The Boston Phoenix November 2 - 9, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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The hard stuff

Godsmack and 6gig

Cellars by Starlight by Sean Richardson

Godsmack are more than just the biggest band to come out of Boston in years. Along with Creed, they're the torchbearers for simple, old-fashioned hard rock in a radio climate full of techno and hip-hop-influenced hybrids. On their new Awake, the band take the bitter sludge of their multiplatinum 1998 debut, Godsmack (both Republic/Universal), and strip it down even farther. The result is a heavy load of sure-to-be chart magic that follows in the footsteps of '90s-era Metallica: not too fast, not too fancy, and catchy in all the right spots.

godsmack "Our sound is pretty basic, really," says Godsmack singer Sully Erna over the phone from a tour stop in Tampa. "I couldn't rap to save my life. I mean, even if I wanted to, it just wouldn't work. Awake is just a straight-ahead rock record, even more so than the first record. On that one we used some sampling, there was a hip-hop feel on "Time Bomb" and everything. We didn't do any of that on this one. We wanted to get something more raw."

With its mountain of detuned guitars and anger-filled lyrics, the disc's first single, "Awake," is typically dark Godsmack fare. It's the kind of song that would have been accused of being metal in the days of grunge, could easily be accused of being grunge now, and will always be able to find its way onto the radio as long as there are American boys out there thirsting for hard rock. Erna matches his gruff vocals to the angst-ridden mood of the song while guitarist Tony Rombola spruces things up with a haphazard wah-wah solo that's straight out of the '70s rock playbook.

The group originally planned to record the disc at posh Long View Farm Studios in Central Massachusetts, but they soon moved the production to the decidedly less scenic environs of Haverhill's River's Edge Productions, a converted warehouse upstairs from a boxing gym. "When we started working on the record, I still had more writing to do," explains Erna. "I didn't want to step into this luxurious atmosphere, with in-house cooks and all that shit. I wanted to be around something more real, to stay closer to the streets. I had some issues to work out. You know, I definitely wasn't going to be writing about trees and flowers and shit like that."

Decide for yourself whether recording a disc in the ghetto makes it more authentic, but credit Godsmack for shunning major-label extravagance either way. They also retained the services of producer Mudrock, who had overseen the legendary bare-bones recording of Godsmack at Boston's New Alliance Studios. "We really wanted to work with him again because he did such a good job on the first record," says Erna. "He's such a great engineer. He and I have this great connection where I can just verbalize something and he'll dial up the sound right away. He'd done us solid when we had absolutely no money, so it made even more sense to use him again now that he's out in LA with an agent and everything, on his way up."

Awake builds up a thudding momentum that turns to monotony at times, but the band do branch out in a few welcome new directions on the disc. The closing "Spiral" opens with a trance-inducing percussion groove reminiscent of Godsmack's "Voodoo" before exploding into the album's most gut-wrenching chorus, an Eastern-sounding meditation on reincarnation that goes "Ride today/Live again/Here forever/The spiral never ends." "Vampires" is an instrumental that finds the group in crushing "Keep Away" mode, with a sampled television broadcast voiceover in place of Erna's vocals. "That was one of the first songs we wrote after we finished the first record, but I never heard lyrics over it," he points out. "One day I was sitting around the house watching this documentary about vampires on the Discovery Channel. I thought it was perfect for the song, so I taped it."

The group's sound hasn't changed dramatically, but two years of touring the world has brought the members of Godsmack much closer to one another than they were when they recorded their first disc as a fledgling local band. "Our playing got a lot more together when we were on the road," says Erna. "I know in the past it's been the opposite for a lot of bands -- people end up fighting all the time when they're on tour or whatever. But we've really learned to respect each other, and it's helped us perform better. At first we would kind of struggle about what direction we should take, who was steering the ship, things like that. So I think we've definitely benefitted from all that time on the road."

When they're not on tour, all four members of the group still live in metro Boston, and between Mudrock and manager Paul Geary, they've also maintained a largely homegrown organization. That's something Erna is particularly proud of. "Being in a band that made it out of Boston is like living out a dream for me. It's the way I always wanted it to happen rather than jumping into some band that was already together in LA or something. It means a lot more to me personally this way."

He also insists that Godsmack have been way too busy to let success go to their heads. "We spend so much of our time trying to make better music and put on a better show that we always just end up getting absorbed in the moment. We're still kind of in denial, actually -- we spent so many years struggling that sometimes we still peek out behind the curtains before a show to see if anyone's there, even though we know it's sold out. The most exciting part about it is getting to meet all these bands that we've looked up to for so long. The first really big deal for me was getting to play with Black Sabbath. I mean, I got to sing `Heaven and Hell' on stage with them -- come on! We're just fans, really. We still get starstruck."

When their current tour with Stone Temple Pilots ends, Godsmack will represent rock's old school when they meet up with Limp Bizkit and DMX for a few dates. "That should be really cool, because Limp Bizkit gets a younger audience than we do. It's always cool to expand your fan base. Then we're going to take some time off to come up with a new production for our next headlining tour, which will probably start around March.

Like Godsmack, Portland's 6gig are a commercial-sounding metal quartet with a major-label deal. But that's where the similarities end. Formed just over a year ago, the youthful group rode an early wave of industry hype to a deal with Ultimatum Music, which just released their debut, Tincan Experiment. The baggy shorts and Korn braids in their publicity photos might suggest rage rock, but a quick listen to their sensitive, sonically adventurous brand of metal reveals something closer to the borderline-emo of bands like Incubus and Deftones.

6gig "I listen to a lot of angrier bands and I definitely like some of that stuff, but it's not really who I am," says 6gig singer Walter Craven. "I'm not really an angry person. It would probably sound ridiculous if I tried to sing like that or write those kind of lyrics." He cites Michael Stipe, Chris Cornell, and Jeff Buckley as influences on his singing and songwriting. "But that doesn't really describe the way we play. I learned how to play guitar listening to Metallica and stuff like that. I have a sweet tooth for heavy guitar sounds. When it comes to lyrics and melodies, though, this band is not about being pissed off."

Craven's airy vocals provide the hooks on thoughtful tracks like "Yesterday" and the album's stomping lead single, "Hit the Ground." He also displays a virtuoso touch with the Digitech Whammy Pedal, the new-metal generation's bleeping-and-whizzing guitar effect of choice. Now that they've got an album in stores, the band are embarking on their first extended tour, a seven-week jaunt that will take them out to the Midwest and back. Craven is fully aware of the key role touring plays in breaking bands of 6gig's sort -- major-label deal or not -- and he's ready to bring his rock to the masses. "We got a little paranoid about not playing that many shows while we were waiting for the album to come out. In the past we've gone out for a week here, a week there, but this time we'll be hitting lots of radio shows and Christmas parties, stuff like that."

Having recently returned from a short trek with J Mascis, who shares both a label and a management team with the band, 6gig already have one sweet opening gig under their belt. "That was really awesome," says Craven. "I had never seen Dinosaur Jr., so I didn't really know what to expect. Every show was packed, and there were lots of younger kids there who were really into us. We did a lot of hanging out with J and [current touring bassist] Mike Watt. Everyone we've met on the road so far has been really cool, but they were the coolest. Just total regular guys."

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