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Older, wiser – and still Rocking

P.O.D. returns to form with a strong effort, 'When Angels and Serpents Dance'

By George Varga
POP MUSIC CRITIC

April 3, 2008

Always a band with a mission, P.O.D. has a renewed sense of purpose on “When Angels and Serpents Dance.”

It's the San Diego Christian rap-metal band's first album with original guitarist Marcos Curiel since he left the lineup following 2001's multimillion-selling “Satellite,” the second of the group's four albums for Atlantic Records.

The follow-up, 2003's transitional “Payable On Death,” featured Jason Truby on guitar. It was a reasonably accomplished album but didn't click, artistically or with fans, nearly as well as the high-flying “Satellite.” Curiel subsequently formed The Accident Experiment, then watched as his new band and old bands both stalled.

Whether he left P.O.D. voluntarily or not remains as unclear as the circumstances surrounding his recent return. But no matter. This reunion is a welcome one, a contention that should be further bolstered when P.O.D. performs Monday at downtown's Hard Rock Cafe on behalf of Musicians on Call (an organization that provides live and recorded music for convalescing medical patients).

Sounding older and wiser, Curiel and his bandmates – rapper-singer Paul “Sonny” Sandoval, bassist Mark “Traa” Daniels and drummer Noah “Wuv” Bernardo – deliver these 13 songs with polish, precision and a sense of unity that suggests their time apart helped solidify their musical and personal bonds.

The fire and ferocity of P.O.D.'s best previous work still burns bright on such songs as “God Forbid” and “Kaliforn-Eye-A” (which feature, respectively, cameos by Helmet guitarist Paige Hamilton and Suicidal Tendencies vocalist Mike Muir). But it's during the softer moments, such as the questioning acoustic ballad “Tell Me Why” and the meticulously layered “Rise Against,” that P.O.D. best demonstrates its new maturity, dynamic range and emotional and musical depth.

“End of the World,” a heartfelt lament with a tasteful string arrangement by Susie Katayama, seems designed to broaden the band's audience without alienating its original fan base. “Angels' ” ambitious title track is a moody, constantly shifting piece that features some of Curiel's most assured guitar work, while the Pink Floyd-tinged “Rise Against” slowly builds to an eerie crescendo before gently dissolving.

Built on a blazing chorus of guitars and Daniels' and Bernardo's rock-solid rhythmic attack, the album-opening “Addicted” bristles with energy and confidence. So does the skittering “Shine With Me,” one of P.O.D.'s most overtly romantic songs in memory. Sandoval's tuneful singing on “Shine” indicates his work last year with vocal coach Mark Renk paid off, although its refrain – My love is like la-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la – suggests either lazy lyric writing or a missed deadline.

Another lyrical lapse occurs on the mid-tempo “Condescending,” otherwise one of the album's more arresting songs. Sandoval's bristling declaration – I can't / Can't do what you say / I can't / Can't do it your way – strongly evokes a profanity-free rewrite of Rage Against The Machine's charged I won't do what you tell me refrain on 1992's anthemic “Killing in the Name.”

Other songs sound more like what executives at P.O.D.'s record company lobbied for to ensure maximum commercial potential than what the band may have desired. Witness “It Can't Rain Everyday,” which suggests Carlos Santana fronting Red Hot Chili Peppers on a sequel to “Scar Tissue.” Then, there's “This Ain't No Ordinary Love Song,” a wave-your-hands-in-the-air power ballad built on a “House of the Rising Sun”-ish guitar progression, and the reggae-infused “I'll Be Ready,” which manages to sound both earnest and calculated.

But such moves aren't surprising at a time when the record industry is imploding. And if P.O.D.'s members make a few compromises on “When Angels and Serpents Dance,” their concessions are generally offset by the band's increased confidence and sense of purpose.