Any mid-2000s, hard rock fan probably can’t help but remember Breaking Benjamin. A decade ago, the band’s third studio effort, Phobia, stood as a near-perfect representation of exactly what radio friendly post-grunge could aspire to be; with massive drop tuned guitar riffs, blasting percussion work, and Benjamin Burnley’s signature guttural growls and cathartic lyricism, it was the album that embraced everything right about the genre, while still maintaining a certain originality within itself. Sure, it wasn’t necessarily the most critically acclaimed album of the era, nor the most boundary breaking or innovative (on the contrary, it fits in rather nicely next to your Three Days Grace’s and Shinedown’s of the decade), but Phobia cemented itself as the definitive Breaking Benjamin album. There was something about it that made you look twice throughout the record, from the tense atmosphere built throughout the introductory ‘Intro’ that leads perfectly into the roaring lead single ‘The Diary of Jane’, through to the final, more experimental direction of ‘You Fight Me’ and ‘Outro’. Thematically, as is often the case with the group’s content, the album drew influence from the very phobias frontman Benjamin Burnley suffers from, such as the symbolic reference to aerophobia (the fear of flying) depicted on the album cover art, and ultimately it all enriched Phobia’s material spectacularly.
The group’s newest release, Ember, represents a virtually entirely new Breaking Benjamin; with Burnley remaining the only original member of the band, since overcoming an extensive legal battle that ultimately threatened the band’s continuing existence. The reformed quintet’s 2014 “debut”, Dark Before Dawn, saw the band again staying very true to the group’s established stylistic direction of old. While competently written, this decision ultimately drew differing critical opinions as to whether or not the band’s original style had been exhausted by this point, seeing the album as an attempt to recapture what made the likes of Phobia so compelling, while others praised the decision to continue it, with an almost “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” attitude.
With Ember, 2018’s incarnation of the band again continues the classic Breaking Benjamin trend, this much can’t be denied, but where Ember comes to represent a newer version of the group hasn’t stemmed from reinvention; instead, this comes from reinvigoration, and while Dark Before Dawn perhaps borrowed just a little bit too much Phobia, Ember looks to be better than this. Sure, the huge choruses and guitar riffage remains as it always has, with pre-release singles ‘Red Cold River’ and ‘Feed The Wolf’ both seamlessly fitting in with the rest of the band’s extensive, catchy post-grunge discography, but this time around the band feels well and truly back on track. Take the hard-hitting, yet euphoric ‘Torn In Two’, or the soaring, reenergised performance on ‘Save Yourself’, for example; the latter’s crunchy rolling guitar riff and vaguely sinister underlying synthesiser is hardly new territory for the group, but Burnley’s coarse, searing deliverance of the track’s chorus feels like the Benjamin Burnley of a decade ago, “so save yourself, I leave this world tonight – there’s nothing now, I see the sun rise.”
Now, sitting here defending the band’s decision to maintain the same musical direction for virtually an entire career is going to feel like wasted breath to some; Ember marks the sixth album in Breaking Benjamin’s catalogue, and while things are taken into slightly heavier territory than usual, ‘Psycho’s immense, thunderous percussion and bass guitar work an easy instrumental highlight for the record, Ember is still likely to give sceptics plenty of ammunition to work with. Yes, it is similar, and yes, we’ve probably heard something like it before, but it’s for this exact reason that this can no longer be considered the safe option for the band. It’s taken plenty of other far more stylistically innovative groups far less time to make the decision to drastically alter their sound, usually to keep things fresh and not become stagnant in their own creativity, but preferring to keep within the established boundaries of what makes Breaking Benjamin… well, Breaking Benjamin, is probably the bravest decision the band could have made. Simply put, Ember is a risk, one that the group embraces wholeheartedly; ‘Blood’ slams through the mix in a furious blast of guitar distortion, and Burnley’s roaring vocals deliver one of the album’s best choruses, and while it’s everything you already know from the band, the attitude is quite clearly “to hell with it.”
Now, this all having been said, there is one moment in particular that completely deviates from the general norm of what can be considered “typical” Breaking Benjamin; this of course, is in reference to ‘The Dark of You.’ Located right at the centre of the track list, right at the heart of the album, ‘The Dark of You’ (featuring additional vocals from Derek Hough) is Benjamin Burnley’s writing at its absolute finest. The ethereal, lonely atmospherics, gentle piano work, and softly building more aggressive side of things all come together for a brief, beautifully haunting moment, serving as the perfect reprieve between ‘Psycho’ and ‘Down’, a calm before the continuing storm.
For better or worse, Ember is exactly what you’d expect from Breaking Benjamin. While presenting the band reinvigorated for another round in the ring, and hitting back twice as hard as last time, Ember does exactly what it needs to get the band’s groove going again. It’s hard to deny just how much fun the album can be, when taking into account the enraged energy that fuels the likes of ‘Psycho’ and ‘Blood’, but of course keeping in line with what came before will no doubt draw the same criticisms as last time, (and the time before that no doubt). That being said, Benjamin Burnley and Co. seem pretty disinterested in what the sceptics have to say. Instead, the band have released exactly the kind of album they were fully capable of making a decade ago, and all in all, it’s pretty damn great because of it.