The Hot Take
With the recent release of Killswitch Engage’s by-the-numbers Atonement, their 8th full length studio album, I have heard enough of this post-Howard Jones Killswitch Engage to determine this band was better off with Jones behind the mic. The debate is over. I’m sorry Jesse Leach apologists but welcome to my hot take. Remember this is just one man’s opinion.
The history of lead vocalists for Killswitch Engage (KSE) needs explanation before I continue, so I will explain as simply as I can so we can get back to the point of this hot take. Jesse Leach was the original lead vocalist for the band appearing on their self-titled debut in 2000 and the sophomore release, Alive or Just Breathing, in 2002. Both of these albums were highly influential to the metalcore subgenre, the latter more than the former, and some would even say KSE created the aforementioned subgenre, but that is a debate for another time.
Jesse was more involved in the writing process on the sophomore release and wrote all of the lyrics on Alive or Just Breathing intending to spread a positive message through music. This was unique at the time as was the choice to scream the verses and sing the choruses. You throw in a few breakdowns and technical riffs and you got yourself a metalcore song, folks. This was a new concept for metal at this time and the added singing had mass appeal. Alive or Just Breathing received critical acclaim and KSE was one of the hottest new metal bands of the early 2000s.
As KSE’s career was about to take off after the release of Alive or Just Breathing, Jesse left the band via a long email stating personal and health reasons. These reasons were later revealed to be depression, feeling alienated on tour and the inability to properly care for his voice. This led to the band replacing Jesse with Howard Jones in 2002.
The band released The End of Heartache, As Daylight Dies and Killswitch Engage (released in 2004, 2006 and 2009 respectively) during Howard Jone’s tenure. The End of Heartache and As Daylight Dies are both “Certified Gold” according to the Recording Industry Associate of America making them the only albums in KSE’s catalog to do so.
This makes sense as KSE was the best metalcore band of their era and metalcore itself was the most commercially successful metal subgenre during the 2000s. This tied in nicely with the pop-punk and emo music that was taking over the pop charts as well as the New Wave of American Heavy Metal that was revitalizing a genre stale after Nu Metal.
I Know What You’re Thinking
“Ty, you are forgetting about Avenged Sevenfold!” They were hardly a metalcore band in the first place and certainly cut ties with the subgenre on 2005’s City of Evil. No matter what metalcore band you throw at me I will argue that KSE had more mass appeal combined with superior songwriting.
Back to the History Lesson
Towards the end of the 2000s, metalcore was beginning to wear on listeners. KSE released the lifeless Killswitch Engage in 2009. This was the first by-the-numbers KSE album that actually received fair critical reception and sold almost 60,000 albums in the first week. In juxtaposition, the majority of fans were not pleased with it and it didn’t contain a great song like “My Curse” or “The End of Heartache” to redeem it.
Three years after the lukewarm response to Killswitch Engage, Howard Jones quit the band citing type 2 diabetes as the main culprit. It was later revealed to be a severe case of anxiety and depression that Howard has suffered with for a long time. It eventually caught up with him to the point that he could no longer continue to be in a high profile band like KSE.
In 2012, KSE recruited their original lead vocalist, Jesse Leach, back into the fold and they have since released 2013’s Disarm the Descent, 2016’s Incarnate and 2019’s Atonement.
It’s Getting Spicy!
Are we all caught up now? Good. So, let’s get into my originally purposed statement. The band was better with Howard Jones. Deciding who the better KSE frontman is/was has been a debate ever since Howard first joined the band and it continues to be a debate since he left.
You might argue that Howard lucked into joining the band at the right time. I will not debate that his timing was impeccable but that does not take away from Howard’s ability as a vocalist. As I previously stated, metalcore was at the height of its popularity and KSE’s two most commercially successful albums were released during Howard’s tenure. This should be a case for Howard rather than a knock against him. He stepped into a band that was ready for the big time and was previously fronted by a beloved vocalist in the metalcore community.
On top of this, Howard was an African American man about to front a band in a genre historically dominated by white men. He rose to the occasion and helped pen some of KSE’s most beloved songs played both on the radio and as live staples to this day. 2009’s Killswitch Engage is perhaps a knock against his legacy, but that album wasn’t without its strong moments. Besides, Jesse’s recent foray with the band isn’t as weak as the 2009 release, but also isn’t much better.
Let’s talk Jesse Leach for a moment. I will forever be thankful for his work on Alive or Just Breathing. That album will always be considered one of metalcore’s best and a defining album for metal music in general. I can’t help but think that rejoining KSE in 2012 feels too much like getting back with your ex. It’s not as satisfying as it was the first time around and you start to remember why it didn’t work out in the first place.
Jesse has one type of scream that he does very well and his clean vocals have a nice timbre to them, but his performances fail to elevate the tracks like they used to during his original run with the band. There’s a lack of conviction and I’m not as invested in his vocal performance as I was in Howard’s. Howard has a more dynamic scream and certainly more memorable clean vocals complemented with that defining vibrato. In other words, you can pick out Howard’s vocals in a crowd. You can’t always do that with Jesse.
To play Devil’s Advocate against myself, metalcore is mostly dead in 2019 and KSE has stopped taking chances with their music. These last three albums have all been formulaic and that’s not all Jesse’s fault. Maybe he does have a truly great performance left in him but I don’t think the band is doing him any favors right now.
Is KSE still good? Yeah, of course. Although, they’ve certainly lost relevancy in an ever-changing metal landscape. They haven’t made a bad album but they certainly have been playing it safe since Jesse’s return. The result has been relatively forgettable music. This falls on all members of the band. That being said, it’s sad that Jesse was outperformed on Atonement by both Howard Jones and Chuck Billy of Testament. Hearing Howard on the track again made me realize how much I missed him in KSE. It felt right and he took some chances on “The Signal Fire” that Jesse rarely ever takes with his performances. With Jesse, KSE will always be consistently good, but will they ever be great?
The highs were higher and the lows were lower for KSE with Howard but it was always entertaining. Can we start a petition to get him back?