Lamb of God: Pure American Mettle
Originally published in Guitar World, May 2009
Will Lamb of God’s Wrath be able to best its hit predecessor, Sacrament? As their new song “Contractor” declares, it’s “guaran-fucking-teed.” Willie Adler and Mark Morton give Guitar World their word.
From the wide, tree-lined street, Willie Adler’s house looks much like any other, tucked neatly among rows of newly developed two-story residences in a suburb outside Richmond, Virginia. A healthy lawn rings the perimeter, bicycles lay in a heap by the front steps, and two SUVs sit side-by-side in the driveway. On first glance, there’s nothing to lead your average soccer mom to suspect her neighbor to be one-fifth of the band behind such speed-metal screeds as “Walk with Me in Hell” and “Now You’ve Got Something to Die For.” Though there is at least a subtle warning: the Lamb of God sticker on display in the rear window of each vehicle.
Inside the house, the signifiers of Adler’s day job are evident. Adjacent to a family room is a makeshift demo studio, outfitted with a computer and various instruments and pieces of gear. On a living room wall hangs a row of guitars, including two new camouflage versions of Adler’s ESP signature model and an old B.C. Rich Bich, the white body adorned with Metallica and Mr. T. stickers. “That was my first guitar,” Adler says of the beat-up ax. “I used that on a lot of the early Lamb of God material.” As he administers the brief tour, two eager dogs roam the premises, and, in a cage by the back door, Paco, his green parrot, sits on a perch. At the moment, Adler is less than pleased with the bird. “He shits a lot,” he says. “One of the dogs was laying underneath him the other day, and he shit all over her.” But the parrot has its redeeming qualities. “He loves the metal. I’ll be blaring the heaviest stuff from the music room, and then I’ll come in here and he’ll be in his cage, dancing.”
Today, Paco will have ample reason to dance. Later in the afternoon, Adler and Lamb of God co-guitarist Mark Morton will sit on a couch in Adler’s living room, plug in guitars and run through some of their greatest riffs, including the ones that comprise “Set to Fail,” the first single from the band’s new album, Wrath (Epic). Afterward, Adler will grab an advance copy of the disc from his wife’s car, pop it in his studio’s computer and crank it throughout the house. He’ll highlight moments he’s especially proud of—a particularly snaky riff, or one of Morton’s solos—by cracking a wide grin and playing air guitar along with the part.
At present, however, Mark Morton has yet to materialize. As it turns out, he took a wrong turn on the drive over—odd, considering the two guitarists live only a few miles apart. When Morton finally shows up, he admits that despite their proximity to one another, this is the first time he has actually been to Adler’s house. “Look,” he says with a smile, extending his arm out horizontally, “for two years at a time we live about this far from each other. So when we get off the road, I don’t need to come over and—I don’t know—watch the game.”
The two will soon enough be once again living at arm’s length. In a week, Lamb of God head off to Finland to begin touring for Wrath. They hit the U.S. for their first headlining run in the spring and look to be on the road for “at least the next 18 months or so,” Adler says. At present, the band—which also includes drummer (and Willie’s older brother) Chris Adler, bassist John Campbell and singer Randy Blythe—has been home for only a few weeks, having just finished up a month of support dates for Metallica on their World Magnetic tour. “That was really exciting,” Morton says. “Of all the bands that were big influences on us—Slayer, Megadeth, those types of guys—there are very few left that we haven’t done shows with. Metallica were one of them, and now they’re not.” The gigs also presented Lamb of God with what is a rare scenario these days—facing an audience that may have no idea who they are. “Metallica is such a commercially successful act that a lot of their crowd is not what I would consider to be metal fans,” Morton says. “So it was a challenge. But I think it was really good for us to be thrown into open water like that and have to figure it out. At this point, it’s not often that we find ourselves in situations we haven’t experienced before.”
Indeed, there isn’t much Lamb of God haven’t seen or done by this stage of their career. Since forming in Richmond in the early Nineties as Burn the Priest, they’ve been on a steady rise to the top of the metal heap. Many of their albums, including 2000’s New American Gospel and 2003’s As the Palaces Burn, stand as defining documents of post-Pantera metal—rooted in classic thrash and speed metal but executed with heightened technical facility and fury, and topped with hardcore-ish vocals that alternate between a clipped bark and an all-consuming roar. It’s hardly a recipe for mainstream success, yet Lamb of God’s last disc—and second for major label Epic—Sacrament, debuted at number eight on the Billboard album chart and was crowned the biggest-selling metal record of 2006. Add to that an almost nonstop tour schedule that has seen them play alongside—now that Metallica has been crossed off the list—just about everyone, and it’s hardly surprising that Morton is up for any new challenge that comes Lamb of God’s way.
Which brings us to Wrath, which is being touted as something of a return to form for the band—a rawer, more direct effort than Sacrament. Though Sacrament was Lamb of God’s biggest success to date, the consensus was that its songs suffered from overly fussy production: vocals and guitars were at times extravagantly layered, and, in a particularly egregious move, some arrangements were bolstered with keyboards. During the recording of Wrath, at least one band member appeared to be suffering lingering damage from the experience.
“There was a point where we were checking mixes for one of the new songs, ‘Broken Hands,’ ” Morton says, “and in the chorus I had done these sliding octaves that added a real depth, almost like a string arrangement. Chris [Adler] heard it and was like, ‘We gotta dump that bit.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean? It sounds cool.’ And his response was, ‘It sounds really cool. In fact, I think it adds to the part. But it sounds like a synthesizer.’ ” Morton pauses, still somewhat puzzled by the conversation that followed. “So I told Chris that what he was hearing wasn’t a synthesizer, it was my guitar. And he said, ‘I know it is. I know you played it. You did a great job. But it still sounds like a synth. It’s gotta go.’ And we kept going back and forth like this for I don’t know how long. I finally backed him down by just saying, ‘Chris, you’re trippin’.’ And he stopped and looked me and said, ‘You’re right. I’m trippin’.’ And he dropped it.”
“The thing is,” Willie adds, “Sacrament was a very epic-sounding record. It was very produced, very processed. There was lots of layering, lots of outside sounds woven into the arrangements. And that was fine for that record. It worked. But we weren’t going to go further in that direction. So this time it felt very natural to strip away all that pretense and just be a heavy metal band playing heavy metal riffs.”
That’s not to say that Wrath is a retread. In very elemental ways, the band has ventured into new territory on the disc. For starters, Lamb of God parted ways with Machine, who had produced the band’s two major-label efforts. In his place, they chose to work with Josh Wilbur who, despite being a Grammy Award–winning engineer, had almost no experiencing helming a project on his own. “We stuck our necks out a little, letting someone produce who had technically never done it before,” Morton admits. “I mean, it’s a major-label release, and within the metal community it’s a pretty high-profile record. Certainly to us it’s an important project. But Josh was really motivated and hungry to do it, and we knew his work ethic and trusted his ear.”
Furthermore, the band already had a long-standing working relationship with Wilbur, who engineered Chris Adler’s drums and much of Morton’s guitar work on Sacrament, and mixed the live band audio on their 2008 DVD, Walk with Me in Hell. Their easy rapport paid off on Wrath, which Adler calls “representative of the sound you hear when you come see us play.” In point of fact, many of the album’s tracks are not only evocative of the band in a live setting but also distill to its essence the sound on which Lamb of God have built their reputation. Go-for-the-throat songs like “Set to Fail” and “Grace” explode with dizzying, labyrinthine riffs and rampaging rhythms, while “Contractor,” on which Blythe contributes a guttural, rapid-fire vocal, is among the most bracing and impressive tunes in the band’s entire catalog, splitting the difference between punk venom and death-metal pummel.
For their guitar parts, Morton and Adler worked together more closely than they have in the recent past. “In the early days we basically sat next to each other and spun out riffs,” Morton says. “But over the course of the last few albums we kind of split, so that we would each just show up with whole tunes written. And by the time of Sacrament we were working pretty independently of one another. That brings a cool dynamic, but I think we each got too heavily into our own trip. So for this record we still did some writing individually, but we communicated that the process needed to be more open and inclusive.”
The openness led to some of the album’s standout moments, such as the two-minute instrumental coda to the song “In Your Words.” Where most thrash-style metal bands would take the opportunity of an extended, vocal-less section to jam in as many hot-shot shred licks as possible, Morton and Adler instead orchestrate a hazy, heavily atmospheric progression that turns almost hypnotic in its droning repetitiveness.
“That’s a perfect example of collaboration,” Morton says. “Willie was kind of directing that tune, and he had this open chord progression that was really cool. And I thought, How do I take this to another level? So we came up with melodies and counter-melodies and just kept building on it. That part isn’t technically difficult, but it’s badass.
“It’s like stairsteps,” he continues. “There’s a new element introduced every two bars or so, and it just keeps expanding. Josh said, ‘This is the kind of song you mix backward.’ You start at the end, where all this stuff is going on and everyone’s doing something that matters, and then you move backward and start pulling things out. You strip it away until you have just one guitar, bass and drums.”
While “In Your Words” was labor intensive in its construction, other moments on Wrath came about more spontaneously. The album’s closing track, “Reclamation,” is bookended by sections that feature Adler laying down an ominous pattern on Dobro while Morton spins snaky single-note lines on a Guild acoustic. In the background, wind howls and waves crash against a shore. “That was actually happening around us,” Morton says. “We laid down the guitar tracks at Studio Barbarosa, which is right on the water in Virginia. You walk out the back door and your toes are in the sand. I looked out the window and Willie was sitting on a deck playing acoustic and Josh was setting up mics. So I poked my head out and was like, ‘Can I get in on this?’ We did a few takes, and at the end I just broke out a little solo that was totally improvised. And Randy was there too—we had him holding up blankets and umbrellas, shielding the mics from the wind.”
Beyond his expert wind-shielding abilities, Blythe’s contributions to Wrath have drawn high praise from Morton and Adler. The man who has in the past been characterized as an outsider in his own band was, according to Adler, “part of this album, right from preproduction. Typically, Randy writes a lot of his stuff after we have some of the landscape complete, but this time he was there from day one.” It’s hardly an overstatement to say that Blythe’s authoritative vocals and outsized, often borderline-psychotic, onstage persona are among Lamb of God’s defining characteristics, but on Wrath he also contributes some of his most impressive lyrics, particularly on the song “Contractor.”
“Randy and I had been talking about writing a song like that for a long time,” Morton says. “I brought the riff in, which is real simple—lots of pedaling, lots of accents, with room for sneering vocals. And he just took off with it.”
Blythe’s lyrics, a vividly drawn screed lambasting the Haliburton-type corporations that have used the Iraq war as means to wage their own personal gold rush, drop the listener straight into Baghdad, “stomping lines in international sand” and “running red lights in a green zone.” It’s a manic yet detailed account and also introduces what is sure to become a crowd-chanting catchphrase: “Guaran-fucking-teed.”
Morton calls the song “one of Randy’s best,” which is significant for two reasons: he and Blythe are the two primary lyricists in the band, and Morton has at times been the singer’s most forthright adversary. Exhibit #1 in that regard is the now-infamous fight, captured for posterity on the 2005 DVD Killadelphia and endlessly replayed on YouTube, between the two on the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, in which Morton, after being goaded by an inebriated, kilted Blythe, punches him square in the face, knocking him unconscious.
Less physically injurious, but perhaps as psychologically incisive, is the Sacrament song “Redneck,” written by Morton, and sung by Blythe, and featuring lines like “So drunk on yourself, self-righteous / A laughing stock of your own fucking stage.” When pressed on the subject, Morton now admits that some of the words, written during a period when Blythe was on the outs with the rest of the band, were about the man who ultimately had to sing them. “I guess you could say I was calling him out a bit,” he says. “But the thing is, Randy’s one of my best friends in the world, and we have that kind of relationship where I will call his ass out if he does something stupid, and vice versa. Now, if that means that someone’s gotta get hit in the mouth, then someone’s gotta get hit in the mouth.”
Morton pauses, then smiles. “And if that means someone’s gotta sing a lyric about themselves, then they gotta sing a lyric about themselves! But it says something about Randy that he’ll go down that road. That’s the kind of motherfucker he is, and I love him for it.”
Currently, relations among the band members are at their strongest in years, partly an effect of the team effort on Wrath. “The great thing about this album,” Adler says, “is that it’s more collaborative than any we’ve done. Everybody really stepped up to the plate on this one. We went into the recording with a very clear mindset: what’s good is good, but what’s better is better. There were no battles and no big arguments. And we didn’t try to sound like anyone else or worry about chasing any trends. We just did what we do.”
Which is as it’s always been. “We’ve been a band for a long time now,” Morton says. “And we’ve lived through so many changes in metal. When we were Burn the Priest people called us grindcore. In the early days of Lamb of God it was extreme metal, and then it became the New Wave of American Heavy Metal. Then it was metalcore. But I’ve always just thought of us as a straight-up metal band, and that’s what we’ll always be. And I’m proud of that.”
“It’s crazy,” Adler adds, picking up the thread. “I mean, how many more genres of metal can you have? By the next record, they’ll be labeling us ‘gorecore’ or something…”
“I know,” Morton says with a laugh. “It’s like, ya’ll keep calling us something different, but we keep doing the same damn thing!”