When George H. Bush’s voice comes through the speakers at the start of P.O.D.’s new album, you know something different is at hand. Payable On Death has decided to jump through a fiery hoop few rock and roll bands survive – the concept album. The Who did it twice with Tommy and Quadrophenia. Pink Floyd pulled it off in grand fashion with The Wall. Queensryche did it for heavy metal with the elaborate Operation Mindcrime.
All the success stories have one common thread: good songs. “Comfortably Numb,” “Pinball Wizard,” “The Real Me” and “Love Reign O’er Me” all lived on in spite of the storyline from which they were pulled.
Queensryche seemingly pulled off the impossible because they loaded Mindcrime up with so many great songs – “Revolution Calling,” “I Don’t Believe in Love,” “Spreading the Disease,” “The Needle Lies,” “Eyes of a Stranger” and the title track. “Speak” and “Suite Sister Mary” are no throwaways, either. It was hard rock with a conscience, as the storyline wove in and out of love, betrayal, drugs, murder and corrupt corporate leadership. The dialogue alone on the album was quite compelling.
Now, our favorite hardcore/hip-hop hybrid boys from Southtown bring a tall order to the table. The storyline is dramatic and somewhat compelling: A young man has lost his way, confronted with the truth and (spoiler alert) forgiveness. While the dialogue is sometimes delivered in a less-than-compelling manner, the story still works; but what make this album stand on its own and not fail as an artistic statement is the songwriting. They rock, they can move you and they show the band at the top of their game.
Guitarist Marcos Curiel really shines on this album, displaying tight, aggressive and tough playing, great tone and feeling throughout the entire record. Wuv Bernardo’s drumming sounds prominent and especially powerful in several songs (listen to “Get Down”) and frontman Sonny Sandoval mixes it up between talk-singing, screaming and melodically crooning; his vocals are compelling throughout The Awakening. Bassist Traa Daniels doesn’t necessarily stand out, but that’s a good thing — if you listen carefully, he’s right in the pocket, holding it all together with steady playing.
Songs like the lead-off track, “Am I Awake,” “This Goes Out to You” and “Criminal Conversations” bear repeated listens. While the imprint of the “concept album” dialogue is heavy-handed, once these songs start, you can almost forget you’re part of a story — and that’s a good thing. “Rise of NWO” finds the band churning out great intensity, while “Criminal Conversations” swells up with a melodic chill that conjures “Satellite” or “Goodbye for Now.” The heavier follow-up, “Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me,” swings hard dynamically and has the passion of a tune like “Anything Right.”
“Speed Demon” and “Revolucion” both rip along at a hardcore pace that tilts the energy levels, the latter of which might turn into a fan favorite. “Want It All” is a real departure, with some jazzy horns. I know I’ll be listening to tunes like the title track, “Am I Awake” and “This Goes Out to You” many years from now. They feel like they’ll have lasting and staying power.
When looking back at P.O.D.’s amazing career, there’s probably going to be some landmark albums that stand out in most fan’s minds — the multi-Platinum Satellite, the major label debut (and third full-length) Fundamental Elements of Southtown and Testify, with its guest appearances from Matisyahu are all at the top. I’d include 2012’s Murdered Love as a return to the band’s high bar of excellence.
This one is not far behind.