Monday, October 10, 2022

NEW AMERICAN GOSPEL: Lamb of God - Omens

IX: Me son?

I've spilled a lot of digital ink over the years defending how much I love Cannibal Corpse.  I say "defending" instead of any other verb partially because my ego is unreal and I apparently can't just enjoy one of the most popular metal bands in history without acting like I'm special because of it, but partially because one of the chief complaints against them is something I don't really care about when it comes to them but I do tend to levy at other bands pretty frequently and I don't really have a cogent defense for why Cannibal is an exception for me.  That complaint is, of course, the fact that they just kinda do the same thing with each new album and you always know what you're going to get.  I like evolution, I like new ideas, I like it when bands who have been kicking around for a long while mix things up and keep them fresh, I typically don't like it when bands find a sound that works and then get comfortable and stop evolving.  But that's only sometimes?  I dunno man, I don't care if late era Cannibal or Motorhead or Bad Religion albums sound exactly like their classics, but I do care if other bands do it.  I've been shitting on Krisiun for years because of this, why don't they get a pass while The Black Dahlia Murder does?

Well, the reason I'm pondering this is because Lamb of God just released their ninth album (or tenth or eleventh depending on how you count the Burn the Priest releases), Omens, and they're a band I've both covered extensively and, most importantly, have been hounding pretty relentlessly for refusing to evolve or improve for over a decade now, with Wrath being the last new angle they explored before just knuckling down and releasing slightly different versions of Ashes of the Wake with mostly diminishing returns ever since Resolution.  The difference seems obvious to me at first blush.  Every Cannibal album sounds like "A Cannibal Corpse Album", every Motorhead album sounds like "A Motorhead Album", and every Lamb of God album sounds like Ashes of the Wake.  

But that's not true is it?  Or is it??  I don't know anymore.  The whole reason I'm back typing shit on the internet again is because Omens is both Lamb of God's best album in years and also another completely predictable waste of time simultaneously.  I can't seem to decide for the life of me if this is just the best version of their lazy era or if this is maddeningly safe and not worth your time.  On one hand, tracks like "Gomorrah" and the title track hearken back to the more explosive and high octane form of groove metal they were championing on Sacrament.  On the other hand, tracks like "Ill Designs" and "Ditch" sound like they were written by an AI, without a single trick the band hasn't already pulled out dozens of times already.  On the other other hand, "Denial Mechanism" is quite possibly the best song the band has written in over a decade and that alone puts this above like four other albums in their history.  On the other other other hand, part of the reason "Denial Mechanism" stands out so much is precisely because it doesn't sound like paint-by-numbers Lamb of God and instead takes a gargantuan heap of influence from old school hardcore and thrash metal, put through their distinctly modern mix, making it almost dangerously heavy and unhinged sounding.  

I think what separates the Cruz era from the end of the Adler era (partly because so little else actually changed) is that the band sounds so much more alive on these last two albums than they did on the two previous.  Yeah, you could probably throw all 44 tracks from the last four albums, randomly select ten of them, and wind up with a pretty cohesive hypothetical album without even trying to sort the tracks into an order that makes sense.  They've been pretty plug-and-play from a music perspective for ages now, this isn't a secret.  Basically every track is going to be a relentlessly aggressive mixture of groove metal with twinges of metalcore and occasionally thrash metal here and there, the drums will be far more complex than the guitars, and Randy will punch through with his hardcore tinged roaring.  You've heard "Hourglass" before and now you're gonna hear it some more.  But with that said, I think I could pretty reliably tell you if any given song was from the Cruz era or not simply because the two albums since he joined have so much more energy and life to them.  Omens is, just like the self titled from two years ago, difficult to talk about because the most apt summary is still "Just imagine if Resolution was actually pretty good".  There are some more granular differences of course, they definitely seemed to have rediscover how powerful a well placed breakdown can be in recent years and the Pantera influence only gets stronger with each passing year, but Lamb of God's ninth album really isn't all that different from Lamb of God's third album.  

To loop back to the intro, why is Lamb of God one of the bands that I seem to arbitrarily demand evolution for?  This and the previous album have presented a sort of crisis of faith for me because the entire damn thesis for the retrospective and previous eight reviews was to track their evolution early on and lament how disappointing it was when they abruptly stopped.  Yet despite having all of the exact same issues in the abstract, I've thought the last two albums were, if nothing else, solid, often erring towards just unconditionally "good".  I think what I've come to realize is that music nerds broadly, metal nerds narrowly, and I specifically, tend to get stuck in this mindset that bands need to continually and exponentially evolve and/or improve in perpetuity, otherwise they're resting on their laurels or being lazy or whatever.  Listening through Omens, I find myself asking why I'm suddenly not willing to accept consistent enjoyability?  Sure, this doesn't have an identity as strong or singular as the debut or anything, and even the best songs don't stand out as capital lettered Obviously Iconic tracks like "Laid to Rest" or "Vigil" did back in the glory years (though you can argue that this album does have the strongest hardcore influence since the debut, though it's of a much less chaotic stripe this time around), but man, it's a pretty decently fun listen.  The only true standout track to my ears remains "Denial Mechanism", and I really can't get excited for "Ill Designs" but that still leaves at minimum eight songs that rank as "alright".  Maybe a solidly "alright" album isn't exactly a high recommendation, especially coming from a band as well tenured and divisive in the underground as Lamb of God, but it turns out I'd take an uninteresting but still good album over a fascinating trainwreck most days (I love talking about St. Anger but I never ever ever want to actually listen to it, ya know?).  Lamb of God's problem, as it turns out, wasn't necessarily that they stopped evolving and just stuck to what worked in the past.  No, apparently the issue was that their worst albums are just phoned in and boring as fuck, because Omens is exactly as uninteresting as Resolution but is magnitudes better simply because the energy is through the roof, even if the creativity isn't.