[23 February 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Regarded as one of the leaders of a resurgence of new American metal early this decade, Lamb of God chose to leave the innovation to the Mastodons, Dillinger Escape Plans, and Pig Destroyers of the world, remaining within the comfy confines of a reliable musical template, the only deviations being the ones of the most subtle variety. What sounds safe and predictable to one metal fan sounds familiar and reliable to others, and although the Virginia band continues to flirt with sounding horribly repetitive, they do deserve full credit for coming out with albums that always manage to please their legions of fans.
However, despite the strengths of such popular albums as 2003’s As the Palaces Burn, 2004’s Ashes of the Wake, and 2006’s Sacrament, each one incrementally increasing Lamb of God’s stature among the metal crowd, it’s never felt like they’re willing to truly swing for the fences. Boasting an extraordinarily talented guitar tandem in Mark Morton and Willie Adler, not to mention one of the genre’s most charismatic frontmen in Randy Blythe, one would like to think these fellas have a classic album in them, but the further along we go and the more they continue to appease the fans who want nothing but good, solid, workmanlike heavy metal, the more we begin to doubt that such a canonical release will ever happen.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with a formulaic sound expertly executed, especially in metal, and in spite of a dearth of truly ambitious moments, Lamb of God sounds as consistent as ever on their fifth album Wrath. Morton and Adler continue to worship at the altar of Dimebag, the vicious, cutting riffs of “In Your Words” and “Dead Seeds” evoking the best moments by the late Pantera legend, but just like on Sacrament‘s breakthrough single “Redneck”, both tracks are so incessantly catchy, the lack of originality is very easy to forgive. “In Your Words” especially, which, with a little bit of Metallica’s “Blackened” tossed in, gets the album off to a spirited start, drummer Chris Adler providing those jackhammer, tightened snare beats he’s become known for, Blythe continuing to show improved vocal range with each album, now employing a higher pitched sneer to complement his usual, easily identifiable menacing roar.
After starting out with a punishing few bars that start to resemble old school death metal, “Set to Fail” settles comfortably back into that Southern-tinged style the band loves so much, the sludge, swagger, and pinch squeals drawing equally from Exhorder, Down, and, like it or not, even Black Label Society, and the rest of the album follows suit. “Fake Messiah” utilizes a very effective contrast between rapidfire thrash drumming with a slow, doomy riff before tossing in a clever bit of post-metal atmospherics in the chorus, the bent-string chords adding an expansive touch before reverting to the more nimble-fingered fare we’ve come to expect. The rampaging gallop of “Choke Sermon” is simple, yet hugely satisfying as Blythe lets loose more of his usual vitriol-filled verses, while the no-frills thrash aggression of “Contractor” is guaranteed to be another fan fave, its rousing gang chorus of “Yeah motherfucker, let’s take a ride,” sure to send chills down spines in a live setting.
What’s surprising about Wrath is the number of times where Lamb of God actually flirts with the idea of transcending their normal blue-collar sound the way that God Forbid has on their brilliant 2009 album Earthsblood, but what’s not surprising is how the album continues to backpedal towards the same old sounds. The instrumental “The Passing” that kicks off the album is actually gorgeous, daring to reach for the elegiac heights of Metallica in their prime, but ending at only two minutes, what could have been a real turning point for the band instead feels unresolved. The last two minutes of the aforementioned standout “In Your Words” morphs into an intriguing coda of open-strummed chords and arpeggiated notes, and “Grace” starts off with a contemplative, downright pretty guitar solo before the aggression kicks in again, yet both good ideas go nowhere.
The seven-minute “Reclamation” does exhibit some growth, continuing where As the Palaces Burn‘s “Vigil” left off, but for every hint of inspiration, we get tracks like “Everything to Nothing” and “Broken Hands”, which simply rehash ideas already explored on the last four albums. With a band like this, that’s not exactly a bad thing, as you know these songs will absolutely kill in concert, but once again we’re left wishing that Lamb of God would someday stop being a “good” metal band, and become a “very nearly perfect” one instead.