Creed are one of the most influential musical groups of the past 10 years, hands down. You may laugh at that statement, but in their relatively short career they assisted in the return to power of a kind of grandiose rock music that was sorely missed when their debut, "My Own Prison," hit the shelves of music stores around the country way back in 1997. In terms of mainstream rock, the album set the template for a huge amount of what would follow.
Think about it. Everybody that grew up wanting to avoid getting beaten up in high school pretended that Creed's ability to move millions of units with every album release was some big mystery, but it really wasn't. The post-grunge fad perpetuated by groups like Bush, Stone Temple Pilots, and Live was dying out by '97 and making way for nothing but bland pop-related fare, with only a few short-lived groups with feet in the various camps of ska, rap, pop-punk, and the familiar post-grunge sound giving 1995 and 1996 its lasting anthems.
In addition, the mid-90s saw a resurgence of interest in hair metal, the genre singlehandedly slain by Sir Cobain: many of these groups, who celebrated the sort of excess and debauchery the American public was starting to devour in droves with the growing popularity of tabloids, Monica Lewinsky, and Pam Anderson Lee sex tapes, quickly found that they had the ability to perform to actual audiences again and began touring, including Motley Crüe, Poison, and even lesser acts like Cinderella. But these groups had not really gained any new sense of honesty or personality beyond that excess (though God knows they tried) and so for the disaffected teens who were unfortunate to grow up in the era after Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and something resembling a less esoteric version of Pearl Jam, something was still lacking.
Most of the kids I knew in those high school days are now 20 years old and grew up liking Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Papa Roach, and vilifying Creed over their unoriginality, musical crap, and other such things. However, Creed were multi-platinum before N'Sync released "No Strings Attached," Limp Bizkit released "Significant Other," and Britney Spears released "Baby One More Time." Now, absorb that little tidbit and maybe now, given the knowledge of the cicumstances of Creed's entry into popularity, we can now understand just how sorely missed Creed's variety of rock music was back in 1997, by way of explaining the success that has frankly puzzled their many detractors.
From that standpoint, it's not hard to imagine that Creed's sound was actually something newer and more novel from what most people were listening to. Pretend you're a disaffected angsty youth (come on, it's not that hard), living somewhere other than the Northeast in 1996. Creed is ideally suited to touch your musical appreciation in a good spot, given what we have to work with. We have a vocalist who was raised religious in a red state (Florida), and who has dealt with genuine emotional turmoil over his beliefs. Combine that with a musical backing that has got a hefty dose of talent and proficiency, you've got a veritable recipe for angsty heavy rock heaven.
Scott Stapp, if he ever was a genuinely disturbed individual, is definitely working out his demons here, from the opening moody darkness of "Torn," to the soulful singing and awesome lyrics of "My Own Prison" and "What's This Life For?" The lyrics overwhelmingly deal with confrontations with deep inner problems with authority, both divine and paternal, and the struggle to figure out what the mature course to take is given this turmoil. Generally speaking, unlike on later efforts, this comes across on a level that doesn't seem either overbearing or cliched enough to seem contrived. Although he occasionally succumbs to derivative platitudes, as on the nonsense of "Sister" or the filler "In America," (which is a feeble dig at liberal values with lines like "Only in America/we kill the unborn to make/ends meet") Stapp generally keeps up a high quality of lyrical play that he would lose almost completely by the end of Creed.
Of course, rock critics latched onto Stapp's vocal style and cried "Oh, they're ripping off Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots," which is probably understandable from the long, slurred phrases that abound on each song, but Creed's musical component--Mark Tremonti, Scott Phillips, and Brian Marshall--had the collective musical guts and skill to throw down like a metal band. That was a BIG deal back then.
Take Tremonti. People freaked when Tremonti shredded some of the most technically proficient solos heard in recent history on Alter Bridge's debut album, and of course credited it to Tremonti being able to play now that he wasn't in Creed, but if anybody was actually paying attention they would have heard some utterly blazing solos on both the light/heavy rocker "Pity for a Dime" and the doomy, slow metal burn of "Illusion." The "Creed formula" of soft verse, heavy chorus was a powerful dynamic change that Tremonti practically invented in the form that it appears there. "Torn" and "My Own Prison" are probably the best examples of this dynamic: "Torn" is characterized by heavily minor arpeggiations on a clean guitar, arranged so that the notes ring out and harmonize with one another in a chiming, ambient way. "My Own Prison" features a long buildup of clean, minor-key tomes and heavier choruses, and a power-ballad-style flanged solo that expands into a loud interlude.
He is also probably the one member of the group most responsible for the heaviness that often cropped up in Creed songs such as "Ode," which featured blazing chromatic chord movements and harmonic squeals, and "Unforgiven," an unabashed metal song with a great interlude with fast palm-muted grinds and some simple but effective time signature changes, not something one ordinarily thinks of when they think of Creed. He creates a more anthemic tone with phased arpeggios and a squealy, dissonant, feedback-y solo at the tail end of the closer "One."
Which brings us to the capable rhythm section. Brian Marshall, for one, is a bassist who I don't think ever "rooted" (as bassists contemptuously call the practice of simply following the guitar line in unison) in the early days of Creed. His bassline forms the basis for the whole structure of the slow shuffle of "Illusion," and his awesome, clear tone adds immense depth to the clean arpeggiated passages of "Torn," "My Own Prison," and particularly the closer "One." He is constantly shifting around with higher-register riffs and low drones that fill out the mix in a great way, making the single-channel guitars stand on their own in the full mix. Scott Phillips is the weakest link with a wide variety of identical drumbeats (insert facetious grin here) but even then his endless cymbal chimes create an ever-hissing layer of percussion that suits the gandiose, dark mood the band intends to set, especially on songs such as "In America," where, despite the poor lyrical choices, he plays a lot of inventive fills and snare patterns, with perpetually crashing and chiming cymbals hissing everywhere.
As an album, the general tone of the music is much different from the band's later output. On the whole, it's relatively much darker, and a little more ambitious in the arrangements and less formulaic. I count this down to a little more creative freedom amongst the band members and a more genuine approach from Stapp, who would eventually lose this. This is less "mainstream" than most other "mainstream rock" of its type, because it is, while not exactly an innovator, at least a pathburner for its era. This album is a tome for much of what would follow from groups like 3 Doors Down, Default, Nickelback, and recent groups like Seether. Out of the whole album, my highlights would include "Torn" for its long development and relentlessly dark mood, "Unforgiven" for its brief metal onslaught and general awesomeness, particularly the interlude, and "Pity for a Dime," as it is one of the most interesting examples of the Creed light-verse heavy-chorus dynamic, in addition to containing a variety of recognizable musical influences from blues music (in the lead-in to the heavy guitars) and the shredding solo. In the grand scheme of things, the music here is simple, high-caliber mainstream rock. There's nothing particularly innovative in any element of what Creed does here, but it's important to recognize that only a few people combined it into such a successful formula, spawning a huge industry trend in heavy rock.
As Creed albums go, this is actually quite high-quality. It possesses the largest proportion of influence from metal music out of all the rest of the band's output, and it contains some of the best songwriting from the band as a democratic collective out of their whole career. Even when Creed delivered a terrible product, it wasn't entirely because they were a parody of popular trends, although that assessment does have truth to it. After all, Creed established part of the whole template for that particular trend, which is no small feat. It was because, as Creed grew bigger and bigger and Scott Stapp no longer felt the turmoil he had over his Christianity or his parents (in addition to inheriting a wealth of personal defects such as a huge ego, pretentiousness and alcoholism) his message of redemption through cathartic angst became contrived, disingenuous, and Creed began parodying themselves. With one perfunctory look at My Own Prison, we see that there was one point where Creed was genuinely talented, novel, and deservedly the hottest band around.
EDIT: I give this a 4 in the context of their later output, which is subpar (this is probably the better Creed album you could buy out of the three), and also to reflect my general assessment of its influence and importance to later trends in rock music that get ignored. The actual musical quality of the album, while still fairly high, is in my mind closer to a 3, probably around a 3.5 or something like that.