God Bless America
It's been a long time since the pop-music face of heavy rock and roll--metal and its various offshoots, if you're being picky--was an accurate view of what was going on in its nebulous, if thriving, scene. In fact, the twain really haven't met since the genre's inception in the late 1960s and early '70s, when Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath fuzzed-out their blues-based power chords and pushed up the tempo to bitch-slap the age of Aquarius with dark, menacing moods. By the time punk came along, heavy metal had become the playground of AOR rock, and the genre soon became most recognized by the hair-farming glam-metal clowns of MTV's first decade. At the time, however, American punk, garage and proto-grunge bands like Bad Brains, Halo of Flies or Drunks With Guns delivered heavier chops than the likes of Ratt, Quiet Riot or Whitesnake could ever muster. Even Canadians like Voivod punched holes through the clean sheen of Extreme. And when Guns N' Roses emerged to become the new kings of metal decadence, Metallica and Slayer weren't the arena-drawing names they are now.
But metal moves on continuously, fostered without the aid of commercial radio airplay or regular MTV rotation. And one of the rising acts of this next generation--not to be confused with nü metal--is Richmond, Virginia's Lamb of God. Formed in 1994 as Burn the Priest, the band signals a return to a less theatrical brand of metal than seen in the shock antics of death and black metal.
"When we started, it was just kind of getting together with a bunch of friends," drummer Chris Adler says. "At the time we were just kind of burnt outon the stuff that was coming out from a lot of the veterans of the scene. We didn't think we were going to do it better than anybody else, but we wanted to at least give it a shot or at least try to do what we wanted to hear. That's pretty much where we were at. And we're still doing the same thing."
Richmond in the early 1990s was fertile terrain for the sort of no-frills, balls-out noise that Lamb of God churns out. It was the early stomping ground of theatrical war pigs GWAR, but it also gave birth to lesser-known heavy acts like the punishing instrumental rock of Breadwinner, and the mighty power of Hose Got Cable. And this sort of no-shtick approach was exactly what Lamb of God wanted to do.
"I think that was kind of the idea from the beginning," Adler says. "The slogan that we've been sort of crowned with is 'pure American metal.' I think it's something that this town definitely breeds, and I think it's one of those things that keeps us unique in the metal scene, especially now. It's been a long time since a band has come out--probably since the early 1980s--where there wasn't a gimmick that you were relying on. When we go to play a show, we turn on the amps, and that's as good as it's going to get for us. We go 110 percent, and it's about the music. We'd much rather spend our time working on the songs than our makeup."
It's an approach that's become the new hallmark for American metal acts. Other bands also pursued this straightforward sound, and the New Jersey-based label Relapse--home to such outfits as the grueling math-metal thoroughbred Dillinger Escape Plan--has become one of the biggest proponents of this burgeoning community. There's even a relatively new magazine devoted to the sound, Terrorizer, a British publication that takes a serious, aesthetically and historically conscious, The Wire-style approach to the genre.
After recording two 7-inch singles and a full-length as Burn the Priest, the band added a new guitarist and Lamb of God--Adler, guitarist Will Adler, vocalist D. Randall Blythe, bassist John Campbell, and guitarist Duane--was born. It arrived at a time when this wave of new metal really started to gain momentum. "The pendulum definitely seems to be swinging in the heavy direction," Adler concurs. "Ever since the beginning, we kind of caught into this punk rock, crusty scene. When we first started out, the pendulum hadn't quite swung back in that direction. There was that underground metal scene that remains today--and I don't necessarily mean anything bad by calling it underground--but it's that sound that made Relapse happen. We were kind of in that group of guys who were out there busting our butts, traveling around in a van, doing it for gas money if that and just having a blast with ourselves and the people that enjoyed it with us."
Lamb of God's debut, 2000's New American Gospel, is a crystalline document of the band's solid sound. Its 10 tracks travel a tight terrain of super-fast riffs and throat-ripping vocals that take the sculpted noise of Discharge to exhausting extremes. "Letter to the Unborn" rides lightning-quick lines of a twin-guitar attack paced with snare-tom chops. And standout track "Terror and Hubris in the House of Frank Pollard" is the sort of thick, running-through-a-swimming-pool sludge that matches anything the Melvins or Sleep deliver.
Helping them along was Today is the Day's Steve Austin, who produced. "We worked with Steve on the Burn the Priest record," Adler says. "This label in Philadelphia, Legion Records, put it out. And it was a severely independent label. It was basically a buddy of ours who had a few extra dollars and wanted to get us on record because he believed in us. And with the kind of budget we had, we really didn't have many options to get this going. So we put the word out that we were looking to record stuff to the guys who do this stuff, and we had played a few of the shows with Steve. He got in touch and said, 'I don't care what your budget is--I really want to work you guys. I really like your band.' So we went up and spent four of the longest days ever recording that record, actually tracked 14 songs and mixed and produced it in four days.
"But in those four days something really magical happened between us and Steve, just a mutual respect and understanding that we have for each other that couldn't be replaced," Adler continues. "And I think that's why when it came time to do New American Gospel there was no choice but to go back. He's worked harder for us than I know anyone would. He's really become like a sixth member of this band. He laid down vocal tracks on both records. He just really believes in what we're doing and wants to help as best he can."
That assistance is finally starting to pay off for the band. New American Gospel has opened a number of doors for the band and has been the main reason Lamb of God has been getting offers to hit the road extensively and expose its sound to metal heads looking for that new kick. "We're supposed to be, and looking forward to greatly, touring in England later in the year," Adler says. "Everything for us recently has been very alive. We're starting to take that leap. We're stepping out of the van and doing some big-time stuff. It's nice, of course, to be received well, and we're flattered by the press that we've been getting lately, but we just want to keep pushing the envelope. We're really just happy to do this and be the friends we are and have such a good time."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.