Monday 27 March 2023

Godsmack - Lighting Up the Sky (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Feb 2023
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I haven't heard Godsmack in forever. I'm trying to remember if I've heard them since I Stand Alone, their contribution to The Scorpion King, but I'm coming up empty. I guess I've lumped them into an unwanted category in my head with a bunch of early nu metal bands and that's unfair, because the Godsmack sound was always hard rock, even if it was built on a commercially grungy base. I have no idea if they were ever nu metal, but I've never given them much chance to persuade me otherwise.

This is certainly a hard rock album, but with a crunch to the guitars that comes from commercially minded metal. To my surprise, the most obvious comparison here is Metallica, if we try to think of what they might sound like as a rock band—and, yes, they're still a metal band, even if you believe they wussed out with the Black Album. Everything about the sound here is big in the Metallica way and Sully Erna's voice often pays homage to James Hetfield. Even when Godsmack crank down the power to deliver what could almost be described as a ballad in Growing Old, it comes across like a Metallica take on Audioslave's Like a Stone.

That said, for something that sounds so quintessentially American and modern, there are a bunch of moments here that bring much older bands to mind. There are glimpses of Thin Lizzy here, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, even someone like UFO. They don't direct the style, but they're there in solos and bass runs and chord changes and it tells me that this isn't a band who came out of nowhere to play trendy American music and didn't care about what went before. Even on a song like Truth, which is carefully constructed to sound powerful to kids who haven't listened widely enough to understand what power can be, there are still looks backward that I appreciated.

I'm not a big fan of that song or that approach, which looks as much at the S&M albums Metallica did with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra as the Black Album, but the album as a whole is far more likeable and far more nuanced than I expected. I like the opener, You and I, even after the 22 second evolving power chord that kicks it off, as if this was ever going to be a Sunn O))) album. It's a stalker of a song and there's a lot more power in this one than Truth can even dream of. There's a funk edge to it as well that helps give it character and it drops the riff in between lyrics to give a stronger emphasis to the vocals. It's a great way to kick things off.

I have other favourites too. Hell's Not Dead feels very familiar, because it flows along gloriously on a relentless AC/DC base with a thrust that reminds of Motörhead's Killed by Death, especially as it runs towards its conclusion. The only pandering to the modern is the staccato riff early on and that doesn't bring the song down, just underlines how much better it is when the band stop doing it. I'm very fond of Let's Go too, because of its midsection, which is wonderfully loose and groovy. There's an excellent atmospheric solo from Tony Rombola, but I dig the bass here too. This is something I'd not expected on a Godsmack album and I love it.

The other end of the ranking for me isn't actually Truth but Red White & Blue, which rubbed me the wrong way. Generally speaking, I like these songs or I don't because of what they do musically with Erna's voice being just another instrument. However, this one appears at first glance to question the idea of blind patriotism, which seems to be highly topical in 2023, especially given events right now. The first verse states: "I never thought I'd say one day I'd question my faith to a country that made me who I am today". Yet, when we get to the chorus, it becomes exactly what it questions in a big turnaround: "The only colors that stand true are the red, white and blue, so I stand by you." Adding politically charged lines like "Just don't you tread on me" don't help either. Is this a parody of patriotism? If so, it's not very clear about it.

Fortunately there's not a lot of that here. For the most part, this is a pretty good hard rock album for Godsmack to go out on, as they're suggesting that it will be their last studio release. I had very little expectation going in, but it surpassed it and I found that I enjoyed it, even with the veneer of alternative rock draped over the top, especially on Erna's voice. He sounds good, but he also feels like he's carefully controlling it to maintain some sort of post-grunge credibility that doesn't need to be there. If they just want to rock, then they should just do it.

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