Skillet has grown into one of the most iconic and successful Christian rock acts of all time. They represent a group of artists who's well known in both Christian and mainstream rock circles. And, yet, are bold and unapologetic about their faith in Jesus Christ.
Lead singer John Cooper has been a rare voice unafraid to speak out against the rise of "woke" Christianity, a movement where believers prioritize the appearance of being understanding of and sympathetic to the current points of view promoted by mainstream secular culture–even at the expense of biblical truth and integrity.
John said in an interview on Fox News’ The Story with Martha MacCallum, "There is no such thing as unity outside of the truth…It’s make-believe, it’s pretend, it’s the perception of unity without any actual truth behind it."
Like any popular act, Skillet's music has attracted scores of fans and hordes of critics as well. Both in terms of musicianship and message.
In 2001, Skillet was already releasing their fourth full-length album, Alien Youth(they had changed their sound several times during this period). Evolving through the poppy industrial rock of Invincible, the album released the year before, Alien Youth found the band adding a heavy dose of hard rock into the electronic framework they'd already been playing in.
Alien Youth is the first album where you can hear traces of the style of rock that would become their bread and butter signature sound in the later years (the band broke out into the mainstream in 2006 with their very popular rock album, Comatose.).
As Alien Youth turns 20 this summer, I'm taking a look back at the album that began the transition of Skillet from the humble industrial rockers to the arena-filling headliners they are now.
The Rock Is Taking Over
Make no mistake, Skillet has always been a rock band. But, when listening to some of the hits of their albums between their 1996 self-titled debut and Alien Youth, I think I can be forgiven for having difficulty seeing the band that loved its shiny, electronic hooks igniting stadiums with pyrotechnics, soaring guitar solos, and legendary breakdowns.
Alien Youth kicks the rock up several notches from anything their previous album, Invincible, offered. The title track is among the most techno of the bunch, but the guitars and bass are much louder than fans expected from Skillet at the time. And the rock hits just kept coming with the pounding "Vapor" and the sci-fi-inspired "Earth Invasion."
Songs like "Eating Me Away," "Kill Me, Heal Me," and "Rippin' Me Off" were some of the band's most aggressive rock cuts yet, showing a preview of the edgier style they'd master on their subsequent release, Collide (there are even a few screams in the mix to hammer this home).
Of course, Skillet has always loved their ballads and likely always will. "You Are My Hope" is probably the biggest adult contemporary play in the band's history; it was a perfect fit for radio in the 2000s. "Will You Be There (Falling Down)" was a blatant worship offering that is so laid back and out of style of modern Skillet, it's easy to forget it's them.
This was also the first album to introduce another Skillet staple: the guy-girl dueling vocals that they'd eventually become known for. Back then, it was the keyboardist wife of John Cooper, Korey, providing these vocals. Her soft vocals make a musically dynamic contrast to the raspier rock vocals John is known for.
In the 2010s, it would be drummer Jen Ledger whose vocals would mark some of the band's most commercially successful hits. But, there's something to be said for the mature and ethereal quality Korey brought to the songs she sang on.
The extended nature of the songs on Alien Youth also feels very indie compared to the punchier and slicker production on modern albums. It's very hard to see modern Skillet being allowed to have a six-plus-minute slow-burn rocker like the chilling "The Thirst is Taking Over."
Worldwide Jesus Domination
For a while, Skillet's lyrics had trended toward more generic depictions of God's love that would be accessible to mainstream audiences. While live performances and interviews assured Christian fans knew who John Cooper was singing about in songs like "Hero" or "Feel Invincible," the lyrics were able to be appreciated by mainstream audiences. We'll see if John's newfound outspokenness will translate into more blatant songs on future releases.
That said, back in 2001, Skillet's lyrics were anything but ambiguous. The title track uses a metaphor of Christians being aliens in the world and that they're going to spread the Gospel through the world. The metaphor may even come off a bit heavy-handed with references to "taking over the world" and "coming for your soul."
While campy theatrics are nothing new to Skillet, it might shock listeners who only know the band for their modern cuts just how in your face some of their lyrics were. Songs like "Rippin' Me Off" even have a fierce rebuff to atheists that likely played well in summer youth camps, but would probably make the band's non-religious fans cringe a bit. Still, it's almost refreshing to hear songs that are unafraid in declaring exactly where Skillet stands with little room for interpretation.
Coming Our Way
When I became a Panhead, a term used for Skillet fans, in 2008, I noticed the band's sound had changed on each released album: Alien Youth to Collide to Comatose. Little teenage me felt so retro going back a full seven years to this classic. And, now, fast forward to 2021, 13 years later, it feels like the band changed more in those seven years since then. Some may criticize this, and others may say that it's because they finally found the sound that was right for them.
It's tough to argue that Skillet found what worked. While there's something to be admired about how the band could still perform in a moderate-sized church, it's hard to deny the thrill of seeing Skillet fill up arenas and major mainstream venues on tour with big-name mainstream rock acts and still speak about Jesus from the stage.
As much as I love the charm of early Skillet releases like Alien Youth, it's hard to feel anything but gratitude for what God has been able to do with them as a result of the changes they would make in the coming albums and years.
Nevertheless, whether you're an old-school Panhead or somebody who discovered them somewhere along the way, revisiting these old albums is a treat to see the early rumblings of what would make them so successful.
Some of these songs might not have aged as gracefully as others, but the passion and raw honesty in them is still something to behold. As Alien Youth turns 20 this summer, take a spin down nostalgia lane and check out what could be argued as the finale of Skillet's first act, the culmination of their industrial rock passions. And, the final outing of that youthful rock act before they'd explode into rock music legends.
J.J. Francesco is a long-time contributor to the NRT Staff. He's published the novel 'Because of Austin' and regularly seeks new ways to engage faith, life, and community. He is currently working on releasing a brand new novel.
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