Over the course of 20 years, Killswitch Engage have undergone personnel changes and different labels and producers. They've developed as musicians and songwriters but have always remained themselves -- whether they want to or not. The band's ever-more refined songcraft is chock-full of songs about moving beyond limits, personal growth, and transcendence, but their sound has remained stubbornly close to the one they delivered on classics such as 2002's Alive or Just Breathing and 2004's The End of Heartache, two albums that defined metalcore as it emerged from the ruins of '90s-era nu-metal. Atonement marks the first album from singer Jesse Leach since having vocal cord surgery, and he sounds better than ever, and it's the band's debut on Metal Blade after a career-long run with Roadrunner; from what is on offer here, they were given a bigger recording budget this time out. Produced and engineered by Adam Dutkiewicz, this is the best-sounding record in the band's catalog, bridging modern studio techniques with early-2000s ones.
Musically, this picks up on the inspiration KsE attempted to summon wholesale on 2016's Incarnate (and mostly succeeded), but offers more fury, melody, and complex textures and dynamics. Opener "Unleashed" offers proof of Leach's singular strength as a singer, he is crisp, urgent, tensile, and strident as guitarists Dutkiewicz and Joel Stroetzel display their incendiary one-two punch over the rapid-fire attack drumming of Justin Foley and the sophisticated bass playing of Mike D’Antonio. The hard-grooving riffery of "The Signal Fire" places Leach in duet with former vocalist Howard Jones and the juxtaposition of clean and dirty vocal shouts works like a charm -- particularly on the choruses, where breakdowns and crescendos alternate. There's another growling guest spot here by Testament frontman Chuck Billy on set highlight "The Crownless King," that commences with a thrash riff and delivers jagged soloing at key points while being unrelenting throughout, melding hardcore aesthetics and 21st century metalcore. "Ravenous" commences with maniacal hardcore that recalls the days of Alive or Just Breathing, but, just as quickly shifts gears to introduce melodic death riffing. "Know Your Enemy" is a straight-on embrace of hardcore punk and sets up the angry, midtempo "Take Control," a number that takes more liberties with the band's trademark sound, offering melodic interludes, progressive vamps, and dual-lead guitar solos atop the chug and churn of the rhythm section's propulsive force. Leach's vocals are at their cleanest and most soulful best on the track. Near the end, "Ravenous" and closer "Bite the Hand That Feeds" are twin anti-authoritarian rage-fests that cement the band's status as sitting kings of the metalcore heap. KsE are invigorated on Atonement. Hints are abundant that they are on the cusp of stylistic and sonic evolutions balancing bold and experimental elements, but their commitment to the material, as well as their energy and focus, aren't forced but are occurring naturally. This is easily the band's strongest outing since Leach's return.