With When Angels & Serpents Dance a new P.O.D. has emerged. A new version that will be a subdued 180 for die-hard fans expecting the usual track-to-track unleashing hybrid of rock, reggae and hip-hop. Those expecting to hear the P.O.D. who stormed onto the rap-rock scene in 1999 with Fundamental Elements of Southtown will be thoroughly disappointed. But fans that couldn’t get enough of soaring power rock ballads like “Satellite” and “Alive” will find more than a few, albeit mellower, nuggets to savor.
Acknowledging the impending backlash and “gone soft” response from die-hard fans — a.k.a. the Warriors — the San Diego quartet addresses the sonic pink elephant via the accompanying album press release, “… we decided to explore new territory because, we all have families and we’re not 18 and punk rocking in garages anymore.”
Yes, much has changed for P.O.D. since the days of garage jamming in 1992. In the wake “Satellite’s” multi-platinum success, circa 2002, lead guitarist Marcos Curiel abruptly exited to pursue a side project. P.O.D. questioned the future, but ultimately filled the massive gap with Christian-metal band Living Sacrifice’s guitarist John Truby to record its next two albums. What followed was a slow decent into a world of less than platinum and barely gold album sales, a self-imposed departure from original label home Atlantic Records. At the end of 2006, before the recording of Angels began, P.O.D. reunited with Curiel. Rumors about the reason why the guitarist left cited “spiritual indifferences” between Curiel and the other members, but whatever the reason, the band clearly missed his superb guitar work, and welcomed him back, returning to him the reigns of a band he co-founded.
Over 13 tracks, a post-rap-rock P.O.D. has disappeared; what emerges is a laid back, more expansive and ballad-loving quartet, one that is nothing like the major label debut band heard on Elements and the multi-platinum Satellite. But as the last track “Rise Against” dissolves, a disappointing carbon copy of what we’ve already heard before lingers on the brain. There’s reggae, punk rock and heavy metal riffs — Curiel’s masterful interpretations of his influences (Slayer, Santana, and Metallica) — crawling over every track. But the biggest change is the absence of a the rap-rock fusion, sampling or scratching that made previous tracks “Rock the Party (off The Hook)” and “Southtown” MTV’s TRL and radio hits.
P.O.D. summons Helmet’s Paige Hamilton to help deliver the thrash metal and scowling vocals, alongside front man Sonny Sandoval on “God Forbid”. The raucous punk and rhythms of home-state anthem “Kaliforn-Eye-A”, featuring Suicidal Tendencies’s Mike Muir, rock hard and good, but in the company of other more mature tracks and ballads, the lyrical home-turf chest thumping is rote. And we already know how much P.O.D. likes the Golden State.
The genuineness and passion of Sandoval is undeniable, but lyrical limitations have been apparent over the last two albums. He’s always relied on screaming or rapping, showing a gift for mixing poetic imagery, story telling and heart-on-your-sleeve lyrics to connect with fans on a personal level. At times, Sandoval moves up a notch lyrically, but as with previous P.O.D. songs, I had a strong feeling that he was holding back for fear of offending his fans, a mostly Christian audience who fully embraced P.O.D. even before the band cracked the mainstream in 1999. To understand why P.O.D. makes the records they do is to understand how they found an audience; they successfully created a niche by lyrically mixing elements of the Christian faith with the Rastafarian beliefs and Bob Marley “One Love” vibe, then melded them into a workable template of rap-rock-reggae that was deemed acceptable and grew in popularity in the Christian subculture. I wouldn’t call the band sell-outs to their own fans, but it’s understandable that an act like P.O.D. would be afraid of alienating their fanbase, and ultimate suppliers of their income. Rock and roll history has had its share of artists risking loss of fans in search of artistic growth, but P.O.D’s situation is certainly unique, as it’s a constant struggle between appeasing fans and letting the band grow, which makes Angels even more of a critical album.
So immediately Sandoval rips open his heart with the raw lead track “Addicted”, a grinding and shifting blend of rock and punk that painfully describes the physical and psychological struggles of addiction. Sandoval, with the Warriors in mind, has always been cautious of what he expresses in song, and “Addicted” is one of his most challenging compositions. It’s also a surprise to hear him (actually) sing and attack a topic like war so openly and vividly on “Tell Me Why”. Minus the opaqueness — he doesn’t specifically mention Iraq — it’s a bold move forward in the context of his previous songs about controversial topics.
P.O.D. takes other risks with soaring ballads, allowing Sandoval to explore his signing/crooning abilities on “End of the World”, “This Is No Ordinary Love Song” and several others. But, again, it’s much of the same heard on previous albums when the band needed a rest between explosions of rock, metal and punk.
Sandoval taps his talent for empathizing with his fellow man on “It Can’t Rain Everyday”, following the same song structure he used to tell the poignant contemporary gem “Youth of the Nation”. In response to various school shootings, he told a chilling multi-part story as seen through the eyes of desperate high school student. The band’s love for reggae returns with a Marley sisters chorus during “I’ll Be Ready”, as Sandoval chants down the Babylon’s temporal temptations he finds as he strolls along Hollywood Boulevard, fighting to keep his eyes to Zion. A spooky whisper of “emperio romano” floats underneath a stream of multi-tracked Curiel-led Spanish and electric guitars. All are solid songs filled with emotive power, but they fall short of delivering anything P.O.D. hasn’t done before in some way or another.
P.O.D.’s past success lies in Curiel’s versatile pallet, which can slip in and out of rock, reggae and metal at any moment, and aside from Sandoval’s few lyrical peaks, it’s the return of the surreal guitar work that keeps Angels from being a total waste of time.