If you've enjoyed P.O.D.'s earlier work The Fundamental Elements Of Southtown or even 1996's Brown, there's a good chance you're going to have a hard time swallowing P.O.D.'s latest effort. Those who thought the band had compromised musically with Satellite, may find their ears bleeding upon their first experience of Payable On Death.
With a new guitarist and an attempt to get back to their roots (whatever that means), P.O.D. takes a more radio-friendly approach with this produced-to-the-gills follow-up. The rock is softer, the vocals more melodic, and the songs less powerful. So what's there to like about P.O.D.'s Payable On Death? Little, yet in some ways, enough.
As someone who has enjoyed their earlier work, I admit I'm torn over how I feel about this record. See, when some artists change their style along with the times or just as part of a natural progression, two things seem to often happen. If the sound is fresh and easily accepted by the majority of their fans, the band has made a successful growth spurt. However, if the sound is too different from what people can accept from the band, the album can be deemed as a great record but at the same time a terrible one for what that artist has become known for. For example, Jars Of Clay's 1999 record If I Left The Zoo was a risky and eccentric alt-pop venture. As a collection of songs, it was unique and different. But for a band who released an unforgetable and history-altering release as their 1995 self-titled debut, Zoo was a major disappointment. Likewise for P.O.D. fans (aka Warriors) who've followed them since the beginning, Payable On Death is a letdown. The hard-driving aggressive sound that defined P.O.D. as a band over their long-running career is restrained and suppressed on the new record. Melodies take the place of where power and aggression once drove the emotion for defining tracks like "Southown," "Freestyle," and "Lie Down." In fact, it's pure irony that this record is named after the band as it changes all we've come to know about them... but in a good way? Well, that depends on your musical preferences. The new sound is more accessible to the masses. People who wouldn't even give P.O.D. a second of their attention before will be more likely to purchase this album. But isn't that what some fans consider the band "selling out"? Perhaps it's just part of the evolution of the band's sound and the effects of a significant change in personnel? But when does music crossover from the evolution of an artist's sound to downright selling out?
At first listen, my heart was crushed by what sounds permeated from my speakers and into my ears. While their 2001 album Satellite was their first move towards a tamer composition with more radio-friendly tunes, it was an all-around pretty solid modern rock album. Where the band goes with Payable On Death only intensifies the pop sensibilities heard on Satellite and explores that avenue. From the opening riff of "Wildfire," it's clear the band is going for a more melodic approach. When Sonny's vocals kick in, we're greeted with a style that first comes off obnoxious and almost sloppy but seems to flow a little better with each repeat listen. It's clear it's new and risky territory for the guys, but it still doesn't work as well as they probably think it does. In many ways, it feels like a step backwards for the band. Since P.O.D.'s sudden rise in popularity in CCM (and mainstream), we've seen similar artists surface like PAX217, Justifide, and Pillar with labels hoping for new artists to follow in the Southtown boys' footsteps. While those artists and others like them have shown talent in what they do, they never seemed to come close to the maturity in songwriting that P.O.D. displayed and often felt like watered-down pop-versions of them instead. Now where possibly the greatest irony lies on Payable On Death is in the fact that P.O.D. often sounds moreso like those artists that have emulated them than what they've made a name for themselves with. Songs like "Change The World" offer melodies so similar to those PAX are known for that it just doesn't even sound like P.O.D. Other tracks like "Find My Way," a song about pressing on in the Christian walk, are great rock songs despite resembling some of the artists trapped in today's repetitive modern rock scene. Still, the guys prove they can do this style of music, too and excel at it.
Several tracks do show potential for growing on the rock listener and the diehard fan, namely the hit single "Will You" and "Asthma" which deliciously offers more of the classic aggressive approach listeners are used to. But possibly the most memorable track is the album's closer, the completely instrumental "Eternal," possibly the band's most intriguing instrumental offering to date.
All in All, Payable On Death offers enough catchy pop / modern rock to make this record worth a listen. It's clearly a bold and defiant step for the San Diego-bred quartet that won't be welcomed with open arms by every fan of aggressive rock. A few tracks are stand-outs but are unfortunately too scarce to make this a classic. We've heard better from P.O.D. and we can only hope that Payable On Death won't prove that the band's best is already behind them.- Review date: 11/1/03, written by John DiBiase
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