This feature was originally published in June 2003.
It's late afternoon in Hollywood, and on the dingy street outside Marcussen Mastering, the local winos are sucking on their bagged bottles as the sunlight begins to fade. Inside the mastering studio, Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler takes a swig of water and gestures good-naturedly at the Revolver reporter's hand-held recorder. "Turn that thing off," he says, smiling.
Adler, who makes his home in Richmond, Virginia, has come to Hollywood to oversee the mastering of As the Palaces Burn (Prosthetic), the Devin Townsend—produced follow-up to 2000's unrelentingly brutal New American Gospel. Up till now, no one outside of Lamb of God's inner circle has heard so much as a note from the hotly anticipated record, and Adler wants to make sure that none of the recordings leak out before he's happy with the final project.
He needn't worry. As the engineer rolls the track, the sound that leaps from the speakers is so heavy and ferocious that no puny microcassette recorder could ever hope to capture it. If new tracks like "Ruin" and "Eleventh Hour" are any indication, Lamb of God have taken the black-and-chrome speed metal attack of their debut record and transferred it into screaming wide-screen Technicolor. Led by Adler's rampaging double bass drums, the band (which includes Mark Morton and Adler's younger brother Will on guitars, and bassist John Campbell) lets fly with a dense succession of demonic riffs, while vocalist D. Randall Blythe roars like a Yeti rudely awakened from a century's hibernation. This is real metal, the sort of scary, sick shit that will have you banging your head and raising a devil-horn salute before you even know what hit you. It may be "old school," but there's nothing remotely old-fashioned about it.
"Call it real metal, call it what you will," says Adler, "but it's what we've felt and appreciated from the older bands that we grew up on. Playing music like that has been the goal all along—to just not sell out to ourselves."
Simply put, Lamb of God rock for the sheer love of it. Money, fame, groupies, ego gratification — none of it seems to mean a damn thing to these Richmond's boys, and they've been that way since they first came together under the family-friendly name Burn the Priest. "When we started up in '94, it wasn't that we realized that we were great musicians and should play music together," Adler explains. "It was more like, 'OK, we don't know what we're doing, but I can't even go into a record store anymore and buy a metal album that I like. So let's go make some noise ourselves. At least we'll have the satisfaction of being able to listen to our own tapes.'"
Lamb of God's modus operandi — stay humble, tour hard, have fun, and always play the most blistering music possible — has won them many friends in the world of underground metal. Prosthetic Records estimates that New American Gospel has rarely sold more than 200 copies a week, yet, nearly three years after its release, it still continues to sell steadily. "It's been kind of a slow burn," Adler says.
Upon its release in September 2000, New American Gospel received unfailingly positive reviews, and word of the record's excellence spread rapidly through cyberspace, thanks to the band's long-held policy of uploading its music to the web for anyone who'd care to check it out. Already seasoned by years of gas-money gigs, Lamb of God further stoked the buzz by holding their own on tours with everyone from Cannibal Corpse and Dimmu Borgir to Mushroomhead and Shadows Fall. Of course, having a raving maniac like Blythe for a frontman didn't hurt.
"Randy is the 'black sheep' of Lamb of God," Adler says with a laugh. "We're no saints, any of us, but Randy certainly pulls his own weight when it comes to the crazy aspect of the band. He's the epitome of a frontman for a band like us — you couldn't ask for a better stage show than you're gonna get out of Randy. When our first record came out, we went out on tour with Gwar, who are our hometown buddies. We did a show with them in Columbus, Ohio, and Randy bein' Randy, he did himself in good and went out to take a piss off of a shorter porch than he expected. He ended up two flights down, and a few minutes later he was in the hospital with a broken arm. So yeah, you've gotta keep an eye on that guy."
More than two years after New American Gospel was released, Lamb of God unexpectedly scored some MTV2 airplay with their haunting black-and-white video for "Black Label." "It surprised everybody, especially us," Adler recalls. "We got kind of a cryptic email saying, 'Hey, if you guys can get us a video, we'll see what we can do about playing it.' I think they've got, like, an intern up there who's into us, or something!" Having no video — or video budget — to speak of, the band artfully cobbled together tour footage (shot by its soundman with Adler's video camera) with pieces from a friend's film school project. "I think our budget was $75," Adler says. "We sent it up there, and the next thing you know, I'm watching MTV2 one night — there's Van Halen, and then our video comes on. I was just like, 'Holy Shit!' It was a totally surreal moment."
As acclaim for New American Gospel began to build, so too did expectations — and preparations — for its sequel. "We really wanted to take the songwriting to the next level," says Adler. "There were entire songs shelved that would have easily made it onto anything we've released before. We were very deliberate about everything that went into this, and very careful about our individual parts — making them everything that we wanted them to be."
Needing a producer for the new record, Lamb of God contacted Strapping Young Lad visionary Devin Townsend. "I've been a big fan of Devin's production style for a really long time," says Adler. "He'd heard the last record, he saw us when we played Vancouver, and he was into what we were trying to do, which was really exciting for us. He came down to Richmond, we brought him to the studio straight off the plane, and we started working that night. The first thing we did was set up all the instruments and play the entire album, from first song to last. We were like, 'This is the album, these are the songs — this is the way they're staying. We need your help in getting great performances out of us, great sounds, and gluing them together.' And he came through like a champ."
Despite their extensive gestation time, the 10 tracks that comprise As the Palaces Burn proved fairly grueling to record. "We worked for 22 days," remembers Adler. "The drums were done in two days, and the vocals took four, so it was a whole lotta guitars going on for a long time." He laughs. "It was some brutal stuff, man — there were people on the verge of tears. A lot of these songs really pushed the limits of what we were capable of. It was frustrating for everybody and I think everybody was a little intimidated by the process. But at the same time it was pretty thrilling, because once you got through the part that was just driving you crazy, when you went back and checked it out, it was like, 'Oh man, that is everything we wanted it to be, and more!'"
Adding to the excitement was the participation of Chris Poland, lead guitarist on Megadeth's first two albums, 1985's Killing Is My Business…and Business Is Good and 1986's Peace Sells…But Who's Buying? "Both of our guitarists are extremely proficient at soloing," Adler says, "but on 'Purified' there was a part that was just screaming, 'Hey! Solo! Solo!' Mark and Willie were talking about getting some guests from other Richmond bands to do it. I was like, 'Why don't we reach out a little bit? Why don't we reach for the stars and see what we can pull in?'"
"I called up EJ Johantgen, the owner of our label, and said, 'Hey, you don't happen to know how to get ahold of Chris Poland, do you?' Because for me, the bible of metal is Peace Sells — that's where it's at, and that's where metal needs to get back to. It was just a shot in the dark. But EJ called me back the next day with Chris' home phone number."
Tongue-tied and nervous — "It was all I could do to not be like, 'Ahhh! You rule!'" — Adler placed a call to Poland. "He was a super-nice guy," Adler remembers. "He said, 'You know, I'm not really feeling the metal thing anymore, but I've heard good things about you, and I'd be happy to listen to what you've go going on.' So we sent him out the track, and the day he got it, he called me up and said, 'Oh, this track is brutal! I can't wait to put something down on this!' He was gonna get together with his engineer at the studio where he works, do the track and FedEx it back to us. Then his guitar rig went down, and then his computer went down, and there was this big delay.
"Finally," Adler continues, "We're mixing up in Vancouver, and the day we get to that song, Chris' FedEx package shows up at the studio. We listened back to his solo, and I just lit up, ear to ear. It totally renewed my faith in heavy metal."
As the Palaces Burn should restore a lot of people's faith in metal, and not just because it kicks major ass. Like Megadeth before them, Lamb of God are not afraid to grapple with thornier issues of contemporary existence. "The title is not a specific commentary on current world events," says Adler, "but when you look at the lyrics — which will be printed in the booklet—there's a lot that we and our singer have to say. There's some important stuff that we have on our minds — besides riffs."
At a time when most artists — even ones of the metal persuasion — are afraid to speak up about what's going wrong in the world, Lamb of God's willingness to voice their opinions is refreshing, if not surprising. "If we have something to say, we'll have no reservations about saying it," says Adler. "It's pretty obvious that the pendulum of popular taste is heading back towards heavy music, and you're starting to see heavier acts get radio play, MTV play, whatever. That's great for them, but we're gonna keep doing what we're doing, and if the pendulum happens to swing that far, we'll be there. We didn't go into this trying to get on the radio or TV."