skillet
one last chance to partially redeem themselves with Unleashed
. I don't know what compelled me to do so, but I sat down to listen to Unleashed
, expecting the absolute worst, especially after listening to all of the pre-release singles.
And, you know what" I didn't completely hate myself afterwards.
is a major step-up from Skillet
's last two releases and is comfortingly average from a band that has been far below that line recently. It's not anything revolutionary from the band, but it doesn't rely exclusively on trying to recreate past successes. Skillet tries some new things in addition to rehashing some of the old, and it kind of works in a guilty pleasure way.
What I like most about Unleashed
is that there's definite times where it reminds me of Collide
. Parts of that record (especially the title track) felt like a giant wall of sound that just assaulted me head-on in the best way possible, and Unleashed does the same thing at times. "Burn It Down" is a perfect example of this, as are "The Resistance," "Out of Hell," and "Back from the Dead." Granted, this is not something new for the genre or even for Skillet as a band, but it's something that they haven't touched on for long enough that it's refreshing.
The best ballads on Unleashed
also don't overly force emotion like in previous efforts. "Stars" is almost straight up worshipful to the point that I think it could work in a Sunday morning church service with the right arrangement. That's something really different for Skillet to a point that, while it doesn't quite work flawlessly, is something decently interesting. "Watching for Comets" is another solid ballad that definitely fits more into the Skillet mold, but despite that it works surprisingly well because of it's lyrical slant and slightly heavier feel.
Musically, the best thing about Unleashed
is the way that the synths and guitars interact. Skillet hasn't messed too much with pure synth sounds in the past, relying more heavily on strings for the "emotional" effect in their songs; when they have messed with synths (see "Sick of It"), they've done relatively the same things as the guitars, going for incredibly heavy riffing and weighty lines. This time around, the band uses them more for higher-register lead lines and let the guitars do the heavy riffing, in particular in "Out of Hell" and "Burn It Down." There's also some dancey drumbeats towards the back half of Unleashed
that are a bit of a positive change for Skillet.
However, despite some positive progress, Unleashed
does have its flaws. One of them is the record's first half. To me, it felt like Skillet was trying to recreate "Comatose" nearly every single track, especially on "I Want to Live." It even goes as far as replicating the strings line nearly note-for-note, albeit in a different key. Other tracks like "Famous" and "Undefeated" sound like they're overly trying to appeal to pop radio and ESPN bumper videos, respectively. These are the kind of things I expected and dreaded from this album all the way through, so the fact that they're relatively contained to one half of the record is better than my expectations.
Another partial flaw with Unleashed
is the album's lyrics. I actually liked them a little better than Skillet's past couple releases because they have a broader appeal than just teenagers struggling with life; however, they still occasionally fall into that trope of "I can do everything because God." That's something that Skillet did a lot on Rise
that brought that album's quality a lot; thankfully, it doesn't plague this album as much as I thought it would. "Undefeated" fits perfectly into this category, as does "Feel Invincible." The song "Saviors of the World" also has a questionable line about us being the titular saviors that just doesn't quite sit right with me. I get the sentiment behind the song of Christians being the people to bring the world to a better moral place, but the word "savior" has a big connotation that almost feels like Christians are taking the place of Christ Himself. That's a very bad line to come close to in Christian music.
Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by this album because it wasn't a complete piece of garbage. Unleashed
does possess some of the lowest-common-denominator rock Skillet has recently become known for; however, after the album's first half things improve a lot, showing some musical advancement from their last two efforts. Sometimes, average is just fine by me, and this is definitely one of those cases. Unleashed
does have some guilty pleasure for me, but at least it's got some pleasure and not just the guilt I felt after listening to Rise
for the first time.
My rating: 2.5/5
Best tracks: "Out of Hell," "Burn It Down," "Stars," "Watching for Comets"