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Sunday, September 3, 2006
Godsmack wrestles with the iPod future

The band’s hard-rock roots are evident in the new CD, ‘IV’

Scott McLennan

Entertainment Columnist

Godsmack’s music may be full of mystical and magical imagery, but it seems that hard work and knowing what its fans want are most responsible for the band’s success.

“Don’t lose your roots,” Godsmack drummer Shannon Larkin said during a recent interview, just as the band was starting a national tour to promote its most recent album, “IV.”

And “IV” stays close to those roots; it is loaded with droney guitar-driven hard-rock grooves and song lyrics that depict singer Sully Erna battling a world of bummers.

As for the hard work part of the equation, Godsmack’s Erna, Larkin, guitarist Tony Rombola and bass player Robbie Merrill wrote nearly 40 songs and recorded upward of 15 before settling on the 11 tunes that made it onto “IV.”

Godsmack’s current road trip is likewise an exercise in smart planning, because it teams the band with Rob Zombie and Shinedown for the mother of all hockey-rock (admit it, this stuff is tailor-made for mid-ice fistfights and hard checks into the boards) shows this summer. Godsmack comes back to its Bay State home Thursday for a show at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield.

“It was one of those things managers put together,” Larkin said, describing in the most unglamorous but honest way Godsmack and Zombie, another Massachusetts native, came together. “We needed something that would appeal to the promoters. We’re good for a 6,000- to-8,000 seater, but we wanted a way to play places that added 3,000 to 4,000 seats.”

Both Zombie and Godsmack will both roll out big pyro- and prop-stuffed productions that Larkin said fit together really well.

When it came to adding Shinedown to the bill, Larkin said that Godsmack just really liked the down-home hard-rock act from Florida and pursued it as the opener.

Songs from the new “IV” album will provide the spice to this meat-and-potatoes rock show. In a bit of a switch for Godsmack, the band released the album a few months ahead of any major touring itinerary, giving fans a chance to let the new songs sink in. And “IV” does have some stylistic twists. The opening “Livin’ in Sin” and closing “One Rainy Day” are moodier songs, with Godsmack doing its best to merge the worlds of Alice-in-Chains-style balladry with Led-Zeppelin-ized blues.

“ ‘One Rainy Day’ was one of those songs that just captured a moment. We were hanging out in Tewksbury in the practice room, and it was pouring out and we just started playing this slow jam and the song just evolved,” Larkin said of the mournful, soul-searching result.

“Livin’ In Sin” erupted from a monster jam that Rombola and Larkin hammered out and knew right away was different from straight-up Godsmack fare.

“We loved that riff, and it’s probably our favorite song on the album. We went to Sully with the music, and we just hoped he would step up to the plate, and he ended up exceeding our expectation,” Larkin said. On “Livin’ In Sin,” Erna launches the record’s theme of looking for redemption after a fall from grace. The singer did not delve into details, keeping the images open enough to become malleable touchstones for any listener willing to supply his or her own guilt-laden details.

The fact that “IV” does have a thematic arc makes it a rather risky album to release in the iPod age, especially for a band that has built its career with a string of hit singles.

“The new world of downloading one song bothers me,” Larkin said. “Rob Zombie said it best when he said that if you took Kiss’ ‘Destroyer’ and just downloaded the song ‘Beth,’ that wouldn’t be an accurate representation of what Kiss was trying to get across with that album.”

But Larkin, who admittedly loves the album concept, said that the art form is in trouble.

“Our manager Paul Geary gave us all iPods for Christmas one year, and he said, ‘This is the future.’ He really thinks the CD will even be obsolete in five years, and that everyone is going to simply be downloading ‘Godsmack VII’ as a whole record.”

That being said, the bulk of “IV” simply hones the basic Godsmack chug ’n’ howl sound that came through loud and clear on the first single from the album, “Speak.” And should rock radio remain friendly, Godsmack has got a million of ’em (well, at least three or four more on this album) to pitch as songs worthy for steady commercial exposure.

Erna, Rombola, Merrill and original drummer Tommy Stewart formed Godsmack in 1996, just after Erna wrapped up a stint with the band Meliah Rage and decided to stop being a drummer and take the role of frontman. The band got its foothold when radio station WAAF-FM jumped on the independently released song “Whatever.”

As Godsmack’s stock rose through the club circuits, the Republic record label signed the band, re-released the album that the group made on its own for $2,600, added the known commodity of “Whatever” to that, and shipped out the local boys for two solid years of high-profile touring. The strategy worked, as Godsmack grew its fan base through appearances at Ozzfest and the Woodstock ’99 festivals.

The band kept its pace with the albums “Awake” in 2000 and “Faceless” in 2003. Its tours with Metallica and Black Sabbath, and hit soundtrack recording “I Stand Alone” from the “Scorpion King” flick further propelled Godsmack past the hard-rock competition. Larkin joined the band in 2003, replacing Stewart in time for the making of “Faceless” and later, a concert DVD.

At this point in its career, Godsmack knows what its job is, but that doesn’t make things necessarily easier.

“We all have families and children now. When I was packing my bag to leave for six weeks, I wasn’t all excited. I was sad to leave my wife and kids,” Larkin said. “And the older you get, touring is less of a party and more fatigue on the body.”

Like we said, more work than magic is responsible for Godsmack’s success.