Not many metal bands can remain popular after losing the singer that made them famous… Not many metal bands are Drowning Pool. The Dallas quartet not only bounced back after vocalist Dave Williams suddenly died of heart disease in 2002. Over the next 20 years, they recorded six more albums with three more singers. Even more impressively, they’ve retained their devoted fanbase with every transition. In part, Drowning Pool’s continued success is a result of the skill and charisma of each of their vocalists. But most of the credit – for at least the first two-thirds of their career – goes to the core songwriting team of guitarist C.J Pierce, bassist, Stevie Benton, and drummer Mike Luce. Indeed, the trio formed as an instrumental group, and didn’t even seek a singer for their first three years together. During that time, they learned how to write surging riffs, in-the-pocket grooves, and arrangements that flow with intensity.
Much of the band’s fury stems from frustration and loss. Following the death of Williams, Drowning Pool were soon at loggerheads with his replacement Jason “Gong” Jones, whose two years in the band were filled with acrimony. Their next vocalist, Ryan McCombs lasted for two albums, then split to rejoin his former band Soil. In addition, they’ve struggled through label and management changes, the death of producer Kato Khandwala who worked on two of their albums. And then came the pandemic, which began just as they were ready to release a new album, Strike a Nerve. That record finally came out in September 2022 and reaffirmed Drowning Pool as lifers with fuel to burn.
The Dave Williams Years
Once Drowning Pool recruited Dave Williams, they immediately transformed from an obscure instrumental outfit to stadium-ready rock stars. The band simplified their arrangements to highlight the pained urgency of their singer, and their hybrid of nu-metal, power groove, and grunge soon took hold. Even the tragedy of September 11 – which caused a shellshocked nation to re-examine many bands that wrote heavy, violent music – didn’t stop Drowning Pool’s debut album, Sinner, from going platinum.
The title track from Drowning Pool’s debut full-length was a microcosm of the band’s punching, pumping, and relentless rage. Fueled by surging, syncopated riffs, wah-wah pedal-saturated guitars, and dark, sparse grooves, “Sinner” is quick, catchy, and cathartic – balancing poppy minor-key vocals with more caustic screams, and melding nagging hooks with sharp, staccato guitar bursts. Lyrically, Williams relished being a maverick, celebrating his hedonistic lifestyle and inviting listeners to do the same: “Understand I’m a sinner…Don’t lecture me/Raise your hands, you’re a sinner.”
The song that launched Drowning Pool into the mainstream, “Bodies” blends a lunging, groove with effect-laden guitars and a simple, unforgettable chorus (“Let the bodies hit the floor!”). The track literally rises from a whisper (the vocal opening) to a scream, but it’s all the mid-ranged angst, expressed with understated verses, minor-key melodies, and funk flourishes – that make “Bodies” memorable.
The Gong Show
Desensitized was Drowning Pool’s first album following the death of Williams. The record revealed a band as furious and determined as ever. Rebound singer Jason “Gong” Jones was short-lived, yet his performance is admirable and allowed Drowning Pool to funnel their grief and anger back into their music. They continued pretty much where they left off, blending scorched metal and vulnerable alt-rock into a bleak, emotional exorcism.
“If you want to step up, you’re gonna get knocked down” was the message of the first single released with Jones on vocals. Maybe it was a typical tough guy boast, but it also spoke volumes to the smack-talkers who were convinced Drowning Pool could never bounce back with a new singer. Like “Sinner,” “Step Up” is an amalgam of melody and malice that mixes a propulsive metal rhythm with experimental guitar, tribal beats, and a post-grunge midsection that channels the ghost of Layne Staley. The public ate it up. In addition to receiving strong radio play, “Step Up” was featured in the soundtrack of the movie “The Punisher,” used as the theme song for WWE’s WrestleMania XX, and was included on MTV2 Headbangers Ball, Vol. 2.
Equally fueled by Soundgarden and Korn, “Numb” is a showcase of raw intensity. The only pause in the bludgeoning comes with the restrained guitar at the beginning of the chorus – a tool the band uses to build tension. Similarly, the softly sung passages are soon consumed by layered screams, wrangling wah-wah-filled guitars, and syncopated beats, maintaining an even balance of energized melody and downtuned demolition.
Return From the Abyss
Though Jones seemed like a good vocal fit for Drowning Pool, the personal chemistry just wasn’t there. Maybe it never had been. There were reports that the band was courting Soil singer Ryan McCombs to be on their second album before settling on Jones. When Soil broke up two years later, McCombs joined Drowning Pool, and the band headed right into the studio to record their 2007 album Full Circle.
Dedicated to the men and women of the U.S. Military (who felt a kinship with the scrappy band), “Soldiers” help earn Full Circle a slot in the top half of the Billboard 200. Playing to their audience, Drowning Pool begin the uptempo song with air raid sirens and include cries of “incoming!” machine gun fire, and explosions. For those who somehow missed the idea that the song is a soldiers’ tribute, there’s the roaring chorus: “Oooh-yeeh/This is for the soldiers.” A bit past the midway point in the song, Pierce layers a ringing acoustic guitar passage over a volley of marching drums, adding a nice touch of diversity to the battlefield anthem.
Reason I’m Alive
In an effort to hit the charts with a sentimental, yet sleazy power ballad, Drowning Pool hired Motley Crue bassist and songwriter Nikki Sixx to craft a cut for Full Circle. “Reason I’m Alive” wasn’t released as a single, but maybe it should have been. A multifaceted tear-jerker in the vein of Guns N’ Roses’ “Don’t Cry,” “Reason I’m Alive” rises above other ballads by injecting minor-key pre-chorus grunge harmonies, and Drowning Pool deliver their trademark, house-shaking riffs for the opener and kicker, maintaining their stamp on the song even when Sixx’s handicraft shines through.
Feel Like I Do
After touring for Full Circle, Drowning Pool released the live album Loudest Common Denominator in 2009. Then they returned to their home studio with McCombs to work on his second album with the band, Drowning Pool. For a while, they progressed swimmingly. The first single, “Feel Like I Do,” merged familiar elements but emphasized the band’s post-grunge sound more than previous releases, suffering little for the change; it reached number ten on the Billboard Hot Mainstream chart and climbed to #35 on the Billboard 200.
Let the Sin Begin
The opening track on Drowning Pool, “Let the Sin Begin” illustrates the then-14-year-old band striving to evolve without altering the formula too much. Pierce downplays wah-wah-saturated guitar swarms in favor of more distinct riff separation. Most significantly, the production is pristine, and the mix includes electronic embellishments likely encouraged by producer Kato Khandwala, who had already worked his studio magic with Papa Roach, Breaking Benjamin, and The Pretty Reckless. Lyrically, the album reflects McCombs family trauma (the death of his father, his divorce, and efforts to rebuild his life), and the personal trauma perfectly fuels the angst-fueled music. Then there was more trauma. Right when Drowning Pool seemed to have settled into a groove with McCombs, he abruptly left to rejoin his former group Soil, leaving Drowning Pool to rebuild yet again.
Perseverance Under Pressure
Instead of licking their wounds after McCombs’ departure, Drowning Pool soon hooked up with Jason Moreno, who delivers caustic screams and clean melodies with equal skill and credibility. For Resilience, Khandwala returned to the production seat and again guided the band through a baker’s dozen of tormented songs that shudder with betrayal, insecurity, and adrenalized fury.
One Finger and a Fist
The most heralded of Moreno’s first batch of tunes with Drowning Pool, “One Finger and a Fist” is a clarion call to defiance and self-reliance that conveys its chip-on-shoulder message before the band ever plays a note: “One finger and a fist/ I’ll claw my way out of any situation/ I got a one-two punch/ I’ll fight my way out of any confrontation,” screams Moreno. From there, Drowning Pool head to the showdown with guns blazing, Moreno repeating the shout-along intro/chorus between sturdy riffs, swaggering rhythms, and energized rhythms that would be an ideal musical backdrop for a rapid-edit NFL highlights reel.
Die For Nothing
Drowning Pool are adept at crafting commercial hard rock songs like “Saturday Night” and “Skip to the End,” but they remain at their best when they go for the throat – even when it’s their own. On “Die For Nothing” which veers musically from aching vulnerability to full-fisted aggression, Moreno seems torn between preaching nihilism and taking responsibility. “You can’t fix it, so you fuck it/… What about all the broken tears for the ones who’ve paved the way? / …Never give in, never give up/ Live for something, die for nothing.“ Though Drowning Pool remained anchored in devil-horn-throwing metal mode throughout, on “Die For Nothing,” Moreno proved he had a penchant for propelling emotional and sociological content without the aid of a box or tissues or a soapbox.
By the Blood
For their sixth studio album, Hellelujah, Drowning Pool hung onto their melodic edge, but ramped up their aggressive sound. Instead of recruiting Kato Khandwala, who helped spit-shine two albums, they hired metal veteran Jason Suecof, who is best known for working with thrash and death metal bands including Trivium, Death Angel, and The Black Dahlia Murder. Suecof’s metallic touch is evident right away in the Iron Maiden-esque opening riff of “By the Blood,” a song that starts with a technical flourish and progresses through funk-fueled passages, shreddy leads, headbanging sing-alongs, and a barrelling beat. As tough as Armored Saint, but catchy as Papa Roach, “By the Blood” captures Drowning Pool’s creativity without sacrificing their heaviness.
The first 30 seconds of “Snake Charmer” are like nothing Drowning Pool have previously released. Between the unconventional timing, the polyrhythmic beat, atmospheric, sustained guitar notes, and elongated screams, listeners might have thought they were listening to something by experimental metal band Gojira. Then the acid trip ends, and Drowning Pool lock into a 4/4 metal anthem. That said, experimentation still abounds. The pre-chorus is enhanced by an Alice in Chains-style harmony, and the chorus features textural, muted guitars that build into a clenched-teeth riff and thrash beat that will leave old-school fans wide-eyed and grinning.
Keep on Keeping On
There was a six-year gap between the tour for Hellelujah and the release of 2022’s Strike a Nerve. While the Covid-19 lockdown caused the album’s release date to be delayed, the pandemic didn’t change the way the band wrote or recorded the songs. Drowning Pool started working on the record in 2017 and began recording in early 2019 with Shawn McGhee, an engineer who has worked with Disturbed, In This Moment, Five Finger Death Punch, and Hellyeah. That, coupled with the stress of the era, ensured there was no shortage of aggression or contempt in songs like “Doing Time in Hell,” “Stay and Bleed,” and “Choke.”
Focusing on everything that makes them heavy, Drowning Pool turbocharge the scream factor on “Mind Right.” The song is propelled by rapid-fire guitar lines, pinch harmonics (reminiscent of Zakk Wylde), and hammering double-bass beats. And if only to prove they can up the ante on themselves, Drowning Pool pump up the tempo into blast beat territory halfway through the song while Moreno (the first Drowning Pool vocalist to make it past three albums) shreds his vocal cords to ribbons.
A Devil More Damned
If “Mind Right” is Drowning Pool at their most devastating, “A Devil More Damned” depicts the band in a more balanced light, but it’s not an uplifting experience. Playing on polar opposites, the band see-saws between a hellish war march and a dark, arpeggio-laden sing-along. The mid-section, a psychedelic excursion of yearning vocals, warped keyboards, harrowing sound effects, and a stuttering bass line, offers a welcome diversion from the maelstrom. With “A Devil More Damned,” Drowning Pool nicely tie together their tortured career arc with a barbed wire bow, perhaps inadvertently drawing a connection between Sinner and Strike a Nerve: “Fall in line, I’m the last/ Every sinner has a future, every saint has a past.” With the band members in full frontal attack mode and Moreno content right where he is, Drowning Pool again powered toward their strong, furious future.