It’s no secret that Godsmack has made a pretty good living by ripping off Alice in Chains. They named their band after a song off the Dirt album. Singer Sully Erna perfectly mimics the late Layne Staley’s low, guttural, sinister singing and snarly, metal-inspired growls. The band’s music is a faithful retread of Jerry Cantrell’s churning, tuned-down hard rock, which, when you look back, was always more metal than grunge. When you look at and listen to Godsmack, there is not a trace of originality, not a lick.
Funny, though, how a band like that can not only put out three commercially successful albums and build up a devoted fan base, but actually manage to sound half decent, all the while just churning out the same cookie-cutter hard rock time after time. The thing is, Godsmack do their Alice in Chains imitation extremely well at times, and despite the fact that they have never put out a truly great album, there’s always one or two songs of theirs that always sticks in your head, be it the slinky “Voodoo”, “Awake” (the best Metallica song that Metallica never recorded), or the thunderous, wonderfully lunkheaded “I Stand Alone”, the theme song from the equally wonderfully lunkheaded movie The Scorpion King. The band’s best songs have muscular riffs, passable headbanging rhythms, and most importantly, memorable melodies. Over the years, Godsmack have also turned into a very good live act, the intensity of their music working well in a live setting, and Erna really showing he’s one of the better hard rock frontmen out there. The music is no-frills, but Godsmack is earnest, and sometimes a band’s passion can make up somewhat for their musical limitations.
Godsmack are so earnest, in fact, that they want to prove they’re not just another dumb loud rock band, so they’ve released a new seven-track, 30-minute CD of acoustic songs, which, not so coincidentally, is what Alice in Chains did on their terrific Jar of Flies EP back 10 years ago. On this new CD, entitled The Other Side, Godsmack give their fans a little treat by sitting back, taking out the old acoustic guitars, dusting off the bongo drums, and unveiling three new compositions, as well as four wussy (oops, I mean “mellower”) interpretations of some well-known live favorites.
The new songs are an expectedly bumpy ride, sometimes sounding adequate, sometimes sputtering. “Running Blind” employs yet another Alice in Chains tactic, that being the overdubed combination of lower register and upper register vocals, and the lyrics are typically morose (“I can’t find the answers/ I’ve been crawling on my knees/ Looking for anything/To keep me from drowning”), but overall, it’s not altogether unpleasant. “Touche”, despite shamelessly flaunting a guest appearance by members of Dropbox, a recent signing to Erna’s new record label, is a good combination of grunge and Southern rock; “Voices”, though, is little more than a limp, dull performance. As for the older songs, they’re pretty much what you’d expect, as “Re-Align” (from 2003’s Faceless), “Spiral” (from 2000’s Awake), and “Keep Away” (from the 1997 eponymous debut) bear little difference from the original versions, the band plowing away with the same riffs, only on acoustic guitars. Only on the remake of the 2000 hit “Awake”, facetiously re-named “Asleep” here, does the band actually begin to show some creativity in their arrangements. The effect is haunting and desolate, as forlorn strains of piano echo Erna’s quavering vocals.
Unfortunately, that little burst of creativity is the one high point, as the rest of The Other Side plays it too safely. The overall effect is much like Pearl Jam’s very underwhelming, uninspired 1992 performance on MTV’s Unplugged, a merely brief curiosity for fans. In these dark, dark days of Nickelback, Finger Eleven, and Linkin Park, Godsmack, while sticking dutifully to their formula, have been able to tread the line between maudlin, sappy post-grunge and brainless, antisocial nu-metal with surprising success. On this CD, though, Godsmack means well, their hearts are in the right places, and it’s good of them to try to give their fans a temporary change from the usual fare, but everyone knows that this band is at their best when they’re simply a good Big Dumb Rock Band.