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Better than any Killswitch Engage album for sure - 66%

Hellish_Torture, September 25th, 2015

I always had the impression that, since the early 2000s, Adam Dutkiewicz has put a bareer on his own talent in order to make more stripped down and accessible music with his main band, Killswitch Engage. Apart from being a very funny, eccentric and interesting guy under many perspectives, Adam is a really talented guitarist and an important figure for metalcore in general, both as a musician and a producer; but, honestly, even though I enjoy his past works with Aftershock, I never really liked any Killswitch Engage album from 2000 to 2009. The first two records, those with Jesse Leach as a vocalist, were a pretty mediocre, poppy and watered down version of the nascent melodic metalcore current, but the worst came when Howard Jones joined: “The End of Heartache”, “As Daylight Dies” and “Killswitch Engage” (their second self-titled album? Wow!) constitute a downward spiral of awful emo-influenced metalcore with extremely whiny vocals, tons of redundant breakdowns and overly sappy melodies, and their influence on the mid-2000s metalcore scene has been fatal. Around the end of the decade, the band seemed to have lost any hint of decency, having become a worthless commercial act which played nothing but shitty emo/pop-punk masked as “metal”. Yet, something was moving beneath.

By 2007, during a period of hospital recovery, Adam started working on some material for a new side-project. It seems that the absence of any commercial pressure (something that Killswitch Engage were constantly experiencing during those years) and the extra-amount of free time worked in favor of Dutkiewicz’s new compositions: in fact, while the new album released by Killswitch Engage in 2009 was blatantly composed of the most half-assed, mass-pandering and uninspired material of their whole career, Adam’s side-project was slowly taking shape in a more mature and thought-out manner. And, with the addition of the old Killswitch Engage vocalist Jesse Leach, it was clear that this project was clearly more ambitious in comparison to Killswitch’s modern, poppy course. So, in early 2011, Times of Grace finally saw the light with the debut “The Hymn of a Broken Man”: this album outdoes by miles anything ever done by Dutkiewicz’s main band until then, though not reaching the levels of his old works in Aftershock (after all, nowadays, that kind of metalcore is pretty much dead and buried).

This album is pretty much a mixed bag: in fact, while still possessing some severe handicaps (typical of Killswitch Engage’s trademark sound), it also contains a lot of solid, consistent and well-composed ideas; the final result is still quite flawed and obviously far from being perfect, but you can definitely feel a major effort in the composition of these songs. It seems that Dutkiewicz finally took some concrete inspiration from the amount of melodic metalcore bands that he produced during the latest decade, such as All That Remains and As I Lay Dying (which are absolutely superior acts in comparison to Killswitch Engage): in fact, the guitar melodies are definitely less poppy and saccharine than usual (though there are still some little moments of cheesiness, such as the melodic riff of “Strength in Numbers”), and Adam’s whole guitar work sounds more akin to albums such as “The Fall of Ideals” and “An Ocean Between Us”, rather than Killswitch’s usual offerings.

After the mostly weak opening track, the album’s true potential begins to shine with “Fight for Life”, which features a great crescendo of interesting melodic riffs - and miraculously, even the most technical parts (which in Killswitch Engage are usually boring and pointless) actually manage to add something to the atmosphere of the song! There’s some brilliant thrash/metalcore/melodeath riffage to be found on “Live in Love” (where the riffs acquire an unexpected level of expressivity), the title-track (where, aside from the fantastic thrash riffs, you can also experience an awesome tremolo melody) and even the beginning of “Where the Spirit Leads Me” and “Hope Remains” (the latter, ironically, sounds mostly inspired to All That Remains and Shadows Fall). Dutkiewicz’s tasty use of melody manages to enrich some songs very well, showing all the skills that this musician does possess: for example, the title-track delivers a very suggestive and gloomy intro, and also “Worlds Apart” and “Where the Spirit Leads Me” begin with very interesting guitar lines; in this regard, the breath-taking blast-beat-driven parts of “Worlds Apart” and “Live in Love” are the right place to show Dutkiewicz’s ability in terms of tapping and solos - something that even the less extreme “Hope Remains” does contain.

Unfortunately, for every great riff and every great melody, there are always some mediocre ideas which work as counterparts and keep this album away from proper solidity. Most of these songs feature the better ideas at the beginning - but as they proceed, the material usually drags down, getting unfocused and rather uninspired: it’s the case of “Willing”, which possesses some very good melodic riffs at the beginning, but sinks very fast in a lack of proper focus, going through some recycled melodies and faceless “atmospheric” choruses (though you could still find some fine melodies here and there... keep searching!); also the aforementioned “Where the Spirit Leads Me” and “Hope Remains” belong to this category.

This album, in fact, isn’t free from typical Killswitch-cliches: the opening track “Strength in Numbers”, as I mentioned before, isn’t exactly the most encouraging way to start this record, due to the excess of breakdowns, cheesy melodic ideas and cold, lifeless technical riffing. Yeah, even in Times of Grace the chugging parts often take too much space, usually also accompanied by typical Killswitch-style mechanical and dull mid-paced riffage with occasional hints of useless technicality - and these flaws don’t allow tracks such as “Worlds Apart”, “The End of Eternity” and “Until the End of Days” (despite its really cool slow riff around the third minute) to really lift off; truth be told, “Fall From Grace” possesses a potentially good mid-paced riff (something quite rare for Killswitch Engage), but hell, there is too much fucking emphasis on palm-muting even for groove/thrash standards! Another remarkable flaw is the awkward structure of some compositions: despite the amount of time that Adam supposedly took in order to develop this album, some ideas (both good and bad) sound a bit too disjointed, and the title-track in this regard gives a feeling of randomness more than once.

Another element that makes a difference on this record (both in positive and negative ways) is the outstanding amount of clean guitar parts. In Killswitch Engage this is usually one of the biggest flaws, due to the abundance of whiny, poppy melodies - but in Times of Grace, things are a bit more complicated than just labeling the whole “clean pack” as pinky sugar-pop silliness. There are plenty of clean arpeggios throughout these songs, and their distribution in the songwriting is surely more “audacious” in comparison to most Killswitch Engage tunes; with great surprise, there are a lot of great melodic ideas even in this department, as well as a good number of other bad ones. There are some arpeggios which are simply inconsistent and unexpressive (“Willing”, “Until the End of Days”, the title-track, “Hope Remains”), some others are just cheesy and saccharine in the typical Killswitch Suckage vein (“Where the Spirit Leads Me”)... and, then, there are songs like “The End of Eternity”, where Adam is finally able to give a meaning and a consistency to the use of clean arpeggios, overcoming by far the standards of his main band. It seems that the main aim of this album is to create a sort of vast and desolate atmosphere (as suggested by the artwork and the bandphoto), and the clean/acoustic guitars strive to work in this direction, sometimes with unexpectedly brilliant results for Dutkiewicz’s standards: “In the Arms of Mercy” is a beautiful instrumental that manages to create a calm and peaceful atmosphere, thanks to an excellent taste in terms of chord progressions and perfectly placed additional notes, while “The Forgotten One” is a very nice track that dares even to experiment with southern/country influences and features a very fine acoustic guitar work, properly accompanied by some fitting vocal lines performed by Jesse.

And speaking about Jesse... he’s another of the most controversial elements of this album. He’s clearly better than Howard, which is one of the whiniest metalcore vocalists I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter: however, the only real problem are the vocal lines that Jesse has to sing. While, on the first three tracks, you realize with surprise that most of these clean sections aren’t really all that bad and there isn’t so much whining to be found, songs like “Where the Spirit Leads Me” and the title-track are filled with horrible vocal lines that resemble the painful emo-friendly style of “The End of Heartache” and “As Daylight Dies” (even though, if sung by Jesse, it sounds slightly more bearable in comparison to Howard’s downright awful performance) - ruining even the excellent melodic riffage of “Live in Love” and hitting the rock bottom in the blatant BFMV-ripoff that you can find on “Hope Remains” (yeah, the members of an already disastrous band like Killswitch Engage ripped off an even more disastrous act). Even when they’re not deliberately awful, most of these clean vocals are just very “run-of-the-mill” and not very expressive, and you even wonder what to really think of them. Another big flaw is that many vocal lines sound quite disconnected from the rest of the music, and as a result you feel disoriented even during some musically good moments (for example, some of the best ideas of “Willing” and “Hope Remains”).

All these elements mixed together make of “The Hymn of a Broken Man” a very tough album to judge. As you should have guessed by reading this review, every song possesses many different facets in both good and bad ways. Probably, Adam has put more effort on this album than on any previous Killswitch Engage release, experimenting with different influences (some people even mentioned “post-rock”), creating in many songs a better melodic mosaic in comparison to most Killswitch hits, and showing his instrumental/compositional skills even to the most diffident listeners (myself included, I admit); however, the famous guitarist/producer still needs to leave behind, once for all, the shitty cliches that plagued every single release on which he played since 2000 - maybe just excluding the later Aftershock stuff, which was still pretty solid. In the end, this is a very interesting effort, but there are still many flaws to fix in order to obtain an entirely listenable release. However, this side-project has been very helpful to Killswitch Engage’s health as well: few time later, after Howard left, Jesse came back in the band and they released “Disarm the Descent”, which represents a massive improvement over the previous Killswitch albums (especially the most recent ones). Coincidence? I think not.