This feature was originally published in August 2006.
It was supposed to be a relaxing little vacation, a head-clearing New Year's getaway to Amsterdam with the wife. But even in the capital of the Netherlands, where herbal calmatives are legal and abundant, Chris Adler could not relax. The Lamb of God drummer simply couldn't stop obsessing about the music he and his bandmates had just written, turning each section over in his mind to analyze its strengths and weaknesses.
"We had a blast in Amsterdam," he says now. "But I'd wake up in the middle of the night, and I'd just sit there and practice the parts. The music would not go away—I just couldn't get it out of my head!"
To say that Lamb of God are somewhat perfectionist is to say that Dick Cheney is kind of an asshole. If they're not the hardest-working band in metal right now (though they're probably in the top five), they may well be the most anal and obsessive, at least when it comes to their music. While most groups have one or two members who lead the way and call the shots during writing and recording, Adler, his younger brother Willie (guitar), Mark Morton (guitar), John "J.C." Campbell (bass), and Randy Blythe (vocals) all contribute substantially to the writing process, and each one is more than willing to go to the mat on behalf of a song, a riff, or even a single note. "Every chord and drum hit, it's like life and death," says the elder Adler.
What's amazing about Lamb of God is that, for all of their maddening meticulousness, their music still sounds raw and passionate. Sacrament, the Richmond, Virginia–based band's second full-length studio release for Epic Records and fourth overall (or fifth, if you count the CD they made back in 1998 under the name Burn the Priest), is a rich, diverse-sounding record, with none of the Queensrÿche-ian blandness that one might expect to result from such painstaking attention to detail. Produced by Machine (who also helmed 2004's Ashes of the Wake), Sacrament boasts an impressive degree of sonic clarity, and the band's playing is tight and dexterous. And every one of the album's 11 cuts boils over with rage and frustration—not surprising at all, considering the often agonizing and fractious nature of the Sacrament sessions.
"There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that went into this, and that sounds kind of clichéd and cheesy, but there really were some difficult points in this record," says Chris. "It took a lot out of us—kind of like it was a rite of passage. And when it was done, it was like, This is what we have to offer to the world—this is our sacred statement. And that's why we're calling it Sacrament."
The story of Sacrament essentially begins in 2004, with the release of Ashes of the Wake. Written and recorded in a rush in order to meet Epic's demand for a late-summer release date, Ashes proved that Lamb of God could graduate to a major label without smoothing out or prettying up their crushing brand of extreme metal. Blythe's voice was higher in the mix than it had been on the band's previous albums, but that only served to highlight how much he'd improved as a vocalist since the days of Burn the Priest, and how well he'd responded to Machine's left-field approach to recording vocal. (The producer would often egg the frontman on by screaming and throwing chairs around the studio while Blythe sang.)
Though Epic assured the bandmates that they loved the record and had no intention of trying to mold them into the next Nickelback, there was still some confusion within Lamb of God as to the label's expectations. "It was like, if we sell 100,000 records, is that a disaster to them?" says Chris. "On Prosthetic, our old label, that's a huge success. But for a major label these days, that's in most cases a disaster. But Epic didn't have anybody like us to measure us against. So they never said anything to us like, 'Go gold, or you're dropped!' They never gave us a magic number."
Ashes of the Wake wound up earning raves and selling 260,000 copies in the U.S. By contrast, 2003's As the Palaces Burn, their last record for Prosthetic, had sold 75,000 by the time the band inked their deal with Epic in 2004. (It's since risen past the 180,000 mark.) Ashes' numbers were impressive indeed for a band that had still been playing shows for beer and gas money just a few years earlier. And given Ashes of the Wake's excellent critical reception, Machine was the obvious choice to produce the follow-up. But he initially wanted no part of it.
"With us, there's no room for anything to affect the writing process except this group of dudes that are in league with each other but are also in constant conflict," Morton explains. "And on Ashes, Machine was constantly frustrated by that. He'd say, 'Please let me try this idea.' And we're like, 'No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!'" The guitarist laughs. "And then it'd be like, 'OK, you could try it, but we're going to shoot it down. We're going to hate it, but go ahead.' So he'd try something, and every once in a while we'd be like, 'Hey, wow, wait a minute — what a great idea!' And he'd be like, 'Thanks, fuckers!'"
"Even though we didn't agree with all of his ideas, the thing that made Machine special to us was that he brought in this real different sense of production than what the 'usual suspect' guys were doing," says Chris. "He'd come up in the rave scene in England, and he'd worked with King Crimson, and he really hadn't done any metal records before us. And that's what was perfect for us. With Ashes, he made us sound like we'd always wanted to hear ourselves."
In the end, it fell to the elder Adler to woo Machine back into the Lamb of God fold. "I flew to New York, took him out to dinner, and said, 'I know we're difficult. I know I'm difficult. I know that this project is difficult. And I know if I were you I wouldn't want to do it, either. But we're really interested in working with you and letting you in early, listening to your ideas,'" the drummer recalls. "At this point, we hadn't written any new songs, so I was like, 'You can come to the first practice, the first writing session, and you can start throwing out ideas then.' And I just saw the twinkle in his eye. The next day, the paperwork was signed, and he was on board."
Unfortunately, Machine got hung up by some prior commitments, including the making of the new Eighteen Visions album. By the time he made it to the Lamb of God rehearsal space, the band had already written all the songs for the new record and was once again less than open to suggestions.
"He came at us with a million ideas that we shot down," Chris says with a laugh. "We were already in love with the songs, and you can't really mess with, you know, our little babies at this point. But I think the working relationship that we had built on the last record still meant a lot, just in terms of efficiency and the way we're able to know each other's quirks. I think he used a lot of 'Jedi mind tricks' with us this time to get us to believe that he was right, and we did the same with him. So while there were a lot of difficult moments in terms of the actual performances, I think we got along better this time in terms of ideas."
Still, even by Lamb of God standards, the Sacrament sessions were brutal for all involved, as Machine and the five band members pushed each other to the limits of their creative abilities—and often beyond. "We were dealing with issues, personal and professional, and there were points where people were breaking down and not believing in themselves enough to get it done," Chris Adler explains. "When someone was tracking their part, there would be four dudes looking over his shoulder, being like, 'You can play it better, you can play it better!' Machine was riding everybody — 'No, that's not it!' All these good ideas were going out the window, because we knew there had to be something a little better, and we wanted to make this the definitive Lamb of God record.
"That internal pressure just got to us," he continues. "We couldn't get away. On dinner breaks, more often than not, everybody would just go get their own dinner. Because if you went with somebody else, you'd end up sitting there arguing about what was going on, and you'd never eat. So you'd have, like, five minutes to just stuff your face and make sure you didn't miss anything in the studio."
"This record was really fucking stressful to make, especially for me," says Blythe. "I quit drinking for awhile, to see if it would help me write. And then I got writer's block, so I started drinking again. The dudes in my band would have these email conferences, so, like, every 15 fuckin' minutes — seconds, sometimes — a new email would pop up on my Blackberry, and it's them arguing over a 16th note. And I'm like, 'I don't give a fuck — let's just fuckin' make this record!'
"A lot of fucking stuff happened to me during this record," the singer continues. "Personal shit that I'd really rather not have put into print. And I kind of went to a really dark place in my head for a good while. Some people said, 'Well, at least it's going to make for a killer record.' I kind of had to look at it like that, but it almost fucking killed me."
Though Blythe would surely rather not replicate the experience, his vocal performances on Sacrament are easily his strongest to date. On "Blacken the Cursed Sun" and "Again We Rise," he roars like a demonic commander leading his troops of the damned into apocalyptic battle, and he practically vomits forth the lyrics of "Walk With Me in Hell." "Redneck" finds him offering a "motherfuckin' invitation" to take it outside, in a voice that makes it clear that you'd be pretty foolish to accept.
Musically, Sacrament is more diverse than anything the band has done since 2000's New American Gospel. Many of the songs, like the Pantera-esque "Redneck," "More Time to Kill," and "Forgotten (Lost Angels)," are hookier and catchier, yet still boasting the band's trademark pummeling power. Morton and Willie Adler's guitars snarl like classic Judas Priest on "Pathetic" and conjure up oppressive, doom-laden soundscapes on the haunting "Requiem." Chris says that the rampaging "Beating on Death's Door" was originally called "Old School" because "we wanted to write a 1984 Exodus tune," and you can certainly hear the connection. And "Walk With Me in Hell," the album's opener, is an epic piece of work, building from an almost orchestral swell of layered guitars into a surging, swaggering groove that's once again reminiscent of Pantera at their best.
"There're things on this record you've never heard us do before vocally, arrangement-wise — everything," says Morton. "Collectively, there's a really creepy vibe that just kind of snakes through the whole record, and it might catch a few people by surprise," adds Willie.
After the taxing, trying sessions for Sacrament, one might expect that the often-tense relations between the members of Lamb of God would now be more strained than ever, especially since the band had to hit the road with the Unholy Alliance tour before the mixes were even finished. And yet, when Revolver catches up with the band in Texas, the atmosphere on their bus is surprisingly mellow and friendly. In fact, it's a 180-degree shift from the ugliness of the infamous 2004 Mark Morton–Randy Blythe fistfight that was captured for posterity on the Killadelphia DVD.
"It's really nice, isn't it?" says John Campbell. The gray-bearded bassist and the good-natured Willie Adler represent the laidback (or at least somewhat less confrontational) minority of Lamb of God; in the past, the pair have often immersed themselves in nonstop video-game competition as a means to block out the hostile vibes swirling around the bus. "The Xbox hasn't come out once this tour," says Campbell, proudly.
While Chris attributes some of the band's collective good mood to their happiness with the album, Blythe's decision to not drink on this tour has played a large part, as well. "It's amazing having him sober," says Campbell. "When he's drunk, he's always trying to be the über alpha male, picking fights with anyone who dares question what comes out of his mouth. He's a fun guy to hang out with now — he's focused, he's clear-headed, he has intelligent shit to say. And his performance onstage is a million times better."
"I didn't want to die" is Blythe's succinct explanation for his new sobriety. "Not from like, you know, health problems or whatever, but just from doing stupid shit. Like, I'd probably fucking climb a tree drunk and fall out and break my neck one night, or something. 'The Randy Show' has had enough episodes, already."
Backstage before the band's show in Houston, the angular Blythe spends the afternoon tooling around the venue's loading area on a mini bicycle, as well as customizing one that he's bought for his wife with colorful stickers. "See, now that I'm not drinking, I can afford to buy cool stuff like this," he says with a laugh. "Before, it was always like, 'I've got a credit card — I'll buy a round for everybody in the bar!'"
Blythe says he sometimes thinks about a future outside of music, one where he can "sit with my wife and go fishing and write books. I'll probably do a memoir, because I lived a crazy life before I even joined this fucking band. Riding freight trains, and I lived in Jamaica for a while — lots of wacky, wacky shit. And then, you know, I'd like to do some fiction — tight, concise prose is what I'm into. Once I have a good hiatus, I'm just going to sit down at the typewriter and plow away, you know? I'll write something that will fuck your mind up, I'm sure!"
But it's going to be awhile before Blythe can take a writing vacation. Sacrament comes out in late August and is sure to be followed by extensive touring on both sides of the Atlantic.
"We're still not able to buy houses or cars or anything like that," says Chris. "But on a perception level, for a lot of bands and a lot of people that are listening to this kind of music, where we are is where a lot of people would love to be. This is our second record for a major label, so by now I think we've lost that 'back-pocket band' status, where you're the only one in your school that knows about us. And now we really have to prove ourselves — prove it to ourselves, first and foremost, but to prove it to the naysayers that, you know, this is the real deal. It's not a fluke."