GUEST EPIC REVIEW by ACCA DACCA
Have you ever gotten flak for an artist or genre of music that you enjoy? Not a whole lot of fun, is it? Try to imagine that negative opinion not just as common, but as something resembling the general consensus. One that not only discounts anyone that disagrees, but actively mocks and ridicules them. Ask anyone you meet on the street: who are the “worst” musical artists of all time? Chances are, one particular scapegoat of late-90s’ rock will come up… To say that Creed is a controversial band is putting it lightly. Perhaps no group in the history of rock and roll has been a casualty of its own fame quite the same way the band composed of vocalist Scott Stapp, guitarist Mark Tremonti, drummer Scott Phillips and bassist Brian Marshall have. While the amount of fans often rivalled the number of critics in their heyday, as of 2015 the predominant word is negative. Whether it be from fans moving on or the band’s hiatus keeping them from speaking up for themselves, anything positive is rare. Case in point: Scott Stapp’s recent mental breakdown in December featured the most press coverage the frontman has had to endure since the turn of the millennium. EVERYBODY had something to say about it, oftentimes hateful. What of him now? He’s pulled himself back together and aside from his own personal PR, only one or two websites actually reported the news. I’m sure more than a few readers of this review will think he’s still whacked out on drugs, despite spending the last five months at home with his family.
Unfortunately, Creed’s status as something of a pariah maintains that I can’t just hop into the music and give you my personal take. If I were to do so, I’d likely have more than a few commenters simply reiterating age-old hate for the band or questioning the validity of my perspective because I’m not slinging feces. So let’s get to it: perhaps the most common strike against Creed is the idea that they’re heavily derivative of Pearl Jam. Um… have you ever listened to either of these bands? Generally speaking, Pearl Jam is angry garage rock with guitars that bite but don’t shred, and songs that are intended to coast primarily on the emotion conveyed in Eddie Vedder’s vocals and lyrics. Creed is arena rock with soaring pop hooks and beefy guitar riffs. Forgive me if I don’t find those two approaches to be all that similar. Not to mention the fact that Creed rarely ever treads the political ground that Pearl Jam does, and that the perspective of Pearl Jam’s material is often outward, with the Creed being much more introspective. To put it simply, Pearl Jam’s songs are often “you, you, you” while Creed’s are “me, me, me.” If you consider such a point-of-view as pretentious I understand, but I’d rather have someone pointing a finger at themselves than me or a hypothetical “them.”
Of course, this comparison between the bands primarily stemmed from the similarities in Vedder and Stapp’s vocal styles, specifically their employment of what’s known as “yarling” (which involves putting an ‘R’ sound behind enunciations). I’m not going to try and convince anyone that the two frontmen don’t sound similar, but there are important differences that even a cursory listen will highlight: Vedder has more range and is much more likely to yelp, with his voice cracking as he gets higher and more intense. Stapp has a richer timbre but over-pronounces his words in a somewhat silly manner that has become common fodder for haters that fancy themselves comedians. I understand the comparison, but postulating that Stapp “copied” Vedder isn’t wholly substantiated. Claiming that he sounds exactly like Vedder and applying that comparison to the whole band is outright lunacy. This didn’t make any sense to me when I only knew either band from their radio hits; having actually dug into each band’s body of work in subsequent years, it now strikes me as pure propaganda. The fact that the Pearl Jam comparison is blanketed over pretty much EVERY band of the so-called “post-grunge” era just confirms that suspicion.
The next common (and even more ridiculous) complaint is that Creed is somehow Christian rock. Come again? Creed isn’t Christian rock anymore than AC/DC is Satanist metal. Talking about God in a song does not make it religious in and of itself; Christian music involves God as the subject nine times out of ten, with some sort of message of hope through Him conveyed therein. With Creed, God is only ever mentioned as being there; Stapp’s lyrics allude to the Divine in the same way a person might speak of gravity. He’s not trying to convert or otherwise convince anyone of his religious convictions, he’s simply stating them as one might a fact of life. If you dislike this quality that’s fine but it doesn’t make Creed Christian music, even if some of the members are open about their religious convictions.
Even then, to properly interpret these allusions, one must also have some understanding of Stapp’s upbringing. He, like many youngsters, was born into a religious home. He had little interaction with his real father, and his mother remarried when he was still a kid. His stepfather Steven Stapp (from whom Scott took his last name) was a dentist by trade, but a zealot in practice. He made Scott study the Bible for several hours each day and conclude his time by writing essays about what he learned from the passages he perused (Scott later came to find that Steven was using his essays for Sunday school lessons). Think that’s bad? It’s not even the worst of it: whenever Scott messed up, he was physically beaten by Steven. As in abused. Steven also set a specific time each week that Scott was to be thrashed for sins that his stepfather “knew he committed but didn’t see.” Scott was also punished whenever Steven caught him listening to rock and roll, because it’s “the devil’s music.” To top it off, the doctrine advocated was of an unforgiving God that would damn a soul to Hell for the slightest trespass, lest they live a perfect life.
So why am I telling you all of this? Because personal experience naturally informs art, and if you were brought up in a household like this, chances are you’d address those feelings through song as well. It’s all in HOW one addresses these topics that informs the atmosphere. Scott didn’t write lyrics that concerned themselves with theology because he wanted listeners to believe it, he wrote them because HE didn’t know what to believe about the God he had shoved down his throat by his stepfather. It’s a fair assessment to assume that his childhood had a massive effect on his personality, not to mention the disparate reactions to the Creed’s music. It’s a wonder Stapp didn’t have a meltdown before 2014. Of the common complaints about this band, I consider the Pearl Jam point open for debate. Do the bands sound alike? To a degree; both play dour hard rock. There’s only so much variation one can attain within that template, after all. The Christian rock charge, however, is simply untrue. Overall, as far as I’m concerned, both of these sleights were coined not because of their accuracy, but moreso to knock the band off of their perch when they got huge. With the passing of time, these legends have become fact, and the legend is being printed. (As a final point, it behooves me to point out that the band was originally to be called Naked Toddler until Brian Marshall suggested the name be changed to Creed).
Finally, you have the general complaint of the era to contend with: Creed is most often resigned to the “post-grunge” monicker. I don’t care who you are or what you think about grunge, designating a bunch of later artists with a “post-” label when they make pretty much the exact same type of music as their forbears is ridiculous. Does that make Poison and Guns N’ Roses “post-hair metal” since they appeared relatively late in that particular cycle? I get that the so-called post-grunge bands are considered much less authentic than their precedents, but the problem with that line of thinking is that grunge didn’t really invent anything, nor were they all that “original.” Sure, grunge killed hair metal, but there’s a distinct difference between killing and conceiving. The faces of the sub-genre, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, are watered down punk with a hard rock flair. Think AC/DC is simplistic? Nirvana rocks three chord riffs like there’s no tomorrow. That “yarl” that is so often attributed to Eddie Vedder? He wasn’t even the first from the scene to use it, much less music at large. Layne Staley of Alice In Chains holds that dubious distinction for the grunge crowd. As far as the style’s far-reaching beginnings, Ray Charles, George Jones and Jim Morrison of the Doors all sung with such an affectation before Eddie Vedder was ever a glint in his father’s eye. Nevermind the fact that Stapp often cites Morrison as perhaps his most formative influence, along with Def Leppard and U2 (or that Scott honed his singing skills in black churches, whose members would frequently goad him to use “soul” as he sung (read: yarling)).
There are a variety of other diatribes against Creed, such as the band taking itself too seriously (didn’t Nirvana, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, among others?), that Scott Stapp was an arrogant ass (John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Axl Rose?) and that the band was too commercialized…sigh. This accusation has to be the MOST fragile of the stones thrown at these guys. Just because a song or album is mainstream does not in and of itself guarantee any sort of quality, good or bad. Anyone that attempts to postulate otherwise is too far up their own ass to give any other line of thought consideration. Sure, rock and roll has always had rebellion in its blood, so I can understand that the idea of a rock band NOT pushing such an image as odd. But let’s not forget that the most respected band of all time, the Beatles, was also the most commercial.
There’s also the charge that the band simply blended in with most of the other like-minded superstars of the time, with LeBrain’s popular line being to colloquially refer to them all as Theory of a NickelCreed. Maybe so, but if the band was so “generic” why are they singled out as one of the “worst of all time”? Just because they got big? And the only way to fight it was to backpedal 110% the other way? Politics, politics, politics… and that’s not even the worst of it. By far the most immature response to this band over the years has not been so much in terms of their output, but the fact that a disturbing amount of haters act like no one else has a damned right to enjoy this band. As if Creed deserves to be burned at the stake and obliterated from the public record along with anyone that admits to being a fan. If hold anything but contempt for them you’ve obviously been living under a rock and haven’t experienced the “good stuff” yet. Are you kidding me? Yeah, and Creed fans are the stupid ones.
Preamble over. Can we move on to the actual music now? That’s what we’re here to discuss, but my pen is pre-ordained to at least address these concerns beforehand, lest I be case out of the “elite” musical regime (which will probably happen anyway since, you know, my argument about Creed consists of more than the age old operandi “they suck because they suck.” Even now I feel readers skipping past my prose to the comments section to light their torches and take my ass to task for my “transgressions”).
Released in 1997 and selling over six million copies in the United States alone by 2002, My Own Prison heralded the arrival of Creed. According to a decent amount of the more casual fans and even some critics, this is their best album, and one after which many jumped ship in indignation. Why? Because of the first three records from the band, this one is decidedly the least commercial. The songs mostly just crunch and end, leaving the listener to sort out the details. Few are trying to be populist anthems. It’s not my favorite Creed album, but I can see why it’s a popular choice. The album weaves through mostly introspective stories of faith and loss, with slight forays into light political fair on “In America.” Overall, this is a moodier and less bombastic affair than the band’s subsequent albums.
Tremonti’s lead guitar ordains the album opener “Torn” with melancholy, and Stapp’s vocals maintain the atmosphere. “Peace is what they tell me/love, am I unholy?/Lies are what they tell me/Despise you that control me” he sings. The guitars crash in in full force on the word lies, underscoring the inherent evil of the practice. “The peace is dead in my soul/I have blamed the reason for/My intentions poor” goes the chorus. I love the atmosphere and passive, rather than assertive, anger conveyed with the lyrics and instrumental. Say what you will about this band but they know how to start an album (perhaps not coincidentally, “Torn” along with followup album Human Clay’s opening track “Are You Ready?” are my two favorite songs from this band).
Next comes “Ode”, a quintessential tune about being mistreated by others. Scott hints at his past here: “One step on your own/And you walk all over me/One head in the clouds/You won’t let go you’re too proud.” This track is a weaker standout, but still pretty good. The title track follows at number three. Perhaps I’m biased, but I consider the song “My Own Prison” to be a classic of ‘90s rock. The one feat Creed is rarely credited for is their knack for catchy and memorable hooks. There’s a reason they were so popular, and forgive me if I don’t think they’ve sold 40 million albums just because the general populace has “terrible taste.” Stapp is often cited for being too earnest with his lyrics and lacking subtlety; well, as far as I’m concerned life isn’t subtle, and he captures that aspect well. I consider the lyrics of “My Own Prison” to be pure poetry: “So I held my head up high/Hiding hate that burns inside/Which only fuels their selfish pride/We’re all held captive/Out from the sun/A sun that shines on only some/We the meek are all in one.” I’d be entertained just reading this stuff; can’t really say the same for “Lithium” or “Even Flow.” As a song, Tremonti and Marshall’s haunting guitar work and Phillips’ dejected drumming elevate the experience to another level.
The album hits something of a snag with the next few tracks in that none of them really stand out from one another (hey, I can make the case that this band is highly underrated but I never implied they were perfect; no artist is). “Pity for a Dime” is your typical “no one cares about me” song that never really distinguishes itself. The atmosphere of the album bolsters this track along with the other weak links, but otherwise it’s one that you skip when going for the meat. The melody is decent, but the point of the lyrics is quickly lost in their redundancy. Even then, the guitar work starting at 3:50 is a real treat and a standout of Tremonti’s contributions.
“In America” is caught in the same net as “Pity for a Dime”, essentially reprising the same theme. However, the twist is that Stapp is noting other opinions rather than his own. I’ve often felt the perspective that Stapp’s lyrics convey to be a hint of subtle genius; he’s merely playing the part of observer, not necessarily “judge” of the politics he addresses. While I think he’s overlooked as a lyricist, Stapp makes a crucial mistake in his treatment of the central conceit: the hook plays as “ONLY in America.” Even as someone that actively avoids politics and the news, I know that very few (if any) of the social issues brought up in this song occur solely in Uncle Sam’s domain. Even if the premise is flawed, the theme of being torn between two extremes is powerful. That military-esque drum beat at the beginning is a nice touch as well.
Two of the more intense tracks from My Own Prison are “Illusion” and “Unforgiven.” The former’s dissident fascination with the nature of life is engrossing. While I wouldn’t call it a standout, it’s also hard to dismiss. If anything, the song helps maintain the atmosphere and momentum, even if you probably won’t catch yourself reaching for this album solely to hear it. However, if you’re just letting the album play it certainly adds to the experience. As for “Unforgiven”, remember Scott’s stepfather and his violently fundamentalist ideas about God? Well, the title should speak for itself. Stapp bluntly speaks of his childhood and feelings about that time in his life. The music is appropriately menacing on this track and it’s a popular live song for the band despite not being released as a single. Tremonti’s guitar solo is especially striking, no doubt a major part of the song’s popularity.
“Sister” is next, perhaps my least favorite track from Creed’s debut. Interestingly, it maintains the theme of “Unforgiven”, with the focus shifted onto a sibling of Scott’s that endured similar treatment as he did. It’s still perhaps the weakest track, but I like the continuity and pondering of the idea of his younger sisters having not one role model as he did, but two (counting Scott himself). Who says Creed have no artistic merit? The instrumental and overall atmosphere of the song are much lighter than previous tracks, perhaps underscoring the love one feels for their immediate family.
The ninth slot is filled by a song called “What’s This Life For,” one of the four monster singles from this album. This is another favorite of fans, myself included. I appreciate the passion in this track and the yearning for answers. Call me a sap, but haven’t we all wondered this exact thing at SOME point in our lives? Sure, it’s not exactly profound nor does the song really offer anything resembling a solution, but I like it. Shoot me. (Side note: some assessments of the song I’ve read cite the “don’t have to settle no Goddamn score” part as eliciting giggles. Am I alone in wondering just what might be funny about that part? Just because Scott says “Goddamn”? Note that this word is omitted from the single version; it was 1997 after all).
I like to think the entire album is summed up with the final track “One.” Stapp reprises that poetic quality from before: “Society blinded by color/why hold down one to raise another” he sings. Relevant in 2015, don’t you think? “One, oh one/the only way is one” he imparts on the chorus, backed up by another bright riff from Tremonti. The song goes on to note the aforementioned prison the narrator finds himself in, as well as the desire to escape and the likelihood of it happening. To be honest, songs like this remind me much more of U2 than Pearl Jam, with that “save the world” vibe coming in full force. As such, the song falls prey to some of the same problems that ilk does by sweeping the more intricate complications of these social issues under the rug, but it’s hard not to appreciate the intent behind the song. I especially like the “flying” effect at 3:16, where the sound circles between speakers, as if to “unite” them once the song kicks back in, just as the band wishes for the world to be united.
Well, if you’ve read this far, I trust that I have your full attention and that you’ve been at least slightly entertained by my ramblings. A little known fact about this album is that two different versions exist. Recorded for a meager $6,000, My Own Prison was originally published through Blue Collar Records, a label founded by Creed to get their music out. The band received some airplay with this version in their native Florida before attracting the attention of major labels. An exact figure of their pre-fame sales is hard to find, but My Own Prison is quoted as shifting several thousand units before it was bought and reissued by Wind-Up records. Creed were then called back in to re-record parts of the album, while the rest was remixed to make for a more polished listening experience. I picked up one of the original copies on eBay a few years ago for about $50. Back in the day, these things were known to go for a few hundred. So how do the tracks compare?
Well, the first thing you notice is the lack of dynamic range. Sure, Creed’s albums have always been among the numerous victims of the loudness wars, in that they’re mixed to blow your head off with sheer noise. However, believe it or not, the dynamics seem more stylized on the Wind-Up version when compared to the original. The opening seconds are a perfect example of this: whereas the first strains of “Torn” are a bit quieter before the song crescendos in the re-release, the original is pretty much the same volume throughout. This goes for all of the tracks to some degree, with certain parts louder and softer given the version. On a related note, the bass is non-existent on the original version, similar to how it was missing from Metallica’s …And Justice For All. The remix brings it out a bit more, though ultimately the lead guitar and vocals mostly overpower the other parts.
The re-recorded material mostly amounts to some vocals. On certain song choruses of the “official” version, Stapp and Tremonti can frequently be heard singing in multiple keys at the same time. Here, it’s mostly just one at a time. It sounds to me like an additional acoustic part was added to “In America” as well. Reverb was also applied to the remix, which I feel adds to the overall atmosphere of the recordings. Some songs also start at different points, with the odd note or two being cut off, as with “My Own Prison.” The biggest and most noticeable change is the omission of the original intro to “What’s This Life For”, a quiet little melody that appears nowhere else in the song. Tremonti is known to play it at concerts when performing, but it’s completely missing from the Wind-Up version.
Overall, if you resent the commercial tendencies of Creed, you might do well to seek out the original mix of this album. This is the band at their rawest. However, I wouldn’t recommend a purchase unless you’re actually a fan as prices are frequently steep and the remix isn’t THAT different when all is said and done. I have one because I’m a collector and completist, as well as a curious listener. I also have an inkling that as this album nears its 20th anniversary, we might see something of a special edition that features both mixes on separate discs (the perfect gimmick). Not that I urge you to wait for a hypothetical re-release, but it’s a thought. Wind-Up released a vinyl compilation celebrating the label’s 15th anniversary in 2013, with the original version of “What’s This Life For” featured. They obviously have access to the masters and might put it to use at some point. All in all, the rawer mixes can readily be found on YouTube if you are so inclined to seek them out but don’t want to pay collector prices for an original copy.
For those interested, there’s also a bonus track version of the Wind-Up issue featuring an 11th song by the name of “Bound & Tied.” The bonus track version was available in Central America and Europe, though it might be a little harder to find these days. For U.S. listeners, the song was made available via the soundtrack to the 1998 film Dead Man on Campus. If you can get your hands on the bonus track version of My Own Prison for a reasonable price, I’d say go for it. “Bound & Tied” is a forgotten gem from Creed, with an intriguing into in which each instrument comes in at a different point, gradually intensifying the sound. I especially like the vocal effects, as well as the menacing guitar riff from Tremonti. The lyrics are also much more ominous than most Creed songs: “Tongue-tied, restless and wanting/Looks like you might bite, you might bite/Breathin’ in, breathin’ out, you’re weakened/The poisons hit your mind, your mind/Time’s ticking and it’s got you thinking/You’re happy with your life.” The band seems to be commenting on the double-edged sword that is fame; you seek it, yet can’t escape it once it’s attained.
In conclusion, if you actually made it this far (scanning or skipping doesn’t count!), my final verdict is that this album is solid. Classic? Perhaps at times, but it’s not anything resembling horrible, either. If your standards are so lofty that a slightly generic album of solid hard rock is your idea of “horrible” music, I envy your musical taste. Here’s hoping that My Own Prison and Creed as a whole are subject to a re-evaluation of sorts at some point in the future. If you can listen past your gut reaction to the name and pay attention to the music, you’ll probably find something to like.
Thanks for reading, guys! Thank you, Mike, for the opportunity to do this! LeBrain has given me the option to review Creed’s discography, so if you want more let us know in the comments! (P.S. I take no responsibility for the band’s music videos. They’re atrociously dated and corny, at least for the next two albums, and if your only exposure to Creed is of the visual kind I don’t blame you for thinking they’re garbage.)
No sir, thank you Mr. Acca Dacca for a very thought-provoking review! I really appreciate the time and effort he put into this monster of a review. I have definitely opened my ears to this band. – LeBrain