"I never want people to be able to put their thumb on this band," declares Shinedown frontman Brent Smith. "I never want anyone to know what we're going to do musically. I want them to be shocked. I want them to think, 'They did it again. They surprised me.' We like that. We like to challenge our audience."
When Smith laid down the gauntlet, it set the tone for the recording of Shinedown's fourth full-length album - the bruising, unapologetic, and totally kinetic Amaryllis. With unflinchingly honest, unrepentant songs like first single "Bully" and "I'm Not All Right," as well as the deeply moving "Miracle" and the soulful love song "I'll Follow You," Amaryllis delivers on its mission statement throughout its 12 tracks: "It's not a record for the faint of heart," Smith admits. "Every single song makes a statement. I was looking for the kind of emotion that made every hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Because of that, I feel in my heart and soul that this album is a game changer for our band."
With all the success Shinedown has had since Smith and drummer Barry Kerch formed the band in 2001, one could understand if its members just wanted to rest on their laurels. Shinedown is indisputably one of the fastest-rising rock acts of the last 10 years, beginning its assault on rock radio with 2003's platinum debut Leave A Whisper and the 2005 gold follow-up Us and Them. Together, both albums yielded seven Top 5 radio hits, including "Fly From the Inside," "45," a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man," "Burning Bright," "Heroes," "I Dare You," and the No. 1 blockbuster, "Save Me," which dominated Active Rock radio for 12 consecutive weeks.
But it was Shinedown's third album, 2008's platinum-selling The Sound of Madness that proved to be their mainstream breakthrough, debuting at No. 8 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart and remaining on the chart for an astonishing 120 consecutive weeks. The band released six singles, each of which reached No. 1 on the airplay rankings. Among them are the rock radio classics "Devour," "Sound of Madness," "The Crow and The Butterfly," "Diamond Eyes (Boom-Lay Boom-Lay Boom)," the gold-certified "If You Only Knew," and the double-platinum crossover smash, "Second Chance," which also went to #1 at Hot AC chart and top 5 at Top 40 - a feat practically unheard of for a rock band. Their popularity led to two and a half years of touring, during which time Shinedown performed nearly 440 shows, and established itself as a premiere live act, opening doors to a wider audience in the process. "With Madness, we did exactly what we set out to do, which was grow our audience," Smith says. "We had entire families, young kids and their grandparents, coming out to our shows. Madness got us to that point where everything we were striving for finally started to happen."
But just because the music has reached more people does not mean Shinedown has gone soft, in fact far from it. "I'm sure people assume we're going to come with a pop-based record, but Amaryllis is probably the most rock and roll album we've ever made," Smith says. "We've always been a rock band, and I didn't want to lose sight of that. I told everyone the album had to do three things: It had to show sophistication in the songwriting, it had to show musical growth within the band, and I had to push myself to go places lyrically that I had never gone before."
Re-teaming with The Sound of Madness producer Rob Cavallo - who has also worked with Green Day, My Chemical Romance, and Kid Rock - Shinedown accomplished all of Smith's goals and more. Six songs on Amaryllis feature a 30-piece orchestra, including "I'm Not All Right" - Shinedown's first-ever song to incorporate horns, which drive home the manic intensity of its subject matter. "'I'm Not All Right' is about someone who is basically crazy and kind of losing their mind, but they're completely okay with it," Smith says. "My point is that you don't have to always get everyone else's approval. You have to be happy with who you are." "Miracle" was written about the day Smith began to see the world through his young son's eyes. "The day he was born changed my whole life," he says. "I had forgotten what it felt like to wake up and understand that being given another day on earth is a gift - that you're not promised tomorrow." "Unity" is an anthem for Shinedown's legions of devoted fans. "We wanted to write a song that expressed our gratitude to them," Smith says. "We can always get on stage and look out into the audience and see how much they appreciate what we do. The song is bout how they make us feel and letting them know that we're never going to leave them behind because they wouldn't leave us behind."
Another highlight is "Bully," which finds Smith addressing the tormentor in question in the strongest possible terms: "No one's gonna cry on the very day you die, you're a bully." "I was bullied a lot as a kid, but the song is not just about kids, it's for anyone who's felt they've been pushed to the brink," he says. "This song is not saying, 'Hey, in 10 years, I can let bygones be bygones and maybe we can have a beer at T.G.I. Friday's.' It's saying that if you push me, I'm going to push you back. It's not condoning violence, it's condoning survival."
From a thematic standpoint, Amaryllis is a record about vulnerability. It reveals the bruises and scars, but also their healing. "I took the gloves off," says Smith, who co-wrote several songs with bassist Eric Bass and guitarist Zach Myers. "The record is unforgiving. The idea was to take the listener on a rollercoaster ride. You should be mentally exhausted at the end. Then, from the exhaustion, you get this unbelievable wave of energy that makes you immediately want to listen to it again. That's what we set out to create. Nothing less."
Amaryllis is the first album Shinedown has made with Bass and Myers, who co-wrote "Diamond Eyes" with Smith for the movie The Expendables, which became the band's sixth No. 1 single last year. "That was the first time we looked at each other and knew we'd be able to write together," Smith says. "They bring an honesty to what the band represents live, and a level of confidence that is unparalleled because they are unbelievable performers. They don't apologize for being as aggressive as they are, and it really pushed Barry and me to up our game."
Smith sees the convergence of events - the new line-up, the success of The Sound of Madness - as the band's destiny, which informed the new album's title. "An amaryllis is a flower that grows in the desert," he says. "It grows out of nothing in a wasteland of a desert, and at a time of year when nothing else is growing around it. The way I see it, the amaryllis represents our intention. This is the path the four of us are meant to travel down together. A few years ago, people might have thought we were 'That thing that should not be.' That we shouldn't have succeeded. But we never went into the mindset of failure. We actually refused to fail on every level. That's why we've called it Amaryllis, because it's a record about destiny."