Friday, February 27, 2009
Lamb of God's new album Wrath
All my favorite metal bands eventually go prog. I caught up with Poison the Well right on their album You Come Before You. Didn't even listen to Cave In until I ran into Antenna. Between the Buried and Me most recently released their excellent but concept-y Colors. Opeth laid a lot of flute and english horn into Watershed. The Deftones just went plain weird. Not to say these aren't fantastic albums (which aside from Saturday Night Wrist are some of my favorites.) Just, it's simply a matter of time before we're in the cavorting court of the crimson king.
And that usually signals the beginning of the end. Maybe it's true that all the best elements of heavy music get better with more musical complexity, but it's no easy task to pull off. How's a bunch of dudes in their twenties supposed to balance out the intellectual leanings with the sheer instinct that makes metal metal? Most of these guys are too buy throwin' the horns to walk that thin line. Moreover, what's even more frustrating is that rather than cutting a record right in that sweet spot - the perfect balance of intensity and complexity1 - many bands hit that apex somewhere between two albums. One disc displays a tantalizing hint of thoughtfulness, and its successor only displays a tantalizing hint of heavy metal. And from there, it's all downhill into outsmarting ourselves.
It's really too bad, because when a band hits that balance just right, the result is as transcendent as it is often fleeting.
It's in that vein that Lamb of God's 2006 album Sacrament disappointed. Don't get me wrong - great album and all. I still listen to it. But it just didn't compare to the bone-crunching glory of Ashes of the Wake. Ashes is a riff monster, and even if the writing is a little corny, there is nothing getting in the way of reptilian, metallic guitars and galloping drums. Plenty of metal albums sound aggressive, dangerous, and mean, but Ashes of the Wake sounds starved for flesh. Sacrament lost that hunger that stalked its predecessors. There's too much atmospherics, too much overdubbing, and even though Randy Blythe is2 the best vocalist in metal today, it was just too vocals-driven. It's soggy with prog.
Worse than that, practically the whole album is moody and introspective compared to the rest of the catalog. I really don't care for political metal - seems like a short walk off the "Tin Soldiers and Nixon's Coming" pier, and regardless of how awesome the music is, it's also perilously easy to violate title 18,871. But the vicious heart that beats in Lamb of God is their political rage. There's no way to make a record as tight, as violent, and as fiery if you're writing about how sad you feel. Even the typical Blythian anti-Bush rant "Redneck" is just kind of goofy. So it was a good album, but a step back into subsumed guitars, navel-gazing, and fake ensemble vocals. If you hadn't guessed, that = death. I was more than ready to accept that The Haunted - a bunch of Swedes - had successfully wrested the thrash metal crown from their American competitors.
But still: one of my all-time favorite bands. I could patiently wait forever for a successor to "Vigil." Lamb of God have earned a certain loyalty3 from me just on the strength of As the Palaces Burn. I snapped up Wrath as soon as I got home from work last Wednesday.
And damn. What a pleasant surprise. Rarer still than bands who manage to land an album right at the apex are bands who overshoot into too-proggy, but use that to launch back into even greater intensity. Meshuggah did it last year with ObZen, somehow managing to get back to the robotic hate-thrash of Destroy Erase Improve after their brief foray into hyper-concept and drum machines, and they're more mind-blowing than ever. This year, it's Lamb of God's turn.
Make no mistake, the prog is still in there - Wrath is easily the most melodic album Lamb of God have ever made. But it's a means rather than an end. A perfect example is "In Your Words," which starts off in 4/4 straight time with the Lamb of God standard piston-driven atonal riffs over Chris Adler's relentless drumming, winds through a 6/4 bridge, and ends in 6/8 with an expansive, soaring wall of major chords. It sounds like a rocket looks after it's just left the earth, hanging in space with the sky ready to swallow it. Another example is "Dead Seeds," which pushes atonality waaay past the limit with the way the central riff lays over a truly unsettling bassline. If the spines of Komodo dragons wrote riffs, well, that's what they'd sound like. "Broken Hands" is a perfect demonstration of melody-as-dynamics metalcore. "Reclamation" leans heavily on the major third and the sixth, and while "In Your Words" ends like a rocket lifting off, the closer evokes instead a 50 megaton airburst, the summoning of Meteor4, or the Chixculub impact. Serious chickens coming home to roost. There still remain the post-production touches that first appeared on Sacrament. Every now and then we're treated to those overdubbed fake ensemble vocals, or to some atmospheric flourish. But whereas on Sacrament they seemed forced and experimental, Wrath demonstrates the band's mastery of these effects. Nothing is ever out of place, not even the Planet-of-the-Apes waves that open and close "Reclamation."
And yet in spite of all that, Wrath still manages to be balls-to-the-wall thrash, pulling out all the stops throughout a well-missed Pantera-thon. If there's one thing Lamb of God have perfected, it's that particular brand of death-intensity-meets-deliberate-groove thrash metal.
Everyone in the band sounds fresh. The guitars have never, ever sounded this good, and every riff winds around itself in violent, reptilian glee. And check out the guitar work in "The Passing" and the intros to "Grace" and "Reclamation." Willie Adler has stepped up his game. What's more, the guitar is way up in the front of the mix, as it had been on Ashes. Randy Blythe may be an amazing vocalist, but when Willie Adler is on the hop, he deserves to be heard. Speaking of Blythe, he's still the most dynamic, most intense vocalist in metal today2, and his lyrics finally seem to have risen past the level of Hatebreed. The bassist is very often more than a second pair of hands on a seventh string, and I'm a sucker for a bassline that does more than underpin the guitars. The only thing that's missing is a little more creativity from the drums. We haven't had anything nearly like the vomit fill in "Ruin" since As the Palaces Burn. But even that's nitpicking - Adler's precise, burstfire drumming is flawless.
What's more, the band just sounds tight. Sacrament was a real loose-sounding album for all the aforementioned reasons, and even Ashes sagged in places. But the pace doesn't slacken anywhere in this entire album. Every song has Lamb of God's members in hobnailed, heel-ironed lockstep that they haven't managed since "Ruin" or "Hourglass." And every time the album's density threatens to overwhelm, the brothers Adler find that open-field third gear. Wrath clocks in at a taut 45 minutes, which is just about perfect for a listen-through, and it has excellent structure. For instance, the unsettling, abrupt "Dead Seeds" might let the album droop if it wasn't followed immediately with the dead-on thrash of "Everything to Nothing." The multiple clean guitar intros are spaced out to give your stapedius a well-needed breather.
All in all, the guys sound like they're having fun and hell, I would be too. That little whoop at the beginning of "Contractor"? That's the sound of a man hittin' his stride. Wrath is 45 minutes of deliberately awesome American metal. Best metal album so far this year, and it's hard to see how it'll be beat.
1 Kind of falling into that same trap, aren't I?
2 Not debatable.
3 To demonstrate: I own every major studio album by Metallica. And if they come out with another, I'll buy it too. There's always the outside chance that ...And Justice For All will somehow be reincarnated.
4 Buy you a Coke if you're not my sister and you have any clue what that means, you nerd. Buy you a Coke anyway if you're my sister.