From the moment Donald Trump announced he was running for president, Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe has criticized “the orange idiot” in interviews, on social media and onstage. So when Lamb of God released “Checkmate” in February, the first single from its eighth full-length album (due May 8 on Epic), many figured the song was a scathing indictment of POTUS. Such lyrics as “Divide and conquer and close them in/And bury secrets deep/Make America hate again and bleed the sheep to sleep” seemed to support that notion. Blythe insists that’s not the case.
“To write a record bashing Donald Trump would be rather futile, because the situation with our president is so protean and ever-shifting, and reality has become so subjective and surreal,” he explains. “ ‘Checkmate’ is not about the Republicans. It’s about how both political parties right now are two sides of the same coin, which is very destructive and disruptive to democracy.”
As timely as it would be for Lamb of God to release an album full of Trump-trashing, it would be a pretty obvious move. In other words, that wasn’t gonna happen. For 20 years now, Lamb of God has thrived on skirting the predictable. In the mid-’90s, when it was pigeonholed as a new-wave-of-American-heavy-metal band alongside Mastodon, Killswitch Engage and Shadows Fall, Lamb of God stressed its thrash and hardcore roots.
When fans pegged Blythe as strictly a screamer and growler, he gradually incorporated clean vocals into his performance. In 2012, he tested melodic waters on “Insurrection,” and he went even further on 2015’s “Overlord” and 2016 EP The Duke. The latter two were released during the cycle for 2015’s VII: Sturm und Drang, on which the band pushed musical experimentation even further.
“We never head into anything with an idea of what we want it to sound like,” guitarist Mark Morton says. “All we know is we want to keep surprising ourselves and doing stuff we like. That excites us because we’re the ones that are going to have to play the songs over and over.”
Lamb of God sounds a bit like all of the group’s previous albums. “Checkmate” is old-school LOG, melding rapid-fire riffs with tumbling beats and roaring vocals. By contrast, opening track “Memento Mori” offers a new shade of darkness, starting with eerie sound effects and atmospheric guitars overlapped by baleful, melodic vocals reminiscent of Sisters of Mercy’s Andrew Eldritch before bursting into a surging rhythm augmented by asymmetrical, staccato guitar licks. “Bloodshot Eyes” finds Blythe upping the ante by harmonizing with himself before returning to screaming.
“I just work with whatever music the guys give me,” he says. “If they hand me something that calls for singing, then I’ll sing. But if someone just screams and screams and suddenly there’s a clean part, some people lose their f–king mind as if you had come into their house and taken a s–t on their Oriental rug. It’s the most ridiculous thing about the ‘extreme metal’ world.”
The quartet has written songs about subjects including the Gulf War, U.S. policy in Afghanistan and drug enforcement, but Lamb of God is almost completely political, representing the turmoil of the times with pointed lyrics and piercing warnings. “New Colossal Hate” addresses income inequality and discrimination, “On the Hook” is about big pharma spoon-feeding addictive drugs to the masses, and “Poison Dream” confronts corporations that contaminate the environment.
Blythe observes that a lot of Lamb of God is him questioning “what the root cause of all of this s–t is,” and he concludes that much of it stems from people considering mass-produced goods to be status symbols. “I think you can trace a lot of it back to the birth of consumer culture and how deeply people are entrenched in the fallacy that money and toys will make them happy,” he says. “So I’m just presenting a snapshot of various issues and problems that are facing us right now, and none of them are getting solved because people are so firmly entrenched in this ‘I’m a Democrat’/‘I’m a Republican’ situation. Congress doesn’t even vote on policy anymore. They’re voting for their party or against the other party. They’re like competing sports teams, and there’s no level of civil discourse anymore.”
Lamb of God’s most haunting track, “Reality Bath,” features feedback-saturated guitar, meandering, psychedelic bass and spoken-word between rolling double-bass drumming and propulsive, thrashy guitar. An indictment of the military-industrial complex, the track begins with an 8-year-old girl trapped in a building with a school shooter.
The singer recalls that when he sang it for producer Josh Wilbur (Trivium, Of Mice and Men), Wilbur said, “‘Dude, the hair on my arms just stood up listening to that.’ It’s just crazy that anyone that has children has to worry about some lunatic going to the school and blowing them away. That kind of thing was inconceivable when I was a child.”
He recalls that during high school in rural Southampton County, Va., “Kids came to school straight from hunting in the woods. Sometimes they’d have a dead deer slung over the bed of the pickup truck, and they’d come to school with their gun and gun rack. No big deal. No one ever thought, ‘You know what? One day, one of these good ol’ boys is going to walk into the school with his f–king 12-gauge and start blowing motherfuckers away.’ But that’s reality now.”
Lamb of God is the band’s first album to feature ex-Winds of Plague drummer Art Cruz, who officially replaced co-founder Chris Adler (brother of guitarist Willie Adler) in July 2019 due to personal and creative differences. When someone new joins a group, there’s usually a learning curve before the musicians feel comfortable together. Lamb of God didn’t have that luxury: Cruz initially came aboard just in time for the band’s support slot on Slayer’s farewell tour, which began in May 2018.
To make the deadline for a 2020 album release, Lamb of God had to write and record in a series of weeklong sessions spread a month or two apart. Despite the challenges, main songwriters Morton and Willie rapidly churned out material.
“Willie and I had tons of material to work with since we collected lots of riffs and song ideas when we were writing at home over the last four years since the last Lamb album,” explains Morton. “But we very deliberately left room for each other to interpret or improve upon each other’s ideas, whereas in the past, it was more like, ‘OK, I’ve got these seven songs, he’s got these seven songs. Let’s each pick four or five of our best and work with those.’ This time, we were way more collaborative.”
Writing and recording in short chunks could be a recipe for disaster, but Lamb of God flourished. Each time it returned to the studio, it was able to reexamine what it had previously done and make appropriate changes. And due to the months between sessions, it never got tired of the material. Lamb of God entered the studio with Wilbur in the summer of 2019 and finished the record in a five-week tracking session. Cruz and bassist John Campbell enjoyed the process as much as Morton and Willie. However, while Blythe loved the songs, he would have preferred a root canal to being back in the vocal booth.
“Doing an album is a very physical thing for me,” he says. “I’m frying my throat because I have to have the headphones ear-bleedingly loud to get the vibe that I need. The studio just grinds me to pieces, and being there becomes the entirety of my existence. The music’s angry, so I’m angry. And I don’t like to be mad and depressed all the time.”
Lamb of God originally planned to start touring behind the album at the end of March in Europe with Kreator and Power Trip. However, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the band to postpone the trek (which was called State of Unrest, ironically). The band still hopes to launch a tour with Megadeth, Trivium and In Flames on June 12 in Bristow, Va., pending the containment of the disease. Dates are scheduled through Nov. 13 in Reno, Nev.
As with most musicians, the situation is a very real cause for concern, but now that Cruz is settled in, that’s about the only thing bothering the band members, who are getting along better than they have in years. “It’s fun again,” says Morton. “Everything about being in Lamb of God is better than I can remember in a long time.”
Even the oft-irascible Blythe is doing his best to look at life through a half-full glass. During his downtime, he has been focusing more on other things he loves — including reading and photography — and not letting political strife kill his mood.
“I don’t want to be a complete nihilist,” he admits. “Sometimes I’ll be leaning that way, and then I’ll think, ‘Wow, right now, a mother somewhere just gave birth to her child and is picking it up and seeing it for the first time. Somewhere, a couple is falling in love. Somewhere, someone is helping someone in trouble because it feels like the right thing for them to do.’ All of that stuff is happening, and it makes me think that there may be some hope after all.”