Early in 2007, producer Rob Cavallo asked Shinedown frontman Brent Smith about his goals for the band's new album. Smith didn't hesitate.
"I said, 'You know what -- when I'm dead and gone, when everybody in this band has passed or what have you, I want the world to remember this as a record that needed to be made, and that there was a reason for it,' " Smith says. "That was the motivation behind this album."
"And part of the reason it took so long to make!"
Welcome then to The Sound of Madness, Shinedown's third album -- and the Florida rockers' boldest effort to date. Like its two predecessors, 2003's Platinum Leave a Whisper and 2005's Gold Us and Them, The Sound of Madness offers a brave and unsparing look into the soul and psyche amidst a fierce musical attack that, even in its quieter moments, vibrates with the passion, energy and focus of a band with high-minded ideals and limitless ambitions.
Smith and company began the recording process for The Sound of Madness with the formidable task of following up two massively successful albums that yielded a staggering seven consecutive Top five rock and alternative radio hits that included "Fly From the Inside," "45," the chart-topping "Save Me," and a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man," along with a reputation as a hot live band with an insatiable appetite for the road. However, after one listen, it's clear that the band didn't shrink from the task. Where The Sound of Madness differs most is in its growth; it's the product of a group that has developed an even clearer vision for how it wanted to impact an audience.
"Lyrically, these songs are the most blunt that I've ever written," says Smith, who formed Shinedown with drummer Barry Kerch in 2001 in Jacksonville, Fla. "I feel that on this record I wrote what a lot of people want to say, but they just don't know how to say it -- not that I should tell anyone how to live their lives, but I've had these experiences and these thoughts that are in my head. And I can't believe I'm the only one who feels the way I do. So I just tried to express that in the most artistic and the most honest way I possibly could."
On The Sound of Madness, Smith and Shinedown express those thoughts and ideas in ways they never have before. The group's hard rock muscles flex on songs such as the chart-topping first single "Devour," "Cry For Help," "Sin With a Grin" and the title track. But the likes of "The Crow and the Butterfly," "Breaking Inside" and their follow-up single "Second Chance" incorporate more sophisticated, emotional dynamics (enhanced by a 20-piece string section), while Smith counts "If You Only Knew" as his first straight-up love song, a tribute to his girlfriend Ashley and a relationship that led to the birth of their son, Lyric, in late 2007.
"A long time ago I said, 'I'll never write a love song. I'm not that guy,' "Smith recalls with a laugh. "I just never had a reason to write a love song before. I don't mean to be corny, but it's just a song that expressed how much she means to me and how she has given me more than I could ever imagine. I'll spend the rest of my life trying to repay her and thank her for everything she's done for me."
The Sound of Madness also contains Smith's first-ever political song "Devour," which he says was inspired by Shinedown's visits to troops in Iraq and his feelings about the end of George W. Bush's presidency.
"I won't lie; I got really angry," Smith explains about the first single. "This is my statement to him; 'This is the end of your presidency, and this is what you have to show for it' -- Not that everything he did was bad or wrong. I don't want to get too political, because I'm not a political person. But after coming back from Iraq, I just had to write that song and get it out of my system."
Elsewhere on The Sound of Madness, listeners will find Shinedown waxing autobiographically ("Second Chance" is about Smith leaving his native Knoxville, Tenn., to pursue a career in rock 'n' roll; "What a Shame" is an elegy to a beloved late uncle) but also crafting insightful observations gleaned from the hundreds of shows and millions of road miles the band has logged.
"In the seven years of this thing called Shinedown," Smith says, "I've seen a lot of different things - what we've all gone through on the road, things in our personal lives or witnessed firsthand through the fans that we've made and the relationships we've built with our audience. I think the biggest thing was I didn't want to sugarcoat the way life can be sometimes. This is my viewpoint. This is my view of everyday life."
Kerch, meanwhile, says The Sound of Madness succeeds most in putting some sonic power behind the power of Smith's expression.
"We wanted to come out of the gate crushing," the drummer explains. "We really wanted to make a statement with this record and make it bigger than life -- a big rock album that made a statement that, 'Alright, we're back. This is our third record, and this is what we're about."
By the time Shinedown first met with producer Rob Cavallo -- whose own Grammy award-winning, multi-platinum track record includes work with Green Day, My Chemical Romance, the Goo Goo Dolls and Kid Rock -- the frontman had a number of songs already together and further dazzled the producer by improvising a new composition during their discussion.
"I was just taken with (Smith)," Cavallo says. "He was really just on fire to do well. He's a guy driven to win. He wants to make the best record he can make and spent a lot of time writing ...making sure it all mattered."
Cavallo, meanwhile, entered The Sound of Madness with his own agenda for Shinedown's next step.
"I thought they definitely had a greater potential than the success they'd already achieved," he explains. "There's no reason a guy with that voice and intensity shouldn't be able to go all the way. We decided to make sure that the songs had that potential."
Smith heard the message loud and clear. He left the first meeting with Cavallo and returned with nearly 60 songs by the fall, when Shinedown entered the studio in Los Angeles. The group wound up recording 15, including some -- such as "Cry For Help" -- that were written in the studio during the recording process.
All the while, however, Smith says that Shinedown "wanted it loud and wanted it big and heavy and grandiose. For the heavy songs, we wanted it as heavy as it could be, but using different kinds of styles with a lot of different guitar tones." Incorporating synthesizers and the aforementioned strings, Smith notes that, "we used a lot of really unique sounds and different variations underneath the music that you wouldn't necessarily know were there, but, if they were gone, you'd miss them."
Kerch says Cavallo's role in helping attain that layered sound cannot be understated. "He brought to the table not only knowledge of music in general but a lot of patience and a real comfortable environment," Kerch recalls. "He would sit on the couch and we'd be playing a take and he'd pop up and go, 'Oh f*ck! This is what we have to do!' and come out and literally show us. He was so energetic and made everybody want to do better."
That bigger sound on the album is mirrored in the new lineup of Shinedown, a revamped edition of the band that, along with drummer Kerch (or "the almighty Barry Kerch" as Smith likes to say), includes Eric Bass on bass and former touring guitarist Zach Myers as a permanent fixture.
"All of a sudden it started growing into this other thing," Smith says. "These guys are brilliant, brilliant players. It's a reinvention, and it's stronger."
Smith plans to take keep this "new reincarnation" of Shinedown on the road for quite awhile, too, making sure The Sound of Madness is heard worldwide. A justifiable pride in the album as well as a growing international fan base for the band will lead to an even further evolution in which the record that "needed" to be made will similarly need to be heard in a live setting.
"I sometimes look at Shinedown as an entity unto itself," Smith says. "It keeps evolving all the time, like it actually has a heartbeat. It's not a machine; there's actually blood flowing through it. From the time we came up with the name, it's felt like it's conducting us and flowing through us. It's weird -- but it's pretty wonderful, too."