Killswitch Engage – Full Circles and New Beginnings

Sunday, 5th May 2013

Good times, positive feelings, and all-around pleasant vibes abound in the Killswitch Engage camp for the release of Disarm the Descent. The return of original vocalist Jesse Leach has given the Massachusetts metalcore brigade the proverbial shot in the arm that was very much needed after wrestling with Howard Jones’s health problems during the touring cycle for 2009’s self-titled album. Jones was forced to bow out of the band’s 2010 winter headline run in the States, only to come back for a May/June string of dates that were hardly remarkable (Dead Rhetoric was present at the Pittsburgh date, where something seemed amiss). By all accounts, it appeared change was needed for both parties.

Jones left KSE in January 2012, and after a run of would-be replacements were auditioned, Leach expressed a desire to return to the fold, thus setting in motion one of the more intriguing reunions of late. After all, Leach’s much-publicized departure a few months after the release of the band’s breakout Alive or Just Breathing album created a firestorm.

“Honestly, we didn’t know he was interested in coming back until we set up some rehearsals and tryouts with other people,” begins lead guitarist Joel Stroetzel. “After that was all setup, Jesse just said ‘Hey, I thought about this and I don’t want anyone else getting the job.’ We said, ‘We have all of these people coming to try out. We know you sound great on your songs, but let’s see how you sound on Howard’s. Come out, and sing a couple of his.’ And he killed it.

“I love Howard to death and we’ll always remain good friends,” he continues. “We weren’t sure what we were going to do because we had no idea Jesse had any interest in coming back. It was a couple of years ago that Howard had to take some time off, so we asked Jesse if he wanted to fill-in, but he said, ‘I’d like to, but I don’t know how people are going to react with me singing Howard’s songs. Those aren’t my songs and I don’t know if I can do them justice.’”

Helping matters was Times of Grace, the joint collaboration between Leach and KSE guitarist/producer Adam Dutkiewicz. The band’s 2011 Hymn of a Broken Man prompted a full-scale tour which not only helped cement some friendships, but placed in trust that Leach could handle touring again, a primary factor in his initial departure in the summer of 2002.

“I think that sort of helped…I’m not going to say that it helped rekindle friendships over the years, especially with Adam and Jesse – they kept in touch a lot over the years, not even with just the Times of Grace record,” admits Stroetzel. “It’s just being on the road with him again, it made me realize it’s awesome to be around him and we had a good time. It may be contributed to him wanting to come back.”

Upon trying out for the band he initially fronted, Leach had to pass the litmus test of singing not only his old songs, but Jones’s. According to Stroetzel, Leach handled recent KSE jams “My Curse,” “Arms of Sorrow,” and “End of Heartache” with relative ease, leaving his own imprint in the process. “One of the things that made us stoked – and it was the same thing for Howard when Jesse left – is that he wasn’t coming in trying to sound like Howard. It was cool and different. Jesse came back and sang them like he would sing them, and it seemed really natural. “

According to Stroetzel, the Jesse Leach of today is a vastly improved version of himself from 2002.

“I think he’s pulling from the right spot. Ten years is a long time and he’s come a long way in a decade and he’s figured out how to do it without hurting himself. We asked, ‘Hey, are you going to be able to tour?’ and we thought about it during the Times of Grace record. He’s figured it out. I don’t know what he did, but he figured it out [laughs].

“We threw out those concerns,” he continues when asked if the singer could balance family and life on the road. “At that time, he was a newlywed and it’s not like we were at the time, making any money on the road. He was like, ‘I have a wife at home and I want to take care of her, and my voice, it’s just not right.’ We were disappointed, but much respect and fair enough concerns. It’s all good now. Put the family first.”

Disarm the Descent’s noticeable uptick in the heaviness department and Leach’s reentry into the band was purely coincidental, though. Stroetzel said most of the writing for the album began in late 2011 with the hopes of Jones being lured back into regular band activity. However, Leach’s stamp (optimistic choruses, searing screams, commercial cleans) is all over the album.

“It feels great,” enthuses Stroetzel. “We’re proud of him. He was ready to go; not only did he learn 15-20 songs for the live set, he wrote another 8 or 10 for the new album. He came in and we put him right to work and he did an awesome job.”

We were, however, quick to point out to the guitarist that Disarm had the usual KSE formula: Angry verse/clean chorus. Suitably, the guitarist couldn’t care less. “I think that from genre-to-genre, like blues music sticks to a formula, pop, rock music…we tend to keep it fairly simple arrangement-wise. I don’t know if it’s a conscious decision, or it’s what sounds good to our ears. We never say ‘Let’s try to make this arrangement crazy.’ Heck with it, let’s do what feels good.”

Speaking of doing what “feels good,” the band’s onstage demeanor has long been a topic of debate amongst dyed-in-the-wool metallers. Slayer’s Kerry King voiced displeasure at the band’s stage antics during the 2009 Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival, while message board pundits have had a field day poking fun at Adam D.’s stage attire (short shorts, capes, etc.), and the band’s rather decided un-metal look. Just like he doesn’t care about the band’s songwriting formula, Stroetzel doesn’t have a care in the world about what people think about KSE’s stage presence.

“We never really claimed to be a true metal band,” he offers. “There’s a lot of elements to what we do. On stage, we’re up there trying to have a good time. We’re concerned with image; what’s the point of wearing jeans if I’m going to sweat my ass off? It’s a different way to look at it. People say ‘Metal, metal. Metal is my lifestyle.’ To us, it’s the music we play and we just want to have fun. We try not to over think and get too crazy about it.”

Most importantly, does Stroetzel ever change his now trademark pair of basketball shorts?

“[I bring] one pair [laughs]. It’s a little more than that. I don’t want to turn into a total slob.”

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