For more than 20 years, feisty Boston-area rocker Sully Erna played drums for various bands across Massachusetts, including Meliah Rage and Strip Mind. Having banged on the drums since he was three years old, he thought about music in beats and rhythms as much as melodies. So, it’s not surprising that when he put away his drums and picked up a mic and guitar and started writing his own songs, they were heavily percussive and sometimes tribal. Most importantly, though, they balanced surging melodic riffs with catchy, aggressive vocals that captured the attention of fans in search of something heavier than grunge and alt-rock.
Even so, there’s no question that the heavier grunge bands were instrumental in Erna’s development as a songwriter. Godsmack shares their name with an Alice In Chains tune and many of Godsmack’s songs are embellished with minor-key harmonies redolent of AIC. But Erna was also inspired by the vocal cadences and consumer-friendly choruses of commercial hard rock bands he grew up listening to on the radio as well as post-Black Album-era Metallica.
When Erna launched Godsmack with bassist Robbie Merrill, guitarist Lee Richards, and drummer Tommy Stewart, they called themselves The Scam. One demo later, they changed their name to Godsmack, earned strong radio support in Boston for the songs “Keep Away” and “Whatever,” and developed a local following that quickly spread. Now, decades later, we’re rounding up just a few of the group’s best songs.
All Wound Up and Everywhere to Go: Godsmack and Awake (1998-2000)
Godsmack’s 1997 self-financed, self-released debut All Wound Up was quickly picked up by Republic/Universal. After removing some uncleared samples, changing the track running order, and hiring producer Mudrock to remix part of the album and completely remaster it, the disc was released as the band’s eponymous debut in 1998. By 2001 it had gone quadruple platinum, and during that time Godsmack kept that fire blazing with their second full-length release, 2000’s Awake. The follow-up was more raw and powerful, while incorporating experimental touches like the spoken-word track “Vampires,” that served as a welcome diversion from the more conventionally structured singles.
Deftly merging gritty metal, nu metal, and grunge, “Whatever” employed lyrical repetition, chunky guitars riffs capped with squalling pedal effects, and confrontational attitude to create a song that inspired stadium shout-alongs. Erna’s dynamic vocals built from pained verses to harmonized pre-choruses reminiscent of his favorite Seattle band and peaked at the chorus with angry melodies delivered with melodic flair. Lyrically, Erna tapped into youthful insecurity and resentment with the chorus, “I’m doing the best I ever did/ I’m doing the best that I can/ Now, go away!” – a refrain embraced by a legion of frustrated teens who turned to Godsmack to feel validated and understood.
The only song on the band’s self-titled debut with references to the occult, “Voodoo” nonetheless fueled right-wight religious groups who pointed to the song title and lyrical references to “demons” and “candles.” Their crusade was strengthened by Erna’s public admission to being a practicing Wiccan (a white witch who worships nature and believes in karma), and the album was subsequently banned from Wal-Mart and Kmart and affixed with a parental advisory label. It didn’t hurt sales at all. “Voodoo” is one of Godsmack’s most effective numbers, contrasting sedated vocals, tribal beats, and a meandering bass line with haunting harmonies and spare, cutting guitars and a freak-out solo. The closest Godsmack get to stoner rock, the song is a refreshing, hallucinogenic slow burn that hints at paths the band would take in the future.
The song that broke the band on Boston radio in 1997 (and eventually to a larger rock audience), “Keep Away” is driven by a combination of betrayal and anger, coupled with melody and groove. While the bulk of the song is composed of a tuneful, grungy, slippery metal riff, the mid-section (right before the solo), features an off-tempo beat and short, sharp, guitar line that illustrates the band’s affection for Led Zeppelin. Lyrically, “Keep Away” is pretty self-explanatory, and encapsulates Erna’s ire following a bad relationship: “Do like I told you/ Stay away from me/ Never misunderstand me/ Keep away from me.”
One of the band’s most bombastic early songs, “Awake” blends dense, down-tuned guitar lines with tumbling beats and a soaring refrain. Erna’s after-line exhalations earned him comparisons to Metallica’s James Hetfield, which never bothered Erna or fans. However, the constant comparisons to Alice In Chains’ vocal harmonies began to irritate Godsmack, who used the technique more sparingly on their next album. Recognizing the abundant levels of testosterone in the song, the United States Navy used it in their “Accelerate Your Life” recruiting advertisements.
The first Godsmack song to be nominated for a Grammy Award (for best Rock Instrumental” in 2001), “Vampires” substitutes Erna’s vocals with soundbites about vampires and the “overtone of sexual lust, power and control they exhibit.” The band layers these samples over a bed of atmospheric sound effects and a thick chunky riff, drawing comparison to industrial metal bands like Ministry and White Zombie. After the barrage of samples, Rombola’s guitar parts become the primary focus, and he augments them with abrupt rhythmic shifts, layered effects, and a dissonant wah-wah solo. At the end of the song, Godsmack return to spoken word bits about “the “dark and hidden parts of our psyche [that] are around and captivated by the legends of the undead.”
The Contrasting Faces of Godsmack: Faceless, The Other Side, IV (2003-2006)
When Godsmack finished touring for Awake, Tommy Stewart left the band for the second time. After a short search, Godsmack replaced him with veteran drummer Shannon Larkin, who had crossed paths with Erna when both were drumming for bands in the 90s. Having played in bands as diverse as Candlebox (grunge lite), Amen (nu-metal), Ugly Kid Joe (hard rock), and Wrathchild America (thrash), Larkin had the chops for every occasion, and was just as adept at playing slow, sentimental ballads as he was in bashing out heavy punk-oriented beats. While Erna remained Godsmack’s frontman and songwriter, Larkin was the secret weapon that gave the band the flexibility and lockstep groove that became a group trademark.
“I Stand Alone”
Written as the title song for the film Scorpion King, “I Stand Alone” shudders with scorn and contempt, and while the lyrics are about the main character in the film, the sentiment they express about an outcast rebel hero with a hint of vulnerability fits fist in glove with many of Erna’s personal lyrics. The song marked the band’s debut with Larkin and blended seamlessly with the other tracks on 2003’s Faceless. The verse of the song chugs and crashes like something from Load-era Metallica, while the chorus is driven by an off-kilter percussive riff complemented by a shrieky guitar passage. At the bridge, the band slows down, and the arrangement turns mildly psychedelic, with a wash of rumbling noise and eerie vocal harmonies that express both the cinematic vibe of the song and the band’s trademark rage: “I’m not afraid of fading/ Feeling your sting down inside of me/ I’m not dying for it/ Everything I believe is fading/ I stand alone.”
“Straight Out of Line”
The first single written specifically for Faceless, “Straight Out of Line” starts with explosions, whirring helicopter blades, and shouted military commands, before launching into a far more complex song than its intro would suggest. The music opens with a lurching, enigmatic bass and drum-heavy rhythm reminiscent of Tool before the guitars build and the band launches into a simple, infectious chorus. Then, Godsmack enters into bad acid hallucination mode with tribal beats, heavily modulated guitars, and a wah-wah saturated solo. For all its musical complexity, however, the lyrics are predictably angsty: “Straight out of line/ I can’t find a reason why I should justify my way/ Straight out of line, I don’t need a reason/ You don’t need to lie to me.” None of that stopped the song from hitting #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart (like so many of the band’s singles) or being nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Hard Rock Performance.”
Between Faceless and IV, Godsmack released an acoustic EP featuring three new songs and four revamped album tracks. To record the EP, the band sojourned to the tranquil environs of Hawaii’s Avex Honolulu Studios with producer David Bottrill, who produced Faceless, but also had experience working with Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, and Tool. “Running Blind” starts like an open chord Neil Young folk number and evolves into its own melancholy beast when Larkin joins in on Afro-Cuban percussion. Along with a haunting vocal harmony and a poignant arpeggio, “Running Blind” musically matches the edgy sensitivity of Erna’s lyrics.
Before writing IV, Erna engaged in some intense soul-searching and didn’t like what he saw. So, he came clean to his girlfriend about all the excessive drinking and debauchery he had indulged in on the road and begged her forgiveness. On “Speak,” the first single from the album, Erna drops the gloves, opens up his heart, and begs for forgiveness. “Speak the truth, or make your peace some other way/ I never knew, but I believe that you’re trusting in me,” he repeatedly sings, as if the more he repeats it, the more likely he is to receive a full pardon. Musically, the song employs crunchy, staccato guitars and syncopated vocals with yearning vocals, mirroring the turmoil of Erna’s lyrics.
“Releasing the Demons”
Here’s a fun fact: Independent talk show host Michael Smerconish has used Godsmack’s “Releasing the Demons” as bumper music between news segments. The song might work better as an advertisement for the WWE. Either way, how it begins with a testosterone-filled riff and then drops to a shimmering, ambient arpeggio before bursting back into full-on rage mode is pretty crafty, and maybe that’s the kind of stuff Smerconish reaches for when he’s getting pumped for his show. The arrangement provides welcome dynamics to this confessional song about venting self-destructive habits and trying to hide from the negative fallout only to experience a karmic backlash – a tenet of Wicca – that leaves Erna on the precipice of madness. “Facing’ the days as I grow into my own/ Loving and hating’s the same/ And three-fold I told you, it comes back with laughter/ Over and over again.”
Return to Form and Escaping the Norm: The Oracle, 1000HP (2010 – 2014)
“Cryin’ Like a Bitch”
Pugnacious and unrelenting, Godsmack returned to straight-up crunching metal with minimal frills on “Cryin’ Like a Bitch” from 2010’s The Oracle. Much of the song is based on a muted, single-chord riff that creates tension before exploding like a Fourth of July firework. The redundancies make the rhythmic diversions stand out – like the chorus which replaces precision chugging with sparse, sustained chords. In keeping with the tone of the music, self-deprecating sensitivity is abandoned here in favor of raw unadulterated revenge: “Step out of line and you get bitch-slapped back/ And you can run your little mouth all day/ But the hand of God just smacked you back into yesterday.”
“Saints and Sinners”
A brooding bassline and a gradual rising wave of feedback opens this driving track, which builds from a trademark, lunging passage to a burst of staccato noise enhanced by Erna’s agonized vocals. Thanks partly to Larkin’s rhythmic agility, the song switches back and forth between buzzing dissonance and chant-along euphoria without listeners being able to pinpoint when the sonic peaks and valleys will hit. The tumult makes a solid backdrop for lyrics about dysfunctional upbringings, and how the insecurity the engender interferes with later opportunities in life. “Grown from a seed of hope I’ve never known/ Been raised by the surroundings of a home so cold/ If only I knew what I know/ I’ll shake my fists to the sky just to keep my dreams alive.”
With 1000HP, Godsmack wrote more collaboratively than ever, yielding a record that demonstrates different approaches and previously untested structures. True to its title, Godsmack strayed from their proven formula on “Something Different” without sacrificing intensity. The song addresses how overcoming addiction or other hardships can render someone unrecognizable to themselves. The band accompanies the profundity with music that is more contemplative than agonized. The track begins with acoustic arpeggiated power chords and gradually builds with a soundboard of production effects that create elongated atmospherics with flangers, reverbs, and other surprising tones. At the refrain, Godsmack enter alt-punk mode with a riff that sounds like a cross between Green Day and Nirvana. Shimmering violins provide additional window dressing, proving that Godsmack are just as capable of experimentation and exploration as they are in making new sounds with old tropes.
Rockin’ Into The Sunset: When Legends Rise, Lighting Up the Sky (2018-2023)
After 20 years as the frontman of a metal band, Erna wanted to explore other musical avenues that had inspired him in his youth. With 2018’s When Legends Rise, Godsmack let down their defenses, loosened up their rhythmic rigidity and toned down the sonic tension and intensity that had kept them entrenched in the metal world. And while it didn’t cause a seismic shift in their following (it was far too late for that), it gave them new territory to roam and new songs to perform between their barbed, chugging classics.
For the first single from When Legends Rise, Godsmack drew heavily from the hard rock format that has worked so well for Halestorm and Papa Roach. The track relies heavily on strong, melodic vocals, toned-down guitars, high-tech keyboards, and other production frills, courtesy of noted emocore producer Erik Ron. Lyrically, the song is a typical Godsmack relationship ditty: “You’re trying to blame me, but I’m not breaking/ I’m telling you I’m bulletproof,” with Erna assuming the role of the hero who was wronged but will overcome his heartbreak. Musically, however, the new songwriting approach makes the band sound less hostile and more welcoming. “Bulletproof” may be yet another song of defiance, but ultimately the sentiment is far more hopeful than it is bleak.
Released five years after When Legend Rise, Godsmack have implied Lighting Up the Sky will be their last studio album. If that’s the case, they’ve nicely tied up their career with a barbed wire bow, returning to producer Andrew Murdock, who guided them through the raw, raging sound of their first two albums. At the same time, they’ve written an energized hard rock record that follows in the rousing, upbeat (at least musically) wake of When Legends Rise. “Surrender,” a sonically contagious track about the painful end of a romantic relationship, was co-written with Erik Ron (who produced When Legends Rise) and exhibits the same pumping (but not over-inflated) hard rock vibe that dominated that release. Like Foo Fighters at their most euphoric, Godsmack have converted heartache into something to smile and jump up and down about. Coming at the tail end of a looming decades-long shadow of spiteful, haunting, distortion-saturated metal, maybe that’s not such a bad way to end a loud, conflict-riddled legacy.