February 9, 2022

The opening track, Surviving The Game [has] some almost hip-hop elements present among the hard-as-nails riffery, but there is also a big, loud and proud chorus and genuinely uplifting melodic content. And it rocks like an absolute wild boar on steroids.

There’s so much music around these days, that it can be a blessing yet also, paradoxically, a curse. Paradoxically, because the great amount of music readily available can in fact make it easier to miss things which, with a smaller pool of things to choose from, might well be investigated. Case in point: Skillet. Now, I’d heard the name, but had never gone so far as to investigate any of their output. I’d heard the odd term such as ‘nu-metal’, ‘alt-metal’ and, worst of all, ‘rap-metal’, and simply decided to move along, nothing to see here. And I would happily have continued moving along and left the band alone for others more suited to investigate and enjoy them. That was until a copy of their latest album, Dominion, landed on my (literal and metaphorical) desk. When something arrives like that I always feel duty bound to check out what it’s all about, even if that means I listen to just a couple of tracks and decide ‘nope, not for me’. With this album, however, I kept listening. And kept listening some more. Until finally, after all twelve tracks had gone by I was amazed to find just how much I had enjoyed this difficult to categorise beast.

Because all of those labels I had seen applied to the band were to some extent right, but were also woefully short of the mark. A full album of any of those styles would have almost certainly given me ‘metal fatigue’ after two or three tracks, but in the case of this powerful, dynamic and pleasingly varied album, I found there to be just enough of each of these ingredients and more to leaven the mixture to a pleasingly agreeable whole. The opening track, Surviving The Game is a great example of that, and a superbly representative way to hook the listener in. Yes, there are some almost hip-hop elements present among the hard-as-nails riffery, but there is also a big, loud and proud chorus and genuinely uplifting melodic content. And it rocks like an absolute wild boar on steroids. Standing In The Storm follows in a similar vein, while the out and out juggernaut of the title track dials up the metallic content with some steamhammer playing. This is powerful stuff, and absolutely of the moment. Younger metalheads, and indeed listeners of other up-to-the minute persuasions, will surely be drawn to this like a moth to a flame, while the ability to hook someone like your humble scribe who is of a far more – ahem – ‘mature’ vintage, means that they are striking a tremendous balance.

It’s not all heavy pounding and aggressive posturing, however, far from it. While there are plenty of moments here where vocalist John Cooper simply shouts his head off at you in a way which would make Rage Against The Machine look up from what they were doing, he is equally capable of beautifully emotive singing, with that nowhere more evident than the stunning ballad Valley Of Death. With the first half of the song very sparse and laid-back, the big band climax comes in to brilliant effect to ride out the second half. By the end you really feel so uplifted that you can’t help but become emboldened, believing that whatever is in the Valley Of Death, the bastards aren’t going to grind you down. You want songcraft and musicianship to simultaneously caress the ears and repair the damaged soul? Look no further, you’ve found it. Take off your boots and relax, my friend. This is the finest track here without a single moment of doubt, despite some close competition.

The vocals are often at their best when Cooper is sharing duties with drummer Jen Ledger, as her sweeter tones provide a perfect counterbalance, and indeed there are times, such as the almost equally effective balladic work Forever Or The End, when she is almost the star of the show. These moments are regularly balanced by the band trying to take your head off with an elephant gun, however, you may rest assured, with the likes of Beyond Incredible, Destroyer and Dominion itself taking the safety catch off and letting rip. Elsewhere, Shout Your Freedom is pure air-punching shout-along delirium (I loved it, though others might find it a little too simple), while the aforementioned Beyond Incredible is so anthemic and empowering that it makes you think ‘well, if this doesn’t raise the roof, I might as well just lift it myself. Because I can’. It’s exhilarating stuff to say the least. Finally, with the closing track White Horses, we get the biggest curveball, as the riffs trade blows with genuine rap elements as well as electronica in a way that is as experimental as it is hard to describe. It’s a marmite track, but to these ears a great way to end the album on something completely fearless.

Reading up about the band online, I was startled to see almost Nickelback-levels of vitriol from some quarters, with the band’s devotees and vigorous critics seemingly at each other’s throats in constant turmoil. You might say that to generate such powerful reactions either way is a telling quality, but I did find myself somewhat at a loss! Some of the scorn heaped upon the band does have to do with their openly Christian stance, and indeed lyrical content, but to me the songs here get that balance pretty much right. There is little or no lazy ‘Praise his holy name’ fluff spouted in the too-overt way of one or two others who shall remain nameless, but rather for most of the time here any devotional content could equally apply to a rather more earthbound partner or loved one, with Valley Of Death being the perfect example. Whoever is with you will help you through it, and you’re not alone. Is that God? Your spouse? Your brother? Or even the band themselves? You know what – it doesn’t matter a single jot, and that’s the beauty of it. Rarely if ever do you feel that this album hits you over the head with a message, while by the same token if you want to see one there, it will work for you just fine and dandy. That hits the spot for me.

This is an album which impresses on first listen, but do give it a couple more, as there were a few tracks here which left me underwhelmed first time through before revealing their qualities on further listens. There are still a couple of songs which aren’t quite up to the highest standard (perhaps Destroyer and Ignite), but none of them are outright duds, for sure. And as for the message of the album, if you want to read one into it, the importance of freedom, individuality and good old-fashioned justice for all is the biggest one to take from it. As the band say in the notes, ‘This album is dedicated to freedom – to all those who protect it, fight for it, bleed or have bled for it, and all who love it enough to die for it’. Now I’m not a religious man, but I’m going to give that a big solid Amen! File under ‘very pleasant surprise’.