KILLSWITCH ENGAGE's 2002 magnum opus "Alive or Just Breathing" is one special album. Its release marked a defining moment in metal. The album spawned an army of imitators that proceeded to take a formula consisting of growl-n-croon vocals, kick-drum/riff syncopation, and Swedish-influenced melodies and ran it into the ground. Whether one chooses to refer to KE's style as "metalcore" (it wouldn't be inaccurate) is irrelevant. What is important to understand is that "Alive or Just Breathing" is not only one of the best metal albums released in 2002, but it is also one of the top releases of the new century.
Few metal albums are as effective in delivering crushing heaviness with infectious melody (without sacrificing either quality). I've yet to find a modern metal album that tops it, especially in the metalcore genre. Starting with Adam Dutkiewicz's powerful production, "Alive or Just Breathing" delivers knockout punch after knockout punch. It is one of those rare albums in which each song is a gem. Crushing riffs and stop/start rhythms flow seamlessly into melodic guitar lines. There are chug marches and riff builds on here that still sends chills down my spine ("Fixation on the Darkness" and "Just Barely Breathing", for example). And that drum sound! The punches thrown connect with precision and force.
But the key to the greatness of "Alive or Just Breathing" can be found in the amazing melodies, led by the voice of former singer Jesse David Leach. His command of a song is beyond belief. To this day I still find that "My Last Serenade", "Fixation on the Darkness", and "Life to Lifeless" are three of the best sing-along tunes you are likely to ever hear in heavy music. The hooks are just incredible. It continues to amaze me how effortlessly the band fuses those punishing grooves with the beauty and grace of the melodies. It is a very difficult feat to pull off and many bands fail miserably trying to do so. Now THIS is songwriting! As a side note, you may recall that "Temple from the Within" and "Vide Infra" originally appeared on the self-titled debut and were re-recorded for "Alive or Just Breathing".
But we are talking about this 25th Anniversary Roadrunner Records Two-CD Special Edition, so some discussion about the bonus material is in order. First, new liner notes provide a nice history of the band, including detailed information on the material that would become "Alive or Just Breathing", as well as the story of Jesse Leach's departure and his replacement with Howard Jones. It is an interesting tale told by current band members, ex-members, and staff from Ferret and Roadrunner.
The bonus disc begins with "In the Unblind", "When the Balance is Broken", and "Untitled and Unloved", all previously unreleased (and above average) tracks recorded during the "Alive or Just Breathing" sessions. "In the Unblind" is a galloping Swedecore track that includes the speak-sing changeups so common in today's metalcore scene, while "When the Balance is Broken" utilizes more of a crushing groove and includes guitar harmonizing, as well Leach's weaving in of clean vocals amidst his patented barks. "Untitled and Unloved" is an acoustic beauty.
Next up are demo versions of the three songs making up the demo that ultimately got the band signed to Roadrunner. "Numbered Days", "Transfiguration" (a.k.a. "Fixation on the Darkness"), and "Just Barely Breathing" are slightly different versions of those heard on the full-length and the sound quality is good. The video version of "Fixation on the Darkness" with Howard Jones' vocals is also included and…well…sounds like "Fixation on the Darkness" with Howard Jones' singing (it works well). "AJOB Studio Out Takes" is one minute and nineteen seconds of musical goofing off. Finally, the videos for "My Last Serenade", "Fixation on the Darkness" (with Howard Jones) and "Life to Lifeless" (with performance footage from Metalfest 2002) are included.
If you do not already own the original version of "Alive or Just Breathing", I would strongly recommend that you purchase this reissue. Fans will probably want both versions. Hell, why not just add it to your X-Mas list?