Pennsylvania natives Breaking Benjamin, named after founder and lead singer Ben Burnley, play a brand of metal-tinged alternative rock that came to define the sound of mainstream rock in the early 2000s. Indebted equally to the minor-chord dirges of first-wave grunge rockers like Alice in Chains and the pyrotechnic bombast of vintage arena rock, Breaking Benjamin became one of the most popular rock bands in the United States, scoring a number one with the single “Breath” in 2007. Two of their albums, 2004’s We Are Not Alone and 2006’s Phobia, have been certified platinum in the U.S.
In late 2000, guitarist Aaron Fink and bassist Mark James Klepaski made a surprising and unexpected decision: they left Lifer, an alternative metal band that was signed to Universal and was gaining commercial acceptance. Fink and Klepaski departed Lifer (which was originally called Strangers with Candy) so that they could join forces with singer Ben Burnley and drummer Jeremy Hummel and form Breaking Benjamin. Why would Fink and Klepaski leave a band that had a contract with Universal to form a new alt-rock band that, at the time, was unsigned? According to Breaking Benjamin’s press releases, the ex-members of Lifer had so much faith in Burnley’s songwriting talents that they were willing to take a gamble and uproot themselves. So in late 2000, Breaking Benjamin got started with a four-man lineup that consisted of Burnley on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Fink on lead guitar, Klepaski on bass, and Hummel on drums. Breaking Benjamin wasn’t the first time that Fink had worked with Burnley; he had known the singer since high school. All four members of the band are from Wilkes-Barre, a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania.
When Breaking Benjamin started playing around Wilkes-Barre, they were far from a carbon copy of Lifer — instead, they favored a radio-friendly post-grunge approach that was aggressive and forceful yet melodic. The band’s various influences included, among others, Live, Bush, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and Nirvana. Burnley has been quoted as saying that at age 14 he taught himself to play guitar by listening to Nirvana’s seminal 1991 release Nevermind over and over. Korn and Tool have also been cited as influences, but unlike Korn, Breaking Benjamin doesn’t have strong hip-hop leanings and isn’t quite alt-metal — hard alt-rock, certainly, but not quite alt-metal. That isn’t to say that Breaking Benjamin haven’t been influenced by certain aspects of Korn’s sound. The Pennsylvanians do incorporate the sort of choppy, downtuned guitars that are quite prevalent in alt-metal, and even though Breaking Benjamin have a lot in common with post-grunge bands like Creed, Default, Cinema8, and Third Eye Blind, they tend to be a bit heavier.
In 2001, Breaking Benjamin’s Wilkes-Barre gigs caught the attention of a local radio DJ named Freddie Fabbri, who was an on-air personality at alt-rock station WBSX-FM. Fabbri put their song “Polyamorous” in rotation, and he also financed the recording of their self-titled debut EP — which, in 2001, ended up selling about 2,000 copies in and around Wilkes-Barre. It was also in 2001 that Breaking Benjamin signed with Hollywood Records, which united the band with Ulrich Wild (a busy producer/engineer who had worked with Powerman 5000, Stabbing Westward, White Zombie, Static-X, Pantera, Slipknot, and quite a few others). Wild served as both producer and engineer on Breaking Benjamin’s first full-length album, Saturate, which Hollywood released in August 2002. We Are Not Alone followed two years later, complete with a few collaborations with Billy Corgan; the band landed a primo spot on the Evanescence tour in support of the effort, as three of the album’s singles made their way onto the Billboard charts (“So Cold” and “Sooner or Later” both peaked at number two in Mainstream Rock).
Breaking Benjamin issued their third album, Phobia, in August 2006 before heading out on nationwide headlining dates with Evans Blue and Dropping Daylight in tow. The album featured new drummer Chad Szeliga and was spearheaded by the single “The Diary of Jane,” which quickly heated up airwaves and helped the album debut at number two on the Billboard charts. Phobia was reissued that fall with additional bonus tracks, while the band continued touring alongside Godsmack. After the tour, Breaking Benjamin dove back into the studio to begin work on their fourth full-length. The resulting Dear Agony, fueled by the first single “I Will Not Bow,” arrived in the summer of 2009. More touring followed, including legs with Three Days Grace and Nickelback, before Burnley announced a hiatus due to alcoholism-related health issues. Ensuing legal disputes within the band led to Fink and Klepaski being fired just before a collection, Shallow Bay: The Best of Breaking Benjamin, was released in 2011. Szeliga exited the band in 2013. The following year, Burnley confirmed that Breaking Benjamin would continue as a quintet, and in June of 2015 they released their first album of new material in six years, Dark Before Dawn, with Burnley (who also produced), guitarists Jasen Rauch and Keith Wallen, bassist Aaron Bruch, and drummer Shaun Foist. With a notably similar sound to prior releases, its lead single, “Failure,” cracked the Billboard Hot 100 and hit number one on the Mainstream Rock Songs chart. The album became their first American chart-topper. While still touring behind Dark Before Dawn, Breaking Benjamin recorded their sixth effort, Ember, which arrived in 2018. ~ Alex Henderson