Skillet’s eighth studio album, their long-awaited sequel to their 2006 smash hit “Comatose,” finally hits the stores on Aug 25. My pre-order copy has already arrived, so here is my review of their newest project, “Awake.” Before continuing, I have to admit that my expectations were sky-high for this CD, especially following a project that I regard as one of the best efforts in the history of Christian rock music. (In order to provide the reader some background in terms of my preferences, let me state that I definitely tend to prefer harder music, with my favorite Skillet songs from the past including, “You’re in My Brain,” “Whispers in the Dark,” Better than Drugs,” “Falling Inside the Black,” “Comatose,” “Locked in a Cage,” “You’re Powerful,” “Kill Me, Heal Me,” and “Angels Fall Down,” while my favorite ballads include “Come My Way,” “Safe With You,” “More Faithful,” and “Will You Be There.”)
My first impression is that this is a “Comatose: Part II” project more than it is an innovation or development in Skillet’s sound. (Panheads will surely recall the stylistic changes that have typically marked each of their studio albums.) Much of “Awake” will remind the listener of a song or two from the previous “Collide” or “Comatose” projects. That said, the album is a bit “softer” than either of the last two projects, with nearly half the album consisting of power ballads or other non-hard-rock options. “Awake” features strong, introspective lyrics and well-developed music, reflecting a band that isn’t new either to rock music or to the ups and downs of their spiritual journey.
**Note: After having listened through the album a few times, I’ve gained an increasing appreciation for the album as a whole; a couple of the songs that didn’t initially “pop” have really started to grow on me. Add that to the songs that did have that “wow” factor, and this is a really good album.**
One noteworthy element common to the last two projects is that in their harder material, Skillet has managed to merge various elements from different eras and styles of music. There are times where glimpses of the old 80’s Arena Rock days can be heard, there’s a lot of progressive rock/metal influence, along with a few classic rock elements, and it’s all mixed together with a post-grunge modern rock feel. It’s really a unique sound, which is a real feather in Skillet’s cap, given the general homogeneity of the music scene these days.
Before moving to song-by-song analysis, I should mention that I very much appreciate is the way some of the songs on these albums are—the only way I can describe it is that it is “battlefield music” or “fighting music.” That is, it is replete with light/dark imagery (even down to the music composition), and the featured songs (especially “Hero” and “Awake and Alive”) strongly emphasize the need to hold fast and stand firm in the face of darkness, shining the light and being the face of change to the peoplerather than passively addressing one’s world, letting evil gain the upper hand. It is marching music, army music, not the lovesick “Jesus is my girlfriend” crooning that has seemed to dominate contemporary Christian music for years or the similarly lovesick music played in the mainstream world. This is “overcomer” music, and that makes for an encouraging and enriching listening experience.
The CD starts with a bang, with three of the first four songs being of the traditional Skillet hard rock variety (two of these three songs also being the best on the album in this reviewer’s opinion). As is always the case with Skillet, the album is best experienced at high volume. Following is a track-by-track analysis of “Awake”:
“Hero” — This was the first radio release from the album, so many have already heard it. The edgy hard rock sound is most reminiscent of “Live Free or Let Me Die” from the Deluxe edition of the Comatose release. This is a really catchy song (one that will easily stick in your head after hearing it), and it’s one of the harder tracks on the album. It also features the studio vocal debut of Skillet’s drummer, Jen Ledger (whose voice can be heard on “Yours to Hold” on the “Comatose Comes Alive” live CD/DVD). Ledger’s part offers a high-pitched and desperate sounding back-and-forth with John; the lyrics call for the needed “Hero” to come save the day, to bring rescue from hopelessness and faithlessness in the midst of a dying world. By the end of the song, it becomes clear that the “hero” that’s needed is the every person with that “hero” living inside; it’s not just a helpless call for an outside agent, it’s a reminder that life and restoration has to come through people like us. All told, this is probably my second-favorite track.
“Monster” — This is the second (and most recent) radio release. It’s also a pretty hard track, though it marries the “monster” theme to a little more fun, lighthearted melody (try to imagine an ideal pogo-ing/jumping song for a concert environment). This is vintage Skillet hard rock, though the lyrics point to the less-than-lighthearted subject of the flesh—depicting it as a “monster” that can come awake and cause damage at any moment. Good song. The “Deluxe” disk has a radio edit that lacks the “monster” voice in one section, in case it bothers some (I enjoy it).
“Don’t Wake Me” — The first power ballad on the album, “Don’t Wake Me” grieves over a lost loved one (ambiguous enough to be a deceased person or just a person from the past), who is now only accessible in/through dreams. Cooper’s lyrics beg for more sleep in order to spend just a moment longer with this beloved person. It’s a decent song with touching lyrics, but not particularly memorable—in fact, it sounds remarkably like “Say Goodbye” from the Comatose album both in arrangement and vocals.
“Awake and Alive” — My favorite track on the album, “Awake and Alive” is epic—it’s a powerful song. I haven’t had this powerful an emotional reaction to a song in quite some time. In fact, after only one day, this is now one of my five or so favorite Skillet songs over all seven of their albums. This is the first track on the album to prominently feature violin (similar to “Rebirthing,” “The Last Night,” and “Comatose” from the Comatose album), and the addition is perfect. Drummer Jen Ledger’s clear, airy vocals also offer a striking contrast to John’s rough voice, giving an ethereal, almost chilling quality to the song in spots—it just cuts right through the listener. To top it off, this is one of those rare songs that seems to perfectly merge the lyrical content with exactly the right feel in the song—the listener can feel the tense battle between darkness and light going on throughout the song, leading up to the triumphant resolution and sense of worship at the end of the song. This is a war song, without question. The lyrics have some depth to them, reflecting the experience of someone who has passed through dark times, who has wrestled with God and the world and has endured. Ben Kasica has an outstanding guitar solo on this track.
“One Day Too Late” — Another power ballad, though this one is less familiar-sounding. The lyrics emphasize doing the right things “Today” because “tomorrow might be one day too late”—all in all, the song seems like a pretty good and somewhat introspective meditation on Hebrews 3:7–4:7. This is a solid song and is one of Skillet’s better power ballads from over the years—definitely a strong addition to the CD.
“It’s Not Me It’s You” — This edgy, even angry (though clearly a bit tongue-in-cheek), song is a bit closer stylistically to the “Collide” days. Lyrically, Cooper berates the “poison” who has lied, caused pain, and tried to make him stumble—in whose absence things have finally become clear. This is a great song for a solid session hitting the heavy bag. It’s not as hard as a few of the other songs, but the ticked-off sense of the song more than makes up for it. It was better on the second listen than the first, so I’m guessing this one gets better over time. Again, a solid rock song here with a nice anthemic quality to it. This will be a really fun live song.
“Should’ve When You Could’ve” — The third power ballad on the album involves a fed-up male assuring his female crush that she’s going to miss his love now that everything’s ended, now that she’s blown her chance to have him. It’s a solid song, but not an especially memorable one, at least not on first hearing. (I do wonder about the inspiration for these lyrics from a man who has been very happily married for about 15 years; it just seems an odd fit. It seems like a pretty substantial reach to suggest this is to be understood as written from God’s perspective.)
“Believe” — Yet another rock ballad is an apology from one person to another, begging that person to take him/her (presumably him, since John is singing) back, and expressing hope that the other person still “believes.” John takes his vocal performance to a level in the chorus of this song that I’m not sure he’s reached in any prior ballad, though it’s still not one of the better songs on the album.
“Forgiven” — Not quite a ballad, but not quite hard rock, this track is a plea for forgiveness for unfaithfulness; the second half of the song has a sort of “praise/worship” atmosphere to it as the tension is resolved (though still rocky). A few echoes of “The Last Night” from Comatose can be heard in the melody and keyboards. This is a solid song but not spectacular in the way that a couple of the early ones are. The “worship” feel will probably suit this song to some moods better than others, and it matches up with the “Angels Fall Down” rock/praise feel that Skillet likes to throw into the mix on occasion.
“Sometimes” — Finally a return to some hard rock in this track. The sound here is again pretty close to the Collide-era stuff, though with a little more flavor from Kasica on the guitar (another good tension-resolving solo about 2/3 of the way through). It’s also probably the “darkest” track on the album. The lyrics reflect that stubborn element in all of us, the part that doesn’t want to change, the part that just rears up and says, “I want to do things my way.” One of the better tracks on the album, this should be a popular concert song.
“Never Surrender” — Another track prominently featuring strings, this is a decent but not great soft rock song. It was written with a girl struggling with an eating disorder in mind, though the lyrics leave enough ambiguity for anyone going through a difficult time in life to relate to the lyrics, which beg someone (either God or another) to stay with the struggling person, to provide comfort and help through the tough times.
“Lucy” — The final track is a piano and strings piece that progresses into a rock ballad, lamenting the passing of a dear loved one, expressing some regret for decisions in the past that prevented the two parties from having been able to spend life together as they should have. (The song is ambiguous enough to apply to all sorts of scenarios.) This is a touching song, a good close to the (non-Deluxe-edition) CD, and one of the better ballads Skillet has done.
“Dead Inside” — Only on the “Deluxe” CD, this very catchy harder song features violin/strings behind some hard bass/guitar. Kasica is adding some nice flavor on the guitar throughout this song. Honestly, the presence of this song on the Deluxe CD takes it from being a really good disk to an outstanding project. This is a really good song. The lyrics beg God, who is the only one who satisfies, “take my life, save me from this death inside.”
“Would It Matter” — Another from the “Deluxe” CD, this is another power ballad, but a bit harder than a few of the earlier ones. The lyrics wonder whether it would matter if he weren’t around tomorrow, if he changed, if he tried harder to do what was right from now on. This is a good addition as well for the deluxe disk.
“Awake” is definitely worth the buy, especially for panheads who liked the last couple projects. As long as there isn’t an expectation of a thoroughly slap-your-momma-heavy (to use a John Cooper phrase) album from start to finish, the harder songs on “Awake” will more than satisfy those who have liked Skillet’s sound in the past. Some of the softer songs seem like they might “grow” on the hearer more with time. All in all, Comatose was an act almost impossible to top, but “Alive” isn’t much of a step back, either. I give “Awake” a 4 out of 5.