DB HOF NO. 094
The making of Killswitch Engage’s “Alive or Just Breathing”
If Massachusetts were a country, it’d rival Sweden in the number—seven and counting—of Hall of Fame records. From Only Living Witness’s acclaimed Prone Mortal Form and Isis’ pensive Oceanic to Converge’s visceral Jane Doe and Cave In’s brain-beater Until Your Heart Stops, the Bay Staters have a knack for the superlative. Whether it’s the weather, the water, chowda or some other supernatural force at play, Massachusetts has struck again with venerated metalcore (a deprecated term replaced by the New Wave of American Heavy Metal) outfit Killswitch Engage. Formed in Westfield as the ’90s collided into the aughts, the Whip City wonderkids—multi-instrumentalist Adam Dutkiewicz, bassist Mike D’Antonio, guitarist Joel Stroetzel and vocalist Jesse Leach—took little time in establishing themselves as a regional powerhouse. Eventually, Carl Severson, formerly of indie Ferret Records, inked the youngling Killswitch Engage, issuing the group’s self-titled debut full-length in summer 2000. A patchwork of extremely extreme metals and VFW hardcore, their songs initially met resistance from all sides of the group’s myriad influences. But that would change.
After a year of road-dogging around the Northeast and East Coast, KSE caught the eyes and ears of then juggernaut Roadrunner Records. An eight-month courtship ensued. Actually, it was more like stalking—D’Antonio’s mom can and will verify—but in the end, the quartet signed on the dotted line and commenced work on what would be Alive or Just Breathing. Crafted over a year and jammed out in Stroetzel’s bedroom, Killswitch Engage had no idea Alive or Just Breathing would alter their future, as well as influence new generations of genre-blenders. The quartet’s second long-player sounded fresh and vibrant. A new voice in times of tired expectancy. With songs like “Numbered Days,” “Fixation on the Darkness,” live favorite “My Last Serenade” and “Life to Lifeless,” Killswitch Engage questioned musical boundaries of metal and hardcore and proved commercial inviability wrong. They didn’t just open doors—they blasted them off the frames. Produced by Dutkiewicz and mixed by superstar Andy Sneap, Alive or Just Breathing is breathtakingly brutal and yet remarkably melodic. And downhearted kids looking for uplift took note instantly.
That Killswitch Engage and Alive or Just Breathing would eventually be accepted as NWOAHM canon is a no-brainer. The full-length’s sales numbers (reaching just past the half-gold mark) having little to do with its critical success—musically, it ruled then as much as it does today—it’s about time Decibel recognized Alive or Just Breathing as wicked pivotal. Welcome to the Hall, Killswitch Engage.
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