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Godsmack look to the metal greats for guidance


5/2/2006 4:51:35 PM

INTRAVENUS DE MILO: The title of Godmack’s fourth album is IV, which also happens to be the title of a Led Zep classic

The idea of fall and redemption is thousands of years old, and it’s laced into the new Godsmack album, where singer Sully Erna’s lyrics spin a tale of rock-and-roll excess, its emotional strain, and if not outright salvation, at least the promise of it.

There are other classic themes too, in the album’s sound and its ambition. The disc is called Godsmack IV(Republic/Universal), which is sensible enough, since it’s the Boston metal machine’s fourth studio effort. It might seem a coincidence that Led Zeppelin’s fourth album is known as both ZoSo and IV. But it’s not, because Zeppelin producer and engineer Andy Johns engineered Godsmack’s latest too.

“I’m hoping this is the album where we finally get some recognition,” Erna tells me. “I feel it’s really strong. We wrote 40 songs and picked the best 11. As we were getting ready to make the album, we had some band meetings and we decided that we were going to step it up. We wanted to make sure every song was there so when people heard it they wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I like tracks #3, #5, and #11.’ They’d want to hear every killer song again and again. And the rest we just threw away. We only wanted what was great.”

I remind Erna that he and his colleagues from Boston’s northern suburbs have already had some recognition. After all, their 1988 debut, which they made for $2600, has sold 3.5 million copies, their second, Awake, tallied 2.5 million, and 2003’s Faceless has hit 1.5 million. Plus, their fans are passionate about ’em. “Yeah, but we have yet to make a record that’s hit like Led Zeppelin’s IV or AC/DC’s Back in Black. When those albums came out, those bands were unstoppable. They were all over the radio. They were everywhere. They owned the world. We’d like that to happen with Godsmack.”

For a while, it seemed Erna might lose a vital part of his own world. And that’s what fueled his tortured lyrics for Godsmack IV. The song titles “Living in Sin,” “Hollow,” “The Enemy,” “Temptation,” and “No Rest for the Wicked” hint at the story. “What happened was, I got tired of the way I was living my life, and I decided to change for my daughter and for my relationship,” he explains over the phone from backstage at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. “When we were on tour with Metallica, [frontman] James Hetfield took me under his wing and taught me about growing up and becoming a real man. Everybody’s got to grow up at some point and decide who they really want to be. Did I want to keep being the dad who shoos his three-year-old daughter away from the couch he’s lying on because he’s hung over when all she wants to do is bring over her coloring books and play with me? That’s not the way a real father behaves.

“And I’ve been with my girl for five years, and I was with other women on the road. You wake up in the morning with this strange girl in your bed who you really don’t want to be with . . . It’s fucked up. You’re doing it just because you’re supposed to, because it’s part of the life. So I came clean with my girl and she’s been helping me get back on track and has kind of forgiven me. Which I have to give her a lot of credit for. That’s a hard pill to be asked to swallow. If I was in the same position and had come back from two years on the road and she said she’s been suckin’ some guy’s cock while I was gone, I don’t know if I could have done it. It probably would have been ‘the boot’ — out the door. And it could have just as easily been that way for me.”

Erna had just made his confession at the time the songs were written — after looking long and hard into his heart and finding a lot of what he describes as “darkness.” “I needed to come clean, so I did. But after that, everything was hanging over my head at the time. I didn’t know if I would be forgiven. At the best, I thought, ‘I’ve made a clean slate of this for myself. If it can still work between us, great. If not, at least I have a clean slate and can move on.’ ”

For a while this situation locked up his creativity. “I sat in the studio with my pen day after day — and nuthin’.” At the same time his band mates, guitarist Tony Rombola, bassist Robbie Merrill, and drummer Shannon Larkin, were working on music independently and at a furious pace. “At one point they had written so much music that I asked them to go home and take a break. I was afraid I would never catch up.”

Obviously he did. But not before the instrumentalists had composed some of the most interesting music in Godsmack’s canon. Erna’s spiritual themes are supported by a mix of electric and acoustic instruments, often textured in a way that makes reference to classic Zeppelin, but without compromising the low, bullfrog chug of modern metal that Godsmack helped cast in platinum. “Shine Down,” with Erna’s earnest declaration that “I still believe in immortal love,” is the album’s shimmering centerpiece. At times the acoustic playing recalls Zeppelin’s “Battle of Nevermore” and more-balanced tunes from ZoSo. The thundering single “Speak” and the string-colored confessional “Hollow” counter the thunder of hard rock with emotional bite and intellect. The nuances are provided by the blues foundation that Rombola contributed.

Still, it seems Erna had the clearest notion of where Godsmack should go for IV, and that was back to fundamentals. “The trick was to get the balance of the kind of driving hard-rock thing Godsmack is known for and a real blues edge, which would open up the melodies and the mood of the album.” Perhaps that’s why Erna’s mates asked him to produce the album, though Johns was, as he puts it, “chasing after us to let him produce us.” In the end Johns played a vital role in the engineering and the mixing. “I’d tell him I really want to get a lot of the old-school Led Zeppelin type of stuff in the mixes, like crazy panning and fades in and out. I also learned a lot from being around him. I soak up a lot of information from people quickly and put it to use myself.”

There’s one more thing troubling Erna: how to top the spectacle of Godsmack’s last tour. “We went out with Metallica, which is hard to beat in itself. Then, for the big highlight, we had the double-drum-kit showcase [Erna is also a drummer] with hand percussion, lighting effects. . . . It was huge. Amazing. We always want to make it bigger and better than the last tour, but Shannon and I were talking and we’re wondering, ‘Jesus Christ, how are we gonna top that?’ ”