Analysis Reviews

On Breaking Benjamin and the perils of the evolution paradox

Here’s the thing about Benjamin Burnley — he’s one of the strongest, most reliable songwriters to grace alternative rock in the past 15 years. But when a frontman so prolific continues to follow a formula that worked in 2006, the results become frustratingly predictable, as is the case with Ember, Breaking Benjamin’s sixth long player.

Perhaps more than any other artist I’ve seen, the band’s albums tend to split fans and critics squarely into two schools of thought.

Number 1:

Number 2:

Both points ring true.

Yes, if you’re on board with BB’s brand of riff-laden, grunge-adjacent alt. rock, every new release — no matter how similar to the last — should in theory be up your alley. But if you demand more of your favorite artists, if you long for evolution in an era of genre-bending and bold new directions, Breaking Benjamin feels less relevant with each installment. 

Of course, there are moments when an affirmation of sound makes sense. Take 2015’s Dark Before Dawn.

After legal issues forced a band hiatus in 2011 — and by hiatus I mean Burnley fired two members, with drummer Chad Szeliga departing shortly after — he returned in 2015 with a new cast of musicians and 12 songs more or less “interchangeable with the band’s older material,” to quote to AllMusic’s James Christopher Monger.

It made sense, then, to offer fans a return to form, a confirmation that all was well in BB camp. So I’ll give them a free pass. Even if the songs were largely similar to 2009’s Dear Agony, it felt fresh. Dark Before Dawn was a comeback album.

That makes Ember all the more troubling.

BB_ember

Released on April 13, it has everything I would expect from a Breaking Benjamin album: groovy riffs, epic choruses, generic lyrics, formulaic song structures, 10-12 tracks between three and four minutes, a token ballad and a pair of instrumental bookends — something Burnley’s done on not one, not two, but three (!!!) albums now.

Ember is admittedly a heavier and lyrically darker than past releases, but Burnley largely sticks to his guns. There are no 180-degree turns with Breaking Benjamin; any pivots are minimal.

Compare that to some of Burnley’s mid-2000s cohorts.

30 Seconds to Mars just dropped its highest charting album ever by making a pop record featuring Halsey and A$AP Rocky. Linkin Park ended a streak of Number One albums by returning to its heavy routes on 2014’s The Hunting Party, then responded by putting out its poppiest material to date in 2017, once again landing atop the charts with One More Light, which features a handful of collaborations with pop songwriters. Fall Out Boy’s MAN I A debuted at No. 1 on the US Billboard 200 chart. “Champion,” the album’s second single, was co-written by Sia.

2005’s mainstream alt. rock isn’t commercially successful anymore; pop collaborations are.

Burnley deserves some credit for not chasing that shiny object (though I’d pay good money to visit the alternate reality where Burnley and Cardi B write a song together). You can’t call him a sellout, a word surely bouncing around the polarizing reactions to One More Light and MAN I A

My issue is this: By releasing music that could’ve conceivably topped charts 12 years ago, a band is not only resisting change, but reinforcing the idea that their particular sound can only exist within a certain era. As a diehard fan of most things mid-2000s, I worry when genres begin to feel like a nostalgia grab, when you consume new music through younger ears.

I will always love Breaking Benjamin. But releases like Ember make my support for Burnley less like something I want to tweet about and more like a guilty pleasure, a reminder of what used to be.  

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