"Dear Agony," the fourth full-length album from the Pennsylvania post-grunge band Breaking Benjamin, enters the Billboard 200 at No. 4 with 134,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. While the act's last two Hollywood Records albums have gone platinum, this is the group's best sales week-the result of savvy marketing and a commitment to change that starts with lead singer Benjamin Burnley.
Since forming in 1998, Breaking Benjamin's pummeling alt-rock has earned heavy airplay on modern rock radio. The singles "So Cold" and "Sooner or Later," from the 2004 set "We Are Not Alone," each peaked in the top 10 of Billboard's Alternative chart. Meanwhile, the 2006 disc "Phobia" debuted at No. 2 and led to a successful joint tour with Three Days Grace in the fall of 2007.
While the band -- whose lineup includes guitarist Aaron Fink, bassist Mark Klepaski and drummer Chad Szeliga -- was gaining a sizable following and sales momentum, Burnley was living as a "functional alcoholic" and had developed neurological problems.
"I've suffered permanent brain damage through alcoholism," says Burnley, who has been sober for more than two years. "I don't want to say that I'm proud to have stopped, but I'm glad I realized that I wanted to stick around for a while."
After he quit drinking and started writing material for "Dear Agony," Burnley decided to use his struggles with alcohol and subsequent recovery as recurring themes. The first album Burnley recorded sober with the band is also his most personally revealing and features a scan of the singer's brain on the album cover.
"All the tests and hospital visits stick with you, so I thought the scan was an effective image to use," he says. "It was a dangerous situation to be in . . . thankfully, I was able to reflect what was going on in my life within the music."
Produced by David Bendeth, "Agony" draws on Burnley's emotional experience to create an 11-song set of anthems with blistering lyrics. The lead single, "I Will Not Bow," is No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and features stirring lines like "Take the path that leads to nowhere/All is lost again, but I'm not giving in" over chugging guitars and cymbal crashes.
Aside from its affecting content, the new album's success can also be chalked up to Breaking Benjamin's unique marketing strategy. "I Will Not Bow" has received exposure from its placement in the Touchstone release "Surrogates," while three tracks from "Agony" have been made available as downloadable songs for "Rock Band." A deluxe edition of the album is available exclusively at Best Buy. It comes packaged with a bonus DVD that includes all of the group's music videos.
"We've tried to find a balance between traditional marketing tools and new media," says Hollywood director of marketing Linc Wheeler. "The industry might look at a follow-up record and see a falloff, but the band has been eager to embrace new ways of getting closer to fans, especially through new technology."
In September, the group released "Altered Benjamin," an online flash videogame that was designed and submitted by a fan. The parody of the arcade game "Altered Beast" features Burnley as a character and the other band members as bosses.
The game, along with the band's fan-run Web site, demonstrates the act's online interaction with its followers that Burnley believes helps keep the act grounded. "Musically, we're a serious band," he says. "So it's cool for stuff like the game to show that we have a sense of humor and are open to fan contributions."
Starting Nov. 29 in San Antonio, Breaking Benjamin will hit the road on a bill that includes Sick Puppies and Rev Theory. While Burnley says that pressure used to hamper him onstage, now he focuses only on having fun. "Nowadays, bands are a dime a dozen," he says. "At this point, I'm just very thankful we've lasted this long and can continue to perform."