Three years ago, Breaking Benjamin returned from a 5-year hiatus with Dark Before Dawn, bringing in a whole new lineup of musicians behind frontman Ben Burnley. The album was somewhat safe, testing the waters of old fans and a new generation of listeners, and focusing on getting an album out with the new band. But Burnley had done his homework. Added to the touring band, and later to the songwriting team, were Jasen Rauch on lead guitar, Keith Wallen on rhythm guitar, bassist Aaron Bruch and drummer Shaun Foist. Especially important is Rauch, who had previously written songs for Breaking Benjamin with such songs like “I Will Not Bow”, “Dear Agony”, and “Without You”. Rauch had also been a member of RED and wrote songs for them as well as 12 Stones and Fireflight, among others. Wallen, too, is an accomplished songwriter, for both his former band, Copper, as well as a few albums as a guitarist with Adelitas Way. However, the musical team defers to Burnley’s tour de force vocals and raging passion behind his songwriting and singing, and Ember takes the new and improved version of Breaking Benjamin in a solid, metal direction that started with Dark Before Dawn.
There is no question as to the genre for Ember, which is set solidly in progressive metal; gone are the pop/rock tendencies of songs like “Diary of Jane” and “Give Me A Sign” from the earlier band. Dark Before Dawn set a heavier tone for the band, and Ember takes this even further. The bass and drums are particularly prominent in the album sound with very few guitar solos above the pounding of both Wallen and Burnley’s rhythm guitars. Rauch commented on the heaviness of the band’s new sound and that they are some of the most technically challenging songs to play. His main contribution to the songwriting, aside from the tracks written by the full band, is “The Dark of You” co-written with Burnley, which is the slowest song on the album and the only break from the heavy sound, about midway through. This song is a very engaging track, and features Dancing With the Stars’ Derek Hough on backing vocals, that continues the dark tone of the lyrics.
Burnley’s songwriting has always been anchored in his struggle with addiction, and Ember is no different, with the exception that some of the messaging is more subtle. The first single, “Red Cold River” speaks about feeling numb and trying to feel again while “Feed the Wolf” uses the allegory of a beast inside himself. The first highlight of the album comes with “Psycho”, which is in a way the title track as it is in this song that the symbol of a fading ‘ember’ is used in the chorus: “In the cold eternal light/I am the ember fading”. This song is written in 6/8, a common time signature for Burnley’s previous songs like “Dance with the Devil” and “Evil Angel”, and one of the most melodic of the heavier tracks. The other standout track for me is “Save Yourself”, which is the penultimate track on the record and features the full range of Burnley’s vocals from screams to falsetto, and has the feel of a finale track with lyrics about ending and giving in: “Pain is chosen/When the devil comes alive/So save yourself/I leave this world behind/There’s nothing left/I see the sun rise/[with] my dying breath/I keep this prayer alive”. Despite this powerful song, the album ends on an optimistic note with “Close Your Eyes”, which is about holding on to hope, and also sounds the most like the older Breaking Benjamin. Closing the album with this song sends a message of moving forward, as the band has done.
Ember is a strong entry into Breaking Benjamin’s discography that ups the energy and creativity from Dark Before Dawn, pushing forward into new territory in terms of the band’s sound with the new musical lineup. However, it is still entirely Burnley’s band, songwriting, and concept, which is something fans will appreciate. One down side was the way in which the album was released, which is becoming more common in the age of digital music, where numerous songs are released ahead of the album’s drop date. Five of the ten songs came out before the release date, driving interest in the album, but leaving the actual release feeling light when there was little new material to actually experience by that point. It is better than Avenged Sevenfold’s surprise release of The Stage, but I’d like to see labels go back to releasing a single and maybe one other song ahead of when an album drops so fans can experience the album in full upon its release.