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In metal, Lambs lead

The down-to-scorched- earth Virginians redefine the genre with political lyrics and progressive skills.

December 12, 2007|Greg Burk | Special to The Times

You'd never know it from television, but heavy metal is a whole different beast now than it was in the '80s. Let's play a contrast game, and see if you can guess which two bands are being described.

* Band of the 1980s: big hair. Band of today: big beards.

* '80s: prom-rock crooning. Today: rasping roar.

* '80s: heroin. Today: beer.

* '80s: hung out with strippers. Today: hired a hooker -- to clean their bus.

* '80s: "Shout at the Devil." Today: "New American Gospel."

Representing the '80s could be Motley Crue or a hundred other melodic metallurgists. Representing today's generation: Lamb of God.

Lamb of God doesn't get any mainstream radio play, newsmagazine coverage or "Late Night With David Letterman" spots. It has no songs you can hum. It's neither satanic nor religious. But among the thousands of American dark-metal groups that have emerged in the last decade, it is the leader.

Its albums, including last year's "Sacrament," have moved a few hundred thousand units each. Its "Killadelphia" DVD is pushing platinum. It got a Grammy nomination this year for the song "Redneck" ("You can tell the same lie a thousand times / But it never gets any more true"). It tours the world, and every show sells out.

Why? Precision-tooled musicianship. A lack of fan-band barriers. And a radical point of view, in both sound and lyrics.

"I think the political and economic climate lends itself to something a little bit heavier," growls vocalist Randy Blythe, from Richmond, Va., Lamb of God's hometown. "In bad times, you don't want to listen to happy, singalong, boy-meets-girl music."

Lamb of God also came up during the rise of reality TV -- and these five are real, all right. They look like hillbillies. They wear the same T-shirts to the stage and the liquor store. Where most bands' road videos focus on high times, "Killadelphia" spies on the Lamb dudes grappling with broken tour vehicles -- and physically grappling with one another, past the point of bloodshed.

"Sometimes it's not pretty, but that's the reality," says Blythe. "If you want fantasy, go watch 'Lord of the Rings.' "

Though Lamb of God had already built huge momentum, that 2005 DVD took it to another level. "The fans honestly feel they know you," says guitarist Mark Morton in a separate interview. "And that gives you a connection most bands don't have."

"There ain't no gates or walls in front of my house," says Morton with his upbeat lilt. "Halloween night, there was a dude that brought his little girl over trick-or-treatin', and he's got a Lamb of God sweat shirt on. I'm sittin' on the porch drinkin' a beer. And he's like, 'What's up, man?' Slappin' my hand. It's that natural and that easy."

Morton says he's most amazed by fans' individual responses to Lamb of God's music. " 'Walk With Me in Hell' is a really personal song that touches people. You meet these military guys that were over in Iraq, and whatever you think about the politics of the war, these are kids fightin' because they were sent there, and so many of these guys are tellin' us how important this album or this song was to them." Two thousand miles away, it's clear he's getting choked up thinking about it. "And that's huge, you know what I mean?"

Rock-star isolation and role-playing aren't Lamb of God's thing. But don't imagine these are ordinary Joes. Four of them did graduate work at Virginia Commonwealth University -- in political science, communications and English.

"I think that's worked in our favor," says Morton. "When we make decisions, it's never flippantly."

As much as they squabble, the Lambs make decisions together, write together, arrange together. And it's a scientific process.

You see, Lamb of God makes some of the most complex music in the world, not excluding classical. From the epic instrumental angst of "Ashes of the Wake" to the sinking post-Black Sabbath hara-kiri of "Vigil" to the sick, tension-building twists of "Black Label," Lamb of God songs evince five musicians playing off one another, switching places, rising, falling, keeping in constant motion. The rhythms are nearly as sophisticated as those you'd find on an Allan Holdsworth jazz fusion record. Morton, bassist John Campbell, guitarist Willie Adler and drummer Chris Adler can play.

"Most of the stuff that we begin with is too progressive," says Chris Adler, whose dense, furious drumming underlies everything. "As musicians, we kind of go off the deep end and write the nine-minute songs with 20 parts that never repeat. We really have to reel ourselves back in."

"When we started [as] Burn the Priest, it was an instrumental band," says Morton, who often has a Delta slide on his finger and an acoustic guitar in his lap when he's at home. "We never even considered finding a singer."

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