15 years ago, Lamb of God began their ascent to the forefront of modern heavy metal. A self-described “pure American metal” quintet from Richmond, VA, took deliberate steps, paid the dues and withstood the knocks as an underground, un-commercial metal act. Beloved by a rabid, grass roots cult of underground thrash fanatics thanks to brutal and technical albums like 2000’s New American Gospel and 2003’s As the Palaces Burn, the band toured North America relentlessly and began their international career overseas in support of the latter. Entering 2004, 10 years after inception, the band had risen to the top of the independent metal scene. Their uncommon work ethic, uncompromising musicianship and intellectual lyrics set them apart – and into un-chartered territory.
Five years ago, Lamb of God surprised the hell out of everyone — including themselves — by attracting the attention of and soon after inking a deal with Epic Records. “How does an extreme band like us even exist at this kind of upper-echelon major label?” remembers guitarist Mark Morton.
Far more commercially oriented bands have buckled under the strain of similar indie-to-major leaps. Skeptical of the outcome of such a relationship, the band took the opportunity to push even harder and in 2004 released the ferocious and technical ‘Ashes of the Wake’ and in 2006 the dark and unrelenting, ‘Sacrament.’ These albums proved that the major label pairing had no negative side effects. Fans and critics alike celebrated both albums, receiving respective album of the year awards from major metal and hard rock publications around the world and the latter landing in the top 10 of the Billboard charts, becoming the top selling metal album of 2006, and a Grammy nomination. Now entering 2009, Lamb of God – guitarist Willie Adler, Willie’s drummer brother Chris Adler, bassist John Campbell, guitarist Mark Morton and vocalist Randy Blythe — have recaptured the attention of the heavy metal world, toting a vicious new album they call Wrath.
The fact that Lamb of God are still with us — after more than a decade that’s seen countless bands arrive on the scene and then disappear forever into the mists of obscurity — can basically be attributed to a combination of integrity, hard work and even harder riffs. As with every one of their previous records, Lamb of God supported 2006’s Sacrament by touring for 19 months, including going out in main support of Ozzy Osbourne on Ozzfest 2007, Slayer on the Unholy Alliance tour, Megadeth on the Gigantour, multiple European festival appearances, headlining tours across North America and overseas alike, and closing out the touring for the album with an arena tour of their own in December 2007. By the end, the band was completely road-fried and for the good of all involved, it was decided and announced publicly that 2008 be entirely devoted to recharging the batteries — no recording, no touring, no problems.
Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. “We didn’t see each other for a few months,” Willie explains, “But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t writing, or that Mark wasn’t writing, or that Chris wasn’t playing his drums…”
Even without the usual “tour-record-tour” pressure breathing down their necks, it wasn’t long before the Adler brothers got together and started kicking around new song ideas and traveling together doing clinics overseas. By the end of March, far sooner than expected, the band was working together, in full, on new material — not because they had to, but because they wanted to. “Everyone came to the table,” says Willie. “In the past, Randy would show up kind of late to the game, when the whole record was written, and then worry about the lyrics. This time around, Randy was right there throughout the entire process.”
Josh Wilbur also made it clear that he really wanted to be involved. Having worked as an engineer on Sacrament, Wilbur had already established a solid rapport with the band; now, he threw his hat into the ring as a prospective producer, telling them he had a very clear idea of how they should be recorded this time around. “Josh told us, ‘I don’t want people to walk away from this record talking about what a great job Josh Wilbur did,’” Mark explains. “He said, ‘I want people to walk away from this record talking about how great Lamb of God sounds on this record.’ Rather than going through all these steps to kind of recreate our live energy, he simply wanted to capture it. It sounded so simple, but no one had ever come to us with that sort of directive before.”
The band knew that if the direct, no-frills approach to recording their new album was going to work, their new songs would have to be thoroughly knocked into shape long before entering the recording studio. “We did extensive pre-production, and more re-writing of these songs than we’d ever considered doing before,” says Mark. “Before, it would be like, ‘This is the way the song was written, this is the way it should be.’ But with the songs on this album, it was just like, ‘Is that really as good as it can be? Let’s do two more versions of it, and then compare them.’”
In order to once again outdo themselves and continue to evolve from ‘Sacrament’ the band would take 6 months, utilizing a self-imposed and rigid writing schedule to challenge and push each other and the new material to new levels. By the time Lamb of God began actually tracking the album, the compositions were so watertight that Wilbur was able to simply set up microphones in front of the drums and amps and let the band wail away. “We wanted to make the record thrashier than anything we’ve ever done,” says Willie. ‘Let’s just go for it again, like we did on Palaces.’”
“[2004’s] Ashes of the Wake was very successful, Sacrament was very successful, and a band in our position could have just continued down that same path, trying to live up to certain commercial standards or whatever,” says Mark. “But Chris said something early on in the making of this record that really stuck with me — he said, ‘If we don’t do the kind of record we want to do now, when the hell are we ever going to do it?’
“I don’t want to take anything away from those albums, because it took them to get us here,” Mark continues, “But Sacrament especially was a very polished, very epic sounding, and very out-of-this-world record, and we kind of wanted to come back down to earth. This one really is an organic record, meaning that it’s natural — they’re real songs, and every note you hear on it is played by a real person, and it’s all captured in a very old-fashioned way.”
Indeed, the tracks on Wrath — as the band has appropriately dubbed their beautifully punishing new album — leap from the speakers and go straight for the jugular, completely unfettered by superfluous studio trickery. But the lycanthropic ferocity of tracks like “In Your Words,” “Set To Fail” and “Fake Messiah” totally belie the fact that the Wrath sessions were also the most harmonious in Lamb of God history. While previous records were heavily fueled by creative and internal tensions (which occasionally culminated, as anyone who’s seen the Killadelphia DVD can tell you, in actual fisticuffs), Wrath was conceived in an atmosphere of sincere cooperation and mutual respect.
“It was not uncommon for John to have an idea for a kick drum pattern, or for Chris to have a suggestion about moving around a riff that Willie and I were playing,” says Mark. “We’ve all done this enough that we know how the pieces come together, and we all have ideas. It was really collaborative on all levels, and that’s what you’re hearing when you listen to the record. It’s got this energy, this pulse, this alive feel to it — and I think that comes from the fact that we were all pitching in.”
The collaborative vibe even extended to the album’s lyrics. Though Mark and Randy once again penned the bulk of the words — which run the gamut from the angrily political (“Contractor,” “Dead Seeds”) to the deeply personal (“Everything to Nothing,” “Broken Hands,” “Set To Fail”) — everyone got to chip in their own two cents as far as both words and phrasing. “The doors were a lot more open than they had been before,” Mark explains. “All that ‘dogs fighting to see who’s the dominant one’ stuff either got grown out of, or put on the shelf for a little while. I think we just decided, ‘Let’s make a really cool record!’ It was so simple,” he laughs. “Three or four years ago, that just would have seemed impossible; but now it seems so simple.”
The loose and cooperative vibe comes through most noticeably on the acoustic intro to “Reclamation,” the album’s apocalyptic final track, which was recorded live on the balcony of Studio Barbarosa, the tiny beach-adjacent studio in Virginia where the band tracked Wrath’s guitars. “Josh set up some mics out there, and Mark and I just jammed,” says Willie. “You can hear the actual ocean waves behind us. And what was cool was, Randy was like, ‘This is perfect — it totally fits my lyrics!” I asked him what they were about, and he said it was about the earth reclaiming itself and the waters rising.”
Now, with Wrath about to be unleashed upon the world, Lamb of God can concentrate on maintaining their status one of the most savage live acts to ever stalk a concert stage, as their late ’08 stint as main support for Metallica ably demonstrated. “As much as we’d wanted to take the whole year off from touring, there was no way we could turn that down,” laughs Willie. “I mean, I used to pretend I was Kirk Hammett when I was 11 years old, you know? It was totally a dream come true, and we’re really excited to go back out with them again this summer.”
Of course, expect a ton of Lamb of God headlining dates as well, as they take Wrath to the masses in yet another earth-scorching 20 month march around the globe. “It seems like just yesterday that we were one of these up-and-coming new bands, one of the underdogs,” Mark reflects. “And now I feel like we’re graduating to veteran status — we’re elder statesmen, almost. It’s been five years since we signed with Epic, which is a long time in music years, and we’re still here. But at a point where maybe we should have fizzled out, or the excitement should have plateau-ed, it feels really, really fulfilling to be this excited about new material at this stage of the game.
“We’re in a good place right now,” he continues. “All loving this record and having fun making it, getting back to our roots and all rallying around what came out of that. It’s a really cool moment for us.”
Lamb of God has built a career and a catalog of material that has inspired and fueled the evolution of Heavy Metal in the new millennium. ‘Wrath’ combines every lesson learned and years of experience with the unbridled aggression of the quartet that met up some 15 years ago. The album is a testament to the integrity of the band, choosing well into their career, on their terms, to go further and push harder than ever before. ‘Wrath’ may very well be, in many ways, their crowning achievement.
Playing at Soundwave Festival 2009
“Wrath” Track List:
1. The Passing
2. In Your Words
3. Set To Fail
5. Fake Messiah
7. Broken Hands
8. Dead Seeds
9. Everything To Nothing
10. Choke Sermon
– Lamb of God