Since their formation in 1996, Christian rock band Skillet has undergone a number of member changes and sound transformations. Their latest album, Unleashed, holds bits and pieces from each chapter, creating a blend of nostalgia, surprise and a bit of shock.
Frontman John Cooper’s voice is just as gritty as it was from the days of Alien Youth and Collide; however, the instrumentation surrounding his natural rock style has evolved from hard rock into a combination of electronic dance rock and ambient worship. A number of the tracks on Unleashed don’t deviate much from the same four-on-the-floor drumbeat, straight dance groove and conservative melody. While this creates a unified sound, the degree to which the songs resemble each other makes discernment a blur. In the past, Skillet’s sound has proven to be worthy of headbanging but has since transformed into beats you want to dance to.
It’s not all that way. The start of the album is in their wheelhouse. By the fourth song in the album, the listener can recognize the signature Skillet sound. “I Want to Live” begins with intense, theatrical strings and builds the radio rock tension until the guitars crash in. The native instruments are not hidden by electronic elements and the groove is not as monotonous. Skillet’s modal chord choices have always made them unique. Songs like “I Want to Live” or “The Resistance” hold true to Skillet’s character and stir up the sweet nostalgia of discovering Christian rock.
But among the hype of the “fight songs,” the listener encounters a dramatic change of pace with songs like “Stars.” These ballads are reminiscent of modern-day congregational worship, with ambient synth pads and minimal organic instruments. While the softer side of Skillet is genuine and well done, the identity of the album becomes a bit unsure when these tracks hit.
Between the dance-rock anthems and the softer worship ballads, Unleashed presents the listener with a spread of Skillet’s musical range. Lyrically, it sticks to Skillet’s claim to victory in Christ, but, musically, it departs from the sound that pioneered Christian rock. As the band adjusts to the new musical landscape, you can hear the growing pains, but there are still jewels here. Skillet will always remain a staple in the Christian youth generation, but, while a bit confusing to follow, Unleashed holds a few gems that bring the listener back to the Skillet they’ve always known.