Considered by most head-bangers to be key players in the so-called “New Wave of American Heavy Metal,” Lamb of God's popularity had clearly reached its all-time peak with their definitive 2006 release Sacrament – an album as intense and personal as it was skull-blastingly raw. A more average band might have left their fans wondering if the follow-up would have to struggle mightily to get out from under such a massive shadow... but as any serious metalhead will tell you, Lamb of God is not your average band. So now it's put-up-or-shut-up time, with this week's release of their hotly-anticipated sixth studio album Wrath.
Taking a step back from the elaborate production of the previous effort, Wrathrepresents a creative step forward for the band in terms of songwriting, musical chops and emotional intensity, while clearly withdrawing from studio-bound digital perfection, resulting in a more raw, immediate and in-your-face sound that puts you in the mind of a blistering jam session with artists whose styles are so effortlessly connected that they seem to be finishing each other's thought processes. Weirdly enough, what comes through on these seven tracks is even truer to this band's creative spirit and down-and-gritty brutality than I've heard since the days of their debut release New American Gospel.
There's a deliberate method behind the lack of polish on these tracks – a conceit which included avoiding all but the most fundamental edits, with all five band members recording most of their parts straight through, goofs and all. “This one's really raw and real-sounding, from every angle, and we're celebrating imperfections on this record,” guitarist Mark Morton stated in an MTV interview last fall. “We're choosing what takes stay on the record based more on their character and personality than how completely mechanically precise they are. It's more about vibe and attitude in the takes... It's the perfect ones that get thrown away, because they're just too sterile.”
That kind of purity is exactly the sonic direction the band needed to move forward. Changing their no-nonsense formula of good old Pantera-style “Pure American Metal” would have been a fatal mistake (it ain't broke, so why fix it); instead this bare-bones approach to recording is the solution to keeping that sound fresh. And don't think that you're going to hear demo-level sloppiness either – these recordings represent the band at their most precise.
Dynamic range is also the key to making this kind of music interesting, and it's definitely Wrath's chief strength. The guys run all over the sonic spectrum from deep, dirty sludge to their forte of old-school thrash riffage, also employing pensive acoustic elements (“The Passing” and “Reclamation”) and the atypical shred-happy solo (“Everything to Nothing”), enhanced by tremolo-picking and sweep-picking flourishes from Morton and fellow guitarist Willie Adler. The rhythms are ably assisted by strikingly melodic anchors from bassist John Campbell, with some of Chris Adler's most technically complex drumming sinceAshes.
But when it comes to modulating intensity, it's vocalist Randy Blythe who makes the biggest impression this time around, delivering his socially biting lyrics with a more refined melodic range beyond his usual lion's roar (check out his vocals in “Set to Fail” for a prime example). But don't worry, you won't hear clean melodic vocals coming from Randy anytime soon. His finest moments on Wrath include the chilling opening lines of “Broken Hands,” the reverb-filled conclusion of “Fake Messiah” and the heart-pounding breakdown of epic closer “Reclamation.”
Although it takes a few tracks to reach peak momentum and it might take a couple of listen-throughs to fully appreciate, Wrath definitely ranks among Lamb of God's career highs, with addictive and memorable cuts like thrash masterwork “Contractor” (which I daresay might rival the impact of previous hits like “Redneck”) and accomplishes the near-impossible by taking a band that wholeheartedly embraces formula and making them sound fresh and new. But really, the target audience here are really just eager to have their spines unzipped by the band's patented full-force sonic aggression, and if you count yourself in that number, then rest assured you'll get all the bloody mayhem you could ask for, and then some.