Metal, Have Mercy on Us

You could listen to Lamb of God quiet. They play modern metal — “extreme metal,” some call it. Therefore low volume isn’t the obvious choice. But turn it down, and it’s like jazz. Think of the bark-rasping guitars of Mark Morton and Will Adler as an alto sax and a trumpet like Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard. Imagine Randy Blythe’s distinctive guttural expostulations as a tenor sax à la Archie Shepp or a baritone by way of Pat Patrick. There’s already some Tony Williams in the way Chris Adler bangs drums; just mentally substitute looser tunings on the skins. John Campbell’s bass blends into the mix like a phantom — same as on old jazz records!

Once you’re reoriented, turn it up. Lamb of God’s new CD, As the Palaces Burn (arriving Tuesday on Prosthetic), comes on like a fire engine. A huge crash, a hell-burned scream, and the rhythms roar forth, never to relent. These guys have invented something; it’s a matter of how the instruments bounce off each other. Guitars hit accents while the drums shoulder the beat, then they switch places. You hear stop-starts, slowdowns, heavy riffs, single-string figures, but there’s a flow to it. Constant counterpoint, not the kind of lockstep groove you’re used to. Always changing.

“We’re never doin’ the same thing for very long,” says Morton by phone from the band’s hometown, Richmond, Virginia. “We have short attention spans.”

Short, yeah — Morton never finished school. Grad school, that is, where he did two years. When he decided he’d rather rejoin his band, he was a poli-sci major specializing in international relations. Hopeless, huh? And if he quit school, he could still hang with his college buddies, who after all constituted the majority of LoG: a couple of English majors and one mass-communications man.

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The group formed in 1994 as Burn the Priest, but the dudes decided they didn’t feel like killers; more like transcendent victims. Lamb of God’s lyrics, by Morton and Blythe, are about alienation, a fact you’d know without deciphering the words (can’t anyway). The audience for otherness is surely growing.

“There’s probably more poor people to be confused and disenfranchised by their government, and helpless in terms of what’s going on in the world,” says Morton, a quick, articulate guy with a pleasant Southern accent. “A thrash-metal show is a great way to forget about that for a little while.”

More extreme feelings generate more extreme metal.

“When Megadeth’s Peace Sells or Slayer’s South of Heaven came out, that was as extreme as you got.” Morton is talking 1986 and 1988. “And now, compared to us or whatever, it’s not near as heavy or as abrasive. Given the way the music’s evolved, and also the way the civilization’s evolved, there becomes a higher tolerance for what’s considered extreme, what people are able to comprehend.”

As the Palaces Burn is a substantial refocus from Lamb of God’s 2000 record, the much-admired New American Gospel. It’s brighter and sharper, less bass/drums-heavy. Part of the change comes down to producer Devin Townsend, who’s a guitarist himself (Steve Vai Band, Strapping Young Lad).

“We consider ourselves to be pretty good guitar players,” says Morton, “but you sit down with Devin, and he’s telling you for hours and hours, ‘No, lay off of it. Nope, speed up, you missed it just a little bit.’” Morton was glad to take the whipping: “As you can hear on the record, we really, really nailed the riffs, and some of those are just impossible to play.” Lamb of God also got a transfusion from ex-Megadeth axman Chris Poland, whose solo on “Purified” connects these 30-year-olds to the metal bloodline they tapped into when they were teens.

Unless you’re young, or old enough to hear metal and silicon and carbon compounds as new jazz, you might find it hard to get a handle on this music. It speaks mainly to those who need it most. Morton’s father is clanking around in the background of the conversation, helping install a kitchen sink in his son’s digs. His opinion is solicited.

“Hey, Dad, whattaya think of Lamb of God?”

(Distant shout:) “It sucks.”

“He likes Elton John.”

Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe recently jumped off a stage and busted himself up, but he and the band will still play at El Rey with hand-picked genre-spanning tourmates — Chimaira (who just walked away from a bus wreck), Eighteen Visions and Atreyu — on Friday, May 2.

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