“Water torture,” Mike D’Antonio says when asked why singers depart Killswitch Engage.
“We chain them under a broken pipe on the bus that drips water on their head all night long. And we make them sleep on a bed of nails,” continues D’Antonio, the bassist who helped form Killswitch Engage in 1999.
D’Antonio jokes, but the situation has been a strange one for Killswitch Engage, the Mass-bred band that brought the so-called metalcore sound into the national spotlight. Original singer Jesse Leach left the group in 2002 just as KsE’s sophomore album, “Alive or Just Breathing,” was propelling the band from the heavy-music underground.
Leach’s abrupt departure opened the door for Blood Has Been Shed singer Howard Jones, who fronted Killswitch Engage during a commercially successful 10-year run of chugging riffs, sharp-turn musical breakdowns, and emotionally frazzled lyrics that amounted to strong sales and a 2005 Grammy nomination. But Jones struggled with personal issues, citing among them diabetes that had gone untreated for several years, that stalled KsE for two years, with everything grinding to a halt in 2010.
“It became very apparent we had to move on without him,” D’Antonio says. “Howard didn’t quit.”
And in seeking Jones’s replacement, Killswitch Engage rehired the man Jones replaced. But Leach didn’t have a lock on the gig, even though in 2011 he reunited with KsE guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz to form the band Times of Grace, and Web chatter had him back in the lineup before anyone in the band even thought about auditioning singers.
“We heard Jesse was coming back in the band even before he said he wanted to be back in. He did eventually contact us, and said he was excited to come back,” D’Antonio says. “But there was this little management voice in the back of our heads saying, ‘Make sure you make the right call on this.’ ”
After all, Killswitch Engage — which also includes drummer Justin Foley and guitarist Joel Stroetzel — doesn’t want to stumble upon its return after being out of action for two years. But D’Antonio says that Leach easily earned his job back at the auditions held in New York City and did so by nailing a bunch of songs that Jones made popular.
Leach’s first show back with Killswitch Engage happened in April when the band headlined the final night of the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival in Worcester. The performance was sharp and explosive, with Leach easily navigating “My Curse,” “End of Heartache,” and other songs from the Jones era, and reveling in the “Alive or Just Breathing” material as well as songs from the band’s self-titled debut album released in 2000.
“I didn’t expect that reaction,” Leach recalls of the way the audience erupted in the Palladium once KsE hit the stage after a video montage set to the tune “Reunited.” The Palladium is the home court for KsE, whose members came up though Overcast and Aftershock, bands that worked mainly in Western and Central Mass. during a period in the mid-’90s when metal and hardcore influences were converging on the local music scene.
Leach looked fierce onstage, directly engaging the audience in a manner that was markedly different from the way he last performed with KsE, a period when he struggled with depression and the physical toll of singing in a way that constantly blew out his voice.
But after a decade of not singing on a regular basis, Leach says he’s ready for the job at hand, which, following Metalfest, included a tour through Europe and now the Trespass America tour with Five Finger Death Punch and others. The tour rolls into the House of Blues on Friday.
Leach admits that road life still has its hassles, saying “touring is spiritually taxing, mentally taxing, and physically taxing.” But now he says he can accept that as the cost of making music for a living.
And KsE is definitely making more music. The band is playing one new song live, “No End in Sight,” after a recording of the tune leaked online. Both Leach and D’Antonio say the band will spend the fall putting together a new full-length album.
“I didn’t write much for Killswitch because I didn’t know what was going to happen with the band. But I did write with my old Overcast bandmate (current Shadows Fall singer Brian Fair) in our side band Death Ray Vision. That got me back to my roots of playing really aggressive music, and that aggression bled all over the stuff I started writing for Killswitch,” D’Antonio says. Leach will also be looking forward to picking up from where “Alive or Just Breathing” left off.
“I never sang other people’s songs before, but I listened to Howard’s songs closely to find what the lyrics meant to me, how they felt to me,” Leach says. “I tend to live in my own little world, and I never wrote a broken heart song, or a relationship song like Howard does. But when I talk about Howard songs, I like to bring up soul music. I hear Al Green and Marvin Gaye. I really feel the pain in his songs.”
Killswitch Engage is not so much on tour but on a campaign. Leach is learning to get into the character of fronting a band that is much larger than when he left it, and the rest of the group is bent on reassuring fans that may be skeptical.
“So far it’s been great,” D’Antonio says. “People are embracing Jesse, and all I can say is we have awesome fans.”Scott McLennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcLennan1.