By Troy Johnson

The trouble that P.O.D. finds itself in

Transition's a bitch. Major rites of life-the death of loved ones, getting dumped, marriage-are when people are most likely to curl into a ball of battered nerves. If 2003 has been anything for San Diego's P.O.D., it's been transitory.

In February they lost a loved one by choice, firing guitarist and founding member Marcos Curiel. They've also gone through a creative marriage-to new guitarist Jason Truby, formerly of Christian metal band, Living Sacrifice.

Both could be the reason why Payable On Death, P.O.D.'s fourth studio full-length, sounds as if the band is having a breakdown.

Since forming P.O.D. with drummer Wuv in 1992, Curiel was a huge part of the band's searing rap-metal sound. His ability to go from a tone that was epic and ethereal (spiritual, even) to molar-shaking riffage was as much a P.O.D. signature as Wuv's mammoth wallop or Sonny Sandoval's marrow-melting wail.

Last year's Satellite was their creative peak-taking the wayward street raps of their Atlantic Records debut and adding a spot-on skill for the unbridled anthem. "Alive" was a testament to personal strength. "Youth of a Nation" was a unifying manifesto for post-Columbine America. "Boom" was an adrenaline-maddened proclamation of their coup, despite the odds (the old stories of San Diego media and clubs ignoring them when they started are true).

Unification and self-determination expressed with the white-hot, redemptive rage of real-life vatos who'd survived drug-dealing dads and gang-banging peers-they were readymade heroes, the sort of David-Goliaths that Jonathan Davis and Fieldy were too inwardly ired to be.

Now that Curiel's gone, things will never be this way again-the iconography of P.O.D. as eternal homeboys has been fractured. Accusations of hypocrisy have brought their utterly believable righteousness into question. Such impossible standards were doomed to fail, anyway.

Even without losing Curiel, P.O.D. needed a new bag. Though Satellite was a smash success, the band knew they were outliving their genre on passion alone. Rap-metal's been a post-fad joke since Bizkit did it for whatever it was he did it for. If they were going to be more than an impotent widower of their genre, they'd have to go in the direction of "Alive," which was the first time Sandoval had really sung on a recording.

Truby will never be Curiel. No one would want him to be. So at least temporarily, until the ghost fully leaves the building, things have to change. And, at least for now, the changes in P.O.D. aren't good.

You could blame the absence of Curiel, but not the addition of Truby. P.O.D.'s newest "warrior" proves himself a very solid guitarist, especially on "Execute the Sound," where he adds an almost western minimalism. The album closes with a six-minute guitar instrumental, "Eternal"-a classy, if obvious, welcoming to the tribe (Curiel had a similar, shorter exercise on Satellite called "Guitarras de Amor").

Yet the celestial ambiance that Curiel gave to P.O.D.-a style that borrowed as much from Santana and Pink Floyd as it did Dave Navarro-is hard to live without, if only because it separated the Southtown boys from other nü-metalheads.

Sure, it's easy to hug 'n' kiss the shunned member who is now back in San Diego's scene, a homeboy returned. It's also easy to diss P.O.D., the distant superband who fired said homeboy and are probably flying first class to a sold-out arena right now.

To be honest, I didn't think Curiel's absence would make much of a difference. I have a tendency to underestimate the importance of a singular cog in a four-cog wheel.

The major problem with Payable on Death is that the P.O.D. fans fell in love with-the nuclear ghetto boys whose feral moon-howling suggested they were foregoing desire for desperation-sounds tired. Two songs-the anthemic lover's metal of "Will You" and "Revolution," which acts on "Youth of a Nation"'s promise of blocs acting en masse-capture pieces of their original magic. The rest is middle of the road power rock that makes Chevelle sound fucking righteous.

Every band is allowed their introspective album, a showcase of their tender inner artist. But this is like your dance partner took a breather and fell asleep at the bar. On more than a few tracks, Sandoval fully embraces his inner Rastafarian, a forced role he's toyed with in the past, but largely left to guest vocalists HR and Eek-A-Mouse. It's an embarrassing trespass that would make even 311 cringe.

Consider this a phase, the sound of a band in the midst of an identity crisis, eroded by both the whim of popular music and their own interim instability.

Maybe they needed this album to be a disaster. They've got the talent and the conviction, but in-demand millionaire rockers need something to prove. After Payable on Death, they've got it. ©

Payable on Death is in stores now.