Sunday, June 28, 2020
NEW AMERICAN GOSPEL: Lamb of God - Lamb of God
lol it was so fuckin' predictable that they'd announce a new album only a few months after I finished my discography retrospective.
There are two huge elephants and one burning question in the room right now, so I'm gonna just tackle all three of them right off the bat, Lawrence Taylor style.
ELEPHANT #1: Chris Adler has been replaced by Art Cruz. This was actually the impetus of the previous seven reviews. It felt like the end of an era so I figured it was high time to revisit that era. Lamb of God was notable for having a rock solid lineup for over twenty years, something basically unheard of in metal, so Chris's departure was a huge shock to people who weren't paying attention. I say this because if you've paid attention to any interviews or behind-the-scenes material over the years you could tell he was clearly miserable and really felt constrained. I've been prophesying a breakup ever since Sacrament. It's been common knowledge for eons that Chris was the most talented member of the band as it was (like I've said before it's pretty rare in metal to find a drummer with an instantly recognizable style) and his frustration with the band's ever-safening songwriting was thinly veiled at best. So last year, he finally had enough and walked away before being replaced by Cruz (who I swore was previously the drummer in All Shall Perish until this very sentence when I double checked and realized it was actually my perennial punching bag Winds of Plague). So with all the background aside, the big question here is whether or not he holds up to Adler's dominant kit mastery. The answer is... yeah, actually. He was either playing way the fuck below his level in Winds of Plague or he's the Bruno Mars of metal and has a superhuman knack for replicating other peoples' signatures. If I hadn't known beforehand that Chris had left, I never would've known he wasn't on this album. His laser precision and ineffable groove is replicated with 100% authenticity here and I'm much more impressed than I expected to be.
ELEPHANT #2: They're on their eighth album and just now decided to roll with a self titled album. A lot of people feel the need to point this out it seems, simply because it's odd for a band to do this at any point after their debut, but to me this was actually a fucking huge red flag. Again reaching back to behind-the-scenes footage that I used to gobble up in high school, I distinctly remember that there was a disagreement between band members about what to name their upcoming album, and they were down to two choices: Sacrament or self titled. I could be misremembering because this is like a fifteen year old memory at this point but I recall Chris being the most vocally against a self titled album because he felt like it was a cop out and a sign that a band had run out of ideas. Considering the fact that I heard this exact same story for basically every following album, it's really not a surprise that they finally went and did it once he was unable to veto it. They've been rewriting Ashes of the Wake for ages now, even when the external circumstance of Randy's stint in prison gave them the perfect inspiration to branch out, so yeah I absolutely feel Chris's apprehension that the band feels like they've run out of ideas at this point. I know most bands who do this do it to either signal a reinvention of their sound or to declare that this is their definitive statement, but this simply isn't the band to be doing either of those things since pattern recognition tells me this next album might as well be Ashes of the Wake 4: Ash Free or Wake Hard.
THE BURNING QUESTION: Is Lamb of God any good? Do those two elephants stink up the joint as much as I and many fans expect them to?
...No? I think? I'm still kinda reeling because everything signaled yet another mediocre snorefest and then somehow they spat out their best album since Wrath.
The weird thing is that this absolutely feels like yet another rehash of Ashes, but the majority of the songs just fuckin' bang this time around. I mentioned Cruz wound up being the perfect replacement for Adler, and honestly that makes me wonder if his mere presence reignited the rest of the guys' imagination. It's not like this drum performance would be any different with Adler. I've seen a lot of fans and reviews mention how Cruz is much more loose with his playing, but honestly I'm gonna make a sweeping claim and say that nearly everybody who says that is just taking Mark Morton at his word and aren't analyzing for themselves too closely. Yeah Mark told the media that he's a refreshing change because Chris played to a click track while Art doesn't so they feel more free on stage, but this has somehow morphed into "Art is creative while Chris was a metronome", which is both flatly untrue and totally irrelevant since he replicates his predecessor's style so perfectly. This is exactly as dialed-in and fully torqued as it always has been.
The reason Lamb of God succeeds while the last handful of albums failed despite essentially being the exact same idea is simply because most of these tracks take have the fire and energy of "Laid to Rest" and "Desolation" instead of their usual shtick of constantly rewriting "11th Hour" at varying speeds with increasingly diminishing returns. For the first time in a long while, they maintain whatever new ideas they have for the duration of the album instead of cramming them all into one song. "Reality Bath" opens with the first prominent bass part in their career, "Routes" is basically pure thrash metal (something they've always flirted with for a riff or two each album but never really went whole hog with it), "Resurrection Man" is basically a misplaced Slipknot song featuring Randy's best Architects impression with the opening BLEGH, throughout the entire runtime there are more solos and overt melody than they've ever really done, there are just tons of little touches of the creativity I thought they'd been fresh out of for a decade. Not all of these ideas hit bullseye ("Resurrection Man" is actually one of the worst tracks of the bunch) but it's nice to hear them branching out for a change.
However, their previously crippling filler problem is still here to some extent. Lamb of God has always been a "hit single" type of band with only a couple of albums featuring any real deep cuts beyond the ones they play live constantly, and the self titled is the first to really break from that mold by having the singles be some of the weakest. "Checkmate" is exactly what I was afraid this album would be full of. It's a very LoG-by-numbers track that elicits exactly zero excitement in somebody like me who has been following them for almost their entire career and has grown very tired of them rehashing the same ideas over and over again. "Gears" suffers mostly the same problem, and it's hard to really describe because its biggest problem is simply that it's the type of song they've already written like fifty times. The breakdown riff would've been awesome if they didn't already use it in "Contractor", ya know? The lone outlier in this regard is the opener, "Memento Mori". I actually kinda hate the clean/spoken intro, but once the song picks up into familiar territory it plays out like any generic Lamb of God song would play out, but they... I dunno man they feel it this time. That's basically how I can describe any track here. They're still rewriting Ashes of the Wake over and over again but for the first time they've managed to do it in a way where it sounds lethal instead of focus tested. "Reality Bath" is basically "The Faded Line" by way of Slipknot but it sounds like they're really putting their hearts into it. "On the Hook" is "Beating on Death's Door" again but "Beating on Death's Door" is probably their most underappreciated track so hearing that type of high octane brutality again is a massive breath of fresh air. I mentioned that the previous album's guest vocalists felt like pointless gimmicks, and somehow the two this time are paradoxically more transparently gimmicky but also work a hell of a lot better. Jamey Jasta and Chuck Billy show up on "Poison Dream" and "Routes" respectively, and the former song morphs into a Hatebreed track when Jasta shows up and the latter sounds like late-career Testament. Come on that should be cynical to so blatantly cater to these guys' original bands, but it turns out Lamb of God is surprisingly really good at ripping them off. It takes what should be lazy and turns it into everybody simply playing to their strengths.
This is hard to write about, honestly. This series was fun at the start because their first five albums are all actually very different from each other but this current era of the band is generally much less creative. Basically all I can say is "read my reviews for the last album but pretend they're good." I know how cheap and unhelpful that is, but it's true. If Resolution maintained the momentum of "Desolation" the entire time it'd probably sound fairly similar to Lamb of God. It's got all the fire and energy of that track with some pronounced influence from nu metal in spots and a renewed love of breakdowns that have been absent since 2006, which I'm sure is a turnoff for most of you but I maintain that the breakdowns were never the problem and if you're going to spike the nu metal influence, you could do a whole hell of a lot worse than Slipknot when it comes to inspiration. The biggest flaw of the album is simply the track ordering, because putting the three most generic songs right at the start is a big fuckin' thonk. The album picks up a ton of steam after "Gears" and it's refreshing to hear this much propulsion out of these old bones.