Shinedown has been on one hell of a roller coaster ride since they first started gaining a following as the opening band for 3 Doors Down. From their humble beginnings as a post-grunge band in the early-2000s, the band slowly built momentum, riding on their praiseworthy live show and infamously powerful frontman, Brent Smith (known once upon the time as “The Preacher”). Their raw debut LEAVE A WHISPER eventually gave way to the US AND THEM – a more progressive, blues-rock influenced sophomore album that shot them into the limelight. This ascension was aided in part by the support of Chris Daughtry, who would perform their track “I Dare You” to the nation while still a contestant on American Idol.
Then, sometime in between the release of their sophomore effort and their third album, something happened. As a band frequently plagued with rumors and whispers that they were the spawn of label interference and control, the group seemed to be imploding on itself: guitarist Jasin Todd was unceremoniously fired citing drug problems, followed soon thereafter by bassist Brad Stewart. In the interim, touring guitarist Zach Myers found himself thrust into a legitimate position in the band and Nick Perri – a friend of the band who had frequently toured alongside them in the criminally short-lived rock group Silvertide – stepped in as temporary lead guitarist. Soon after, the band released their breakthrough album, THE SOUND OF MADNESS, which launched the band into the stratosphere and solidified them as legitimate, international superstars.
It was around this time that the nature of the band began to be seriously called into question. As far back as their debut, the group had become infamous (though significantly less so up until this point) for using outside writing partners in the crafting of their songs. Indeed, Smith often called upon other producers to help him write his songs, including Rick Beato, John Shanks and what amounted to an unofficial fifth member, Tony Battaglia. Interestingly, their sophomore became what seemed to be the most pure and unified vision of what the band represented: using (mostly) only this-time-producer Battaglia as an outside writing consultant, many of the songs limited additional writing partners and even gave the rest of the band more of a hand in the creative process (go figure!). Yet, once half of the founding members were ejected from the group – including the now-more-creatively-involved Stewart – the label seemed poised to mold Shinedown into the act that they had been long-rumored to want them to be: the Brent Smith show.
At this point, Smith and drummer Barry Kerch – the last remaining founding member – entered the studio to record what would become THE SOUND OF MADNESS. Produced by Rob Cavallo and employing studio musicians, Smith abandoned all past writing partners in order to team up with label-approved songwriter Dave Bassett. The result was a stunningly successful rock record that polarized the fan base, one that replaced the rawness of their debut and the tasteful, blues-rock of their sophomore with heavier and more generic Nickelback-esque rock ‘n’ roll. And having used studio musicians for the entire disc, the result was a fairly robotic listen that lacked the cohesion of a true band. Still, the band took it on the road (now featuring full-time members Zach Myers and new bassist Eric Bass) and earned staggering commercial success.
Four years later, the band have returned with AMARYLLIS, their first featuring this new line-up. The album reunites Smith with Cavallo, as well as writing partner Bassett. It even features the creative contribution of some of the band’s members – Myers on first single “Bully” and Bass on “Unity”, “Enemies” and “Nowhere Kids” – giving the album a much more “band-oriented” feel than its predecessor. For this reason alone, it’s a step above THE SOUND OF MADNESS, though certainly not a step as far in the right direction as long-time fans have been clamoring for since the undue departure of Todd and Stewart.
The album features a significant amount of variety, which is certainly to its benefit: full string sections, gang-vocals and even horns are scattered amongst the assortment of straight-up rockers and power ballads. Bass’ accomplished abilities as a pianist come to the rescue as well, adding a nice new texture to the group that was only sampled on MADNESS. In fact, it’s Bass’ musical capabilities that have kept Shinedown interesting since their very public implosion: his skills on both the piano and the upright bass – not to mention his impressive vocal capabilities – have given the group’s live show a fresh shot in the arm, twisting old favorites into unique arrangements. It’s a shame that these abilities aren’t put to better use on the record, where his creative input seems to have been minimal and his quirky stage choices have been stifled. It’s not surprising to see that there was little creative experimentation, though; this is Smith’s show, after all.
Still, the band’s presence is felt in a way that it wasn’t on MADNESS, and that’s good. Myer’s riffs are at least more human than the ones on the previous album, even if they’re still nothing to write home about and can’t stack up against Todd’s noodling on US AND THEM. Kerch’s work is as solid as ever, proving that he has been the invisible backbone of this group for almost a decade; he never calls attention to himself the way that he has in the past, and it’s for the better.
It’s Smith’s performance, however, that seems lackluster. Given that this is the man that gave us post-grunge classics “Fly From the Inside”, “45” and “I Dare You”, AMARYLLIS is far from his best showcase: his lyricism, both in content and in flow, seems safer than on previous albums, resorting to cliché themes and mantras like bullying and “putting your hands in the air”. As important and topical as some of these choices may be, it’s difficult not to imagine an alternate reality where Smith used his more creative wordplay abilities from the past to make less blunt and broad statements. The album does, however, hold a few gems that do show off the quality that one comes to expect from Smith: “I’ll Follow You”, which features a huge, poignant chorus and “For My Sake”, which might be the closest Shinedown will ever get to recapturing the spirit of US AND THEM.
All-in-all, the album is something of a mixed bag. While at times it’s content to settle into mediocrity – the bland, generic chorus of “I’m Not Alright”, which ruins a perfectly compelling intro, comes to mind – there are other times where it reaches for new and interesting sounds to add to the Shinedown canon, namely the pre-chorus in “Nowhere Kids”. This short, punchy bit of angst finally captures the rap-esque qualities that Smith has seemed so eager to sample since he dropped the baffling “Devour” on us, and it does it with elegant force. And yes, Smith’s experimentation with the sonic palette of the record goes a short way towards distracting the listener from the fact that, yes, you are listening to another Shinedown power ballad, but it seems like it’s all for naught. This listener remembers a time when all The Preacher needed was a few arpeggiated notes on an acoustic guitar behind him – and yeah, maybe a megaphone from time to time – in order to light up a room with a million stars and send a shiver down our spines. That version of Shinedown may be lost, but at least this album is a step, however small, towards recapturing the band’s unified feel. Because, Smith, let’s face it – you can preach unity all day long, but if you’re not together up there on the stage, we can’t be together down here on the floor – even if our hands are in the air.