Godsmack might not be considered one of the giants of the music industry, but these veterans of 90’s metal and hard rock have been trucking for two decades with a relatively consistent output. And that consistency is not just in time between releases, but in the music itself. Godsmack has long been known as an alternative metal or nu metal band, with some often comparing them to the post-grunge bands of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. However, Godsmack stands out from the crowd in popularity, releasing albums with mainstream rock hits to this day, the most recent being “Bulletproof” from When Legends Rise, both of which came out in 2018. Further, Godsmack has had at least one number one hit on every album except their debut album, though that album had two top-five hits and three top-tens, so it certainly does not lag behind in terms of commercial popularity. Just a perephrial glance shows a band that has largely made the same kind of music throughout their career, to the point that a move from heavy metal to hard rock on When Legends Rise was considered a seismic shift for the band in comparison. This is an illusion, though, as Godsmack has actually developed a lot over their careers in subtle ways that make each album its own entity and shows their growth that is likely responsible for their continuous popularity. The question then becomes “has this shift resulted in better music?” Further, was their recent movement towards hard rock something truly out of nowhere, and was it a good decision? Additionally, Godsmack is a band known for its hits, but what sort of picture do their albums paint? To answer these questions, lets start with the band’s first studio album, their self-titled debut.
Godsmack’s self-titled album was released in 1998, during the height of nu-metal, and it was inevitable that Godsmack would be grouped in with this movement. Of course, like most groupings of this kind, it was only partially appropriate. Godsmack was certainly metal, a harder brand of rock than the post-grunge, alternative rock, or punk rock that was also popular, but it is easy to see within Godsmack’s debut that they had their own sound which separated them from the rest of bands, even if it was just ever so slightly. Much of alternative rock and post-grunge was too pop-sounding to really describe anything like the guitar-knashing, anger-fueled music of Godsmack. However, while Godsmack carried a bit of a darker edge to their sound with down-tuned guitars and Sully Erna (Godsmack’s lead singer) trying his hardest to sound sinister, the tone is much too mainstream rock friendly, constantly, and one glance at the lyrics shows we are not dealing with the same breed of musician that wrote something like Aenema.
But I do not mean to say all of this in some effort to prove that Godsmack was a shining beacon of originality within a genre that all sounded the same. If anything, Godsmack’s Godsmack shows a band heavily indebted to the heavy metal guitar work of bands like Metallica, as well as the general 90’s hard rock sound pioneered by bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains (probably more the latter than the former). What did make Godsmack stand out a bit more here was their intent to sound a bit more “mystical” and sinister than the other bands thanks to their particular melodic choices veering on the side of minor and diminished scales, and the fact that a majority of their lyrics sound extremely like those from post-hardcore and emo bands. Unfortunately, neither of these qualities are done well here, which will be a theme that does not change anytime soon.
As for the mystical quality, Godsmack puts this into obvious choices like “Bad Religion,” “Moon Baby,” and “Someone in London” (a mid-album interlude that sounds completely out of place). Unfortunately, Godsmack’s lack of experience shows up here in how these melding hardly impact the actual sound of the songs at all, with everything sounding far too shrill for any of it too work. In a way, this is also the post-hardcore influence showing up somewhat, as the higher register of the guitars is given precedence in many of the songs. Ultimately, the album sounds rather thin and unpleasant as a result, even on songs that clearly have okay melodies behind them. Speaking of thin, Sully Erna’s inexperience as a songwriter is perhaps no clearer here than in the lyrics. I have jokingly referred to this album as the “Go Away” album, since, no kidding, over half of the songs on the album have a lyrics in some variation of “go away,” “get away,” or “keep away,” oftentimes with these words being stated directly in multiple tracks with undue emphasis each time. A friend of mine even told me that I should tell the album to “go away,” but really I would be okay with leaving myself. Hell, there is even a song literally titled “Keep Away” and another named “Time Bomb” where Erna sings over and over again about how he is “a time bomb about to explode.” So not only are lyrics often repeated in multiple tracks, but cliches of the worst kind also abound.
Still, the singles on the album shine compared to those around them by balancing these poor lyrics out with musical sounds that are admittedly very catchy. “Whatever” and “Keep Away” in particular stand out in this way. However, the prize for best song here, and a look at a truly different side of Godsmack comes in the form of “Voodoo.” Here, the mystical qualities are not being melded in with emo-lyrics and a metal sound, but the other way around. “Voodoo” see the mystical side of Godsmack take over the music and lyrics in a song that sounds wholly different from anything else here. And not just completely different, but better. “Voodoo” is the best track off of Godsmack, and it is kind of a shame that this song is simply an album ending, throwaway track which has no resemblance to the album it is on. It sounds completely out of place here, even being such an uptick in quality and still having some hard rock guitars in the background. But it is worth keeping all of this about “Voodoo” in mind, because this is not the last time Godsmack would pull either this sound or a surprisingly high-quality track to end an album.
After the popularity of Godsmack, in particular its three hits in “Whatever”, “Keep Away,” and “Voodoo,” Godsmack went back to the studio with real credentials under their belt as a mainstream success. I mention this because it is clear to see that Godsmack started to get some better producers and high fidelity equipment to work with for their follow-up album. The resulting album is Awake, a huge upgrade in the base sound of Godsmack’s music, even if it remains very much in the same boat as the self-titled album with regard to lyrics and musical craftsmanship. While the former remains a problem here, the latter is greatly improved thanks to production that emphasized lower, bass tones to provide more space for everything to work. Just this seemingly small difference makes all the difference. It is clear that the songwriting on Awake is no better than before, except that the band did weed out their nagging issue of repeating terrible lyrics multiple times in multiple songs. Still, the production makes songs like “Sick of Life,” “Mistakes,” and “Spiral,” which would have sounded terrible on Godsmack, work here on Awake.
Of course, the album highlight is the famous title track, which lives up to its reputation. The lyrics are a bit hokey, but work relatively well in this instance. The guitar work, aided by the impressive production, rocks hard and really shoot out at the listener in an attention grabbing way. If “Voodoo” is not your speed, this is the best of the heavy metal Godsmack has to offer in their early albums. In fact, this album is devoid of a track like “Voodoo,” but does end with “Spiral” which is probably second on the record only to the title-track. After all, “Awake” still feels good to listen to now, over a decade and a half later.
Unfortunately, where the mystical elements try to show up on Awake largely fail because they are not given a voice. “Bad Magick” is probably the most prominent example, where the lyrics and dark, minor-scale melody fails to work together to produce anything of value. “Vampires” is another bad cut, falling victim to a degree of cheese that will never sound flattering from Godsmack. However, even some of the more straightforward metal songs fail, such as “Greed,” whose lyrics are gems like “By the way, to think that you’re so f—— kind?/You ain’t!” Thus, we can see a progression out of the low fidelity, post-hardcore sound of Godsmack’s first album, replaced with a much better produced sound and lyrics that are improving slightly, even if they are still stuck in the cliches and unintentionally goofiness. It is also worth noting that this album contains a much closer sound to the alternative metal of the 2000’s, something which would continue for Godsmack going forward.
With a step forward on Awake comes a step back on Faceless. The main issue with this album is that the band has flat out refused to change their sound and style in virtually any way after Awake, their lyrical quality remained just as bad as ever, but the songwriting just takes a dip here. Stylistically, this album is still in the vein of what the band has done in the past, though interestingly enough it is noticeable that the production here has changed again. Godsmack placed too much emphasis on the higher register, resulting in a more shrill sound that made most of the track lose their hooks in a sort of white noise of guitar fuzz. Meanwhile, Awake made space for all the loud guitars and vocals by having the bass line emphasized to deepen and broaden the sound. Faceless hits a middle ground here, seeing them attempt a shift towards a sound that is both less heavy metal and more melodic, but also trying to capitalize on the success of Awake. There are also some more of the mystical elements here, this time focused around several tracks in the album’s first half and the final track, “Serenity.”
The result is an album that works relatively well at first, but then hits an unbelievable dead point in the middle. “Voices” and the title-track were interesting pieces that largely have been the best attempts by Godsmack to this point to bring their darker and mystic tendencies completely alive within a song. This shows me that the band is finally starting to mature a bit, and learning what works and what does not. As a result, I think it is no coincidence that the album is so absolutely front loaded, except for “Serenity.” As for that song, who would have ever expected an acoustic rock, progressive rock tinged piece from this band? Actually, this will not be the last time we see either, and it will be to interesting results. Meanwhile, the heavy metal is largely same as always, though there are signs in the albums first half where improvement is happening both on the lyrical and musical front, in terms of consistancy.
The Other Side EP
Realizing how well their toned down, more acoustic work had been in the past, Godsmack decided to release an extended play completely of this music. In doing so, they re-recorded four previous hit songs (“Re-Align” from Faceless, “Spiral” from Awake, “Keep Away” from Godsmack, and a shorter, slower version of “Awake” called “Asleep”) as well as including three new songs (“Running Blind,” “Touche,” and “Voices”). Every song on here has its value in these new acoustic versions. Incredibly enough, what is revealed through this album is that Godsmack was actually decent songwriters the whole time, except for their lyrics. The problem always lay in their consistancy, production, and need to have a heavy metal sound that often drowned out these elements. Even “Keep Away,” probably the worst of the songs to be remade, manages to have some new depth and emotion through the acoustic version here. Meanwhile, “Running Blind” and “Touche” very much hold the “Voodoo” and “Serenity” line, providing more examples of what the band is capable of with this form of music.
It is not a masterpiece or anything, as “Re-Align” proves to be worse in the new version than the first. Its short length makes it hard to really get into a vibe with the extended play, making me wish they would do a longer album that incorporated this more. Additionally, the new tracks suffer from similar lyrical problems as most Godsmack output. “Running Blind” in particular, has “I’m running blind/I’m running blind/I’m running blind/Somebody help me see/I’m running blind.” This is just a snipet of the song, but this alone was enough for me to detract a little from the song. “Voices,” on the other hand, shows real lyrical competence despite still being Godsmack’s normal fare, sitting up there with the band’s best. “Touche” comes in the middle on these songs, being less stellar lyrically and musically than other tracks on the EP, but certainly being above average for Godsmack. The real importance of The Other Side is that Godsmack here fully embraces what they have only hinted at before. While it might not go the way people would expect, the success of this album and its massive fan popularity would lead to Godsmack’s direction in the immediate future, and by extension impact their distant future. Either way, this is by far their best release to this point.
After a relatively decent amount of success with The Other Side EP, Godsmack must have went back to the studio wanting to put this sound more firmly in their major studio album releases. While Faceless was far from their biggest hit album, it had done well enough, and “Serenity” remained a popular song for fans of the band. As a result, Godsmack seems to have moved to make their blues and folk influences more obvious on the upcoming release, as IV is chocked to the brim with tracks calling back to them. “Hollow” is as blues as the band has ever been, while retaining the emotive quality of their lyrics in lines like “I feel so hollow.” Further, the band explored more ambitious song structures here on tracks like “Speak” and “One Rainy Day,” the latter of which is a seven minute and twenty second track prominently featuring a sample of falling rain (because what else would be in a Godsmack song called “One Rainy Day”).
Still, Godsmack attempts to bring the metal and the sinister flare on tracks like “The Enemy” and “Livin’ in Sin,” both of which would have fit comfortably on the band’s first album, in my opinion. And if that was not enough of a call back, the band literally made a sequel to “Voodoo” in the form of “Voodoo Too.” No, I am not kidding, and yes, it is just as bad as it sounds. Ultimately, Godsmack ends up proving with IV what has long seemed to be the case: they wear their influences on their sleeve so heavily that it largely takes away from what they are trying to do with their own music. Furthermore, they lack the songwriting and lyrical talents to make their darker side sound much older than a teenager’s, and it is when they completely dump this that they are at their best. This album is yet another mixed bag, but it is worth noting that this album saw a sharp downturn in the band’s popularity. It was not well-received by fans or the public in general, and this would be the last time we see those folk and tribal tendencies that could lead something like The Other Side EP. Godsmack is full rock band from here, with “The Enemy” ultimately winning out among the songs here.
Four years after IV, Godsmack re-emerged with a new album in The Oracle, and the lead-up singles let the world know what to expect here. “Whiskey Hangover” was Godsmack in full goofiness, but the track ultimately is a bit fun if obnoxious after a few too many plays. It ended up being excluded from the final tracklist, being placed as a bonus track in the deluxe edition. After listening to The Oracle, I think this might be the best decision Godsmack has ever made except releasing an acoustic EP, because The Oracle without “Whiskey Hangover” proves to be their most full-bodied and mature release to date, as low of a bar as that might seem to be.
The album opener, the other pre-release single, is not exactly a great indicator of this, though, being that it is “Cryin’ Like a Bitch.” Still, among all of the many, many, many edgy Godsmack songs that fail to cut any deeper than a butter knife, “Cryin’ Like a Bitch” actually has some real muscle behind the sentiment. It starts the album off with a bang, and boy, it does not let up. The album immediately goes into “Love-Hate-Sex-Pain” which is probably one of the best written songs of Godsmack’s career, and brings the more ambitious tendancies from IV into the metal format the band was used to. In a lot of ways, The Oracle is an updated Godsmack or Awake with how hard the album is trying to be as well as how the lyrics are so patently abrasive. The guitar solos that littered the self-titled album are back in earnest, but with forethought as to how they would work in the tracks. As a result, they do not come out of nowhere, but actually contribute more than simply being a break from the lyrics.
This proves the point that these sorts of songs can work much better if the writing, performances, and production are all there. It is about the craft, and this is the best display from Godsmack that they understand this, finally. The Oracle is the sign of a band maturing in the sound they had went with for years, and reaching breakthroughs in how to make it work. Sure, there are rough spots even still, and very little here is regulatory in the scope of heavy metal itself, but this is overall a massive improvement from the band, and one I did not expect to find. However, it is still encouraging to see that a band can start to get things right given enough time to work with.
Unfortunately, the peak of The Oracle is not one that would be matched by its follow-up, 2014’s 1000hp. On the surface, everything should work well. Most of the songs are just as on point as anything from The Oracle, with the lead song and title track living up to the horsepower in its name. But what 1000hp ends up showing is how important the track order is in constructing an album. While an album might be a collection of songs, it is not JUST a collection of songs, and Godsmack seems to have constructed a playlist here more so than an album. Worse still, the album starts out with its most energetic songs in the title track, “FML,” and “Something Different” only to die off and become boring by the end without a real pick-me-up along the way. The lyrics are also not as dynamic as they could be, though it should be clear by now that this is not the strength of the band. Still, they are serviceable, and keep a bad experience from becoming a horrific one.
Looking to where the band would head from here, 1000hp is most notable in hindsight for representing the band’s first foray into a less heavy, brighter hard rock sound on several tracks. The single “Generation Day” is most notable for this, containing almost none of the dark, sinister vibes that Godsmack is known for, and instead sounding like an anthem for uprising that one might expect from a band like Rise Against. In a lot of ways, this is another look back for Godsmack, since bringing up a hardcore punk band should bring to mind how much their lyrics are indebted to an emo or post-hardcore punk basis. These are used admirably, but it is not a good sign that this and “Living in Gray” are probably the best examples of Godsmack venturing into this sound, and they are the worst songs on the album. It was not until 2018 that we would see where this sound would take them.
When Legends Rise
And where it took them was not good, as When Legends Rise is one of the worst collections of songs they have ever released, and is a massive step backwards for the band in terms off everything I thought they had gained. It is almost as though in trying a new sound the band has started over completely, which means that their problems with cliches, melodramatic lyrics with no real force, and musical moments that fail to add to the album or even the songs they are in, all had to come back too. This comes in early with the title track, where the chorus “when ashes fall legends rise” gave a strong cringe at how bad it was. “Bulletproof,” if the title does not immediately give it away, contains the extremely worn “bulletproof” cliche without any work to make it fresh. In the end, Godsmack has seemed to move to a current radio-friendly sound in order to attempt staying relevant on rock radio as alternative metal and post-grunge die out there.
Nothing here sounds natural, and nothing here sounds fitting. The oh-oh-oooh’s sprinkled in the songs are just as obnoxious as anything the band has ever done. The bright guitar, vocals, and drums are like Shinedown-lite. The album’s second half (after “Under Your Scars,” another stereotypical rock song from the 2010’s) really saves this album from absolute disaster, with “Let It Out” being the band’s best hard rock song thus far, and “Say My Name’s” over-the-top rhyming and extremely cheesy edginess becoming entertainingly funny, which is something at least. “Eye of the Storm” even ends the album on a high note, making me hopeful that Godsmack have not lost their sound entirely by having an actual sinister side to it that delivers. That might be comparative to the rest of the album in the end, but I still liked it nonetheless.
What this really brings into question is what the band has been doing their entire career to this point. It is not necessarily something to hang a band over if they clearly are operating within a musical trend, and Godsmack clearly operated within the heavy metal, alternative metal, nu-metal, and post-grunge arenas when it suited them. Now that arena rock and hard rock have largely taken a larger role, it makes sense then that they would move over to here. Still, it is worth looking at the fact that this band had some bright moments in the past dealing with unusual influences and a degree of edge and darkness that worked very well for them and their fans. It is this that makes When Legends Rise the kind of move that a band needs to pull off in spades for it to work in all the ways they hope. I will give Godsmack this: they go all out on When Legends Rise. I will not fault them for trying, just for the fact that the attempt missed the mark by way too much for me to give it a pass. Really, this is something that kind of enamors me to Godsmack, despite it all. I can tell that the band is really putting their all behind what they are doing, even if I do not like it all the time. I cannot help but carry a kind of grudging respect to a band that did not just release the same album over and over again, even if they clearly maintained the same sound for so long. I honestly hope they move to more original lyrics in the future and find a way to hit another peak like they have a couple of times in the past. It would be incredible if they could meld together a better version of When Legends Rise, The Oracle, and The Other Side EP into an experience that really shows what the band has given in those wee small moments of individual tracks. Here’s to the possibly unreasonable optimism and endearment I have towards this rather average metal band that makes me hope this will come to pass.
Best Album: The Other Side EP is the highest rating I gave to any release, so I do believe it is their best material, but The Oracle is my pick for their best full studio album, as well as their best work in the heavy metal they are known for.
Worst Album: Godsmack, the self-titled debut, ends up being their worst because it is their least refined release and shows Godsmack at their worst, overall, lyrically, and inexperienced as musicians overall. “Voodoo” might be one of their best tracks, but it is a far-cry from the quality of the rest of this record.
Best Song: Part of their long-standing tradition of having their weirdest but also best songs close albums, the horrible second half of Faceless somehow ends with the best song of Godsmack’s career, “Serenity.”
Most Overrated Album: When Legends Rise sounds better on repeat listens, but never reaches close to the praise it has been given. It is still one of their lower quality albums as a whole, and certainly not deserving of being called their best work.
Most Underrated Album: The Other Side EP is often forgotten about in Godsmack’s career, with most focus going to the single and any left going to the studio albums. However, this release is a surprisingly beautiful collection of acoustic tracks that shines a new light on older tracks and includes new songs that are all among the best the band has ever written. The lyrics and delivery do not get better on any Godsmack release than they do here, as tragically unappreciated as this album is.