If you want to get inside Ben Burnley's head, just look at the Dear Agony album cover– it's an actual scan of the singer's brain. The lyrics to the first single, "I Will Not Bow," provide further insight: "Now's your chance to run for cover / I don't want to change the world / I just want to leave it colder." Then there's the musicality—trademark Breaking Benjamin, full of uber-catchy choruses, dexterous drumming, intricate, powerful riffs and a darkly compelling vibe. It's a sound that gave the band the #1 rock hits "So Cold" and "Sooner or Later" off 2004's platinum We Are Not Alone," and "Breath" and "Diary of Jane" off 2006's recently certified platinum Phobia. On Dear Agony, produced again by David Bendeth (Paramore, Killswitch Engage), Breaking Benjamin upped the ante, as Burnley notes:
"We've been together 8 years, which is like 20 years these days. We've honed our sound and focus. Being on the road, you become a better musician, and the more music you listen to and the more experiences and people you're exposed to, the more complicated you become, the more complicated your music can become."
Indeed, behind insinuating layers of melodies and radio-ready rock riffs are intense and complex feelings explored and expressed by Burnley. "The title track started as a sort of 'letter to agony.' I have some symptoms and health issues that just won't go away, so I equate it to anybody who has a permanent illness, in that you deal with it and it becomes a part of you." That said, Dear Agony is the first album Burnley recorded since he quit drinking. "I can't say if it would have been a better or worse album if I'd been drinking. For me, drinking was a way to put myself in an inspirational mindset to write and create. Writing sober is more time-consuming… waiting for that inspiration to hit. But when you do write, you know it's good, you don't have to wait until you're sober the next day and listen to it," he laughs. Proof positive of Burnley's ever-increasing songwriting skills are the 11 stellar tracks on Dear Agony–the dynamic 'I Will Not Bow" was snapped up for the Bruce Willis flick "Surrogates," while 'Give Me a Sign" is an instantly memorable mid-tempo classic, in contrast to the raw, aggro intensity of "Hopeless."
Recorded at the appropriately named House of Loud studio in New Jersey with David Bendeth, Breaking Benjamin was thrilled to do their third album with the Brit producer again at the helm. As bassist Mark James notes, "it's the first time we worked in a studio owned by a producer, which helped the process immensely as far as a comfort factor. We were not afraid to try something new, to jump off the edge of the cliff and put ourselves out there. The bar has been raised pretty high, but it's crucial to stay relevant and excited and exciting."
Though Dear Agony is a forceful title, it doesn't sum up any theme for the CD, as Burnley explains. "It's pointless to ask me what a song is about—it's about whatever the listener feels when they listen to it. That's what the song exists for." Though Burnley is the sole lyricist, he did some collaboration with Jasen Rauch, guitarist of Grammy-nominated band RED. "He has his band, I have mine, and they're two totally different things," Burnley notes, "but together we have a flow. I'm really fortunate to know him and work with him." Akin to Tool and Nirvana, two Breaking Benjamin inspirations, Burnley likewise crafts cryptic, evocative lyrics. "I don't particularly like listening to songs that are very obviously about something unless it's something really, really clever and cool," says the frontman. "I try to make it so that every line is a self-contained thing." Though Burley titled the previous CD Phobia, he finds writing about personal issues hasn't proved cathartic, especially when it comes to his well-documented fear of flying. "I didn't get into a band to fly. I never kept it a secret. That's one thing I'm not going to bend on," he states. "I'll have that fear until the day I die. Being in a band doesn't change that in any way whatsoever."
That said, BB ventures far from their Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania home base, touring in front of rabid fans for months at a time. For his part, guitarist Aaron Fink is looking forward to road-testing the new tunes: "You see the visceral reaction between you and the audience, and you know what songs and riffs are working," he says, adding, "If you like Breaking Benjamin, you're gonna like this record." James concurs: "All our records are quite eclectic, so there's a song for any mood. We're excited to tour, and along with our great catalog, we now have these new songs to reach from."
As for Breaking Benjamin's growth since Saturate, Burnley cites an apt analogy: "If you have a kid, and you're around the kid every day, you don't know how much it's growing. But if you spent a few months away and came back and looked at him, and he was three feet taller and had facial hair, you'd be like "wow, you've changed so drastically!" That's how it is. I haven't noticed the change as much, because I've been there creating it every single step of the way."
Breaking Benjamin believe it's a need to not do the same thing twice that created the musical evolution evident on Dear Agony. "I never put out anything I'm not 100 percent satisfied with, but then again, you're never going to find a group of people who have the same favorite song," says Burnley. "They're all going to say 'this song rocks, this song sucks.'" That said, Breaking Benjamin is thrilled with their place in the rock pantheon. "I totally realize that we'd be nothing without our fans. That's just a given. We're the kind of people who have our jobs because what we like just so happens to be what a lot of people like," Burnley concludes. "I'll be honest: I write music for myself, and if other people like it, that's awesome."