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P.O.D., ‘Payable On Death’ (Atlantic)

On their triple-platinum 2001 breakthrough, Satellite, P.O.D. cushioned hard rock’s post-9/11 bummer with a healthy dose of what their heroes Bad Brains called Positive Mental Attitude. The God-kicks-ass anthem “Alive” sounded like U2 on a Back in Black binge; “Youth of the Nation” lamented gun violence like a gangsta Pink Floyd. Even when founding guitarist Marcos Curiel departed last year, the band rallied, recruiting new axman Jason Truby and immediately scoring a hit with the spectral “Sleeping Awake,” from the Matrix Reloaded soundtrack.

Still, P.O.D. have a lot to prove with Payable on Death, the band’s third Howard Benson-produced major-label album. Curiel was their musical backbone, and these days, Evanescence are rock’s reigning Christian crossover champs. But frontman Sonny Sandoval isn’t talking to the fans when he sings, “Will you love me tomorrow / Will you stay with me today” on the disc’s brooding first single, “Will You.” Like the Saliva hit “Always,” “Will You” is all hard-luck women, therapeutic screaming fits, and slashing guitars. It’s a tune that P.O.D. have always excelled at singing: Even with God on your side, reality can be a drag.

Payable on Death‘s heaviest tracks-the Zep snakestomper “Find My Way,” the snarling-“I and Identify”-easily outcrunch the competition. And while stuff-puffing Bad Brains singer HR, who guested onSatellite, doesn’t return, the religious fervor of “Wildfire” and “Freedom Fighters” is still more Rasta than Pentecostal. By the time the disc rumbles to a close-with the six-minute guitar odyssey “Eternal”-P.O.D. almost sound like the first great Christian stoner-rock band. Blazed or not, they’re certainly keeping nu metal’s flame alive.