When the grunge fad hit big in 1992, all other forms of hard rock in America either died completely (case in point: cheeseball hair metal), or in the case of the more traditional form of good, honest, expertly crafted heavy metal, was forced back underground. After the interesting, but ultimately overrated Seattle sound (which yielded two, maybe three great albums at the most), came some awfully dark times for anyone who grew up during the glory days of metal the previous decade. By the late 1990s, the only mainstream forms of heavy music out there were either whiny, sensitive bearded guy post-grunge, a heavily watered-down Metallica, and the repetitive, monotonous, woe-is-me angst of the whole nu/rap metal genres. All the while, old-fashioned metal refused to die, always lurking underneath the surface, unbeknownst to mainstream rock audiences, waiting for the right time to pounce. Well, the time is nigh, and the days of the nu are clearly numbered.
2004 has been the most crucial year for metal music in ages, as bands like Killswitch Engage, Atreyu, Hatebreed, and most recently, Shadows Fall, have helped recapture the throne, the genre's renewed popularity hammered home during this past summer's Ozzfest tour. Leading the way, out of all the bands, are Virginia's Lamb of God. Easily the most important American band in this recent wave of traditional metal artists, they're the ones who have set the bar for the others, and three albums in, it's at a very lofty height. Their first two albums, 2000's New American Gospel, and last year's As the Palaces Burn dared to take this form of music to another level, taking the muscular riffs and powerful percussion of '90s greats Pantera, and mashing it all with some phenomenal musical versatility, utilizing the same doom-ridden sounds of the legendary Slayer, and the sharp technical dexterity of Megadeth. While European metal continues to go in a more sleek direction, Lamb of God has been more workmanlike in their attitude, a characteristic that's reflected in the music. Relentless touring helped build a fiercely devoted following, and knowing something big was happening, Epic Records quickly signed the band.
Trouble was, upon signing with Epic, Lamb of God was given only five months to write and record a new album. Such high demands have done metal bands in before (veteran metal fans will remember what the hastily-recorded album Souls of Black did to Testament in the early '90s), but such intense pressure to pull off a major breakthrough album in such a short time span makes the new album, Ashes of the Wake, all the more impressive.
As great as As the Palaces Burn was, with soon-to-be classics like "Ruin" and "11th Hour", its production by Devin Townsend was weak, the guitar sound disappointingly thin; it felt like there was too much air in the mix, that the record badly needed to have the gaps filled by a much denser sound. On Ashes of the Wake, enigmatic producer Machine (who has worked with artists as diverse as King Crimson and Pitchshifter in the past) adds some badly needed fine-tuning to the Lamb of God sound, and the end result is their most fully-realized piece of work yet. To hear it for the first time, after listening to the previous two albums, is to be hit right between the eyes with the revelation of just how powerful this band can be on record. On Ashes, the guitar work by Willie Adler and Mark Morton is incredibly tight, adventurous, and nimble, establishing them as the finest American metal guitar duo since Slayer's Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman. Drummer Chris Adler shines, his unmistakable syncopation punctuating the riffs (sounding derived from Pantera's great Vinnie Paul), his double bass flourishes placed right up front in the mix. On the album, vocalist Randy Blythe emerges as one of the most distinctive frontmen in contemporary metal; instead of going for the guttural, extreme vocals that have become commonplace in the last decade, he takes on a menacing, raspy-throated snarl, managing to sound ferocious, yet understandable, barking out his lyrics like a demonic drill sergeant. Not only that, but the guy can command a crowd like no other, as anyone who has seen him pull off the infamous "wall of death" stunt in concert will attest.
The songs on Ashes of the Wake are among the strongest the band has ever written, especially the lead-off track, "Laid to Rest", with its Dimebag Darrell-meets-Zakk Wylde riffage, and Blythe's vitriolic, cathartic performance, climaxing with the pummeling, Meshuggah-style breakdown, bolstered by the shouted refrain, "See who gives a fuck!" "Now You've Got Something to Die For" is a live favorite in the making, with its shout-along chorus, as Chris Adler underscores the tune with emphasis on the ride cymbal, echoing Slayer's Dave Lombardo. The bestial "Omerta" plods along intensely, sounding utterly monolithic, as Blythe adopts the robotic vocal phrasing of Meshuggah's Jens Kidman. Lyrically, the songs are stronger than ever, as the condensed songwriting period had the band focusing on the current political situation in their own country, instead of the more internal struggles they wrote about on the previous albums, and as a result, though they never name-drop the President, this is one of the strongest anti-Bush albums, in a year loaded with them.
If the album has a fault, it's that it plows along at pretty much the same pace throughout the duration, something that new listeners might have trouble getting used to, and it is something that will require multiple listens for the uninitiated, but once they do get used to the intricacies and tricks the entire band has up their collective sleeves, you realize just how solid a record this is. Oddly enough, it's an instrumental that provides the best moment, as Morton and Adler are joined by former Megadeth guitarist Chris Poland and former testament stalwart Alex Skolnick, the quartet engaging in a blistering series of solos over a frenetic arrangement, held down ably by Chris Adler and bassist John Campbell.
As many had hoped, Ashes of the Wake is the big breakthrough that traditional metal needed, as it debuted impressively in the Billboard top 50, but one can't help but feel that, given more time, Lamb of God will eventually pull off something even better. The album's not earth shattering, but it is absolutely loaded with menacing tremors, with the ominous hint of something even bigger lurking on the horizon. It took a full decade for metal to return, but thank heaven it's back. As the great, underrated band Lizzy Borden sang in 1985, we all need American metal, and today, we need it more than ever.