Nearly 15 minutes into a phone call with Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton about events that took place between the release of 2012’s Resolution and the band’s new album VII: Sturm Und Drang, the normally ultra-mellow musician adopts a slightly defensive tone.
“This thing really broadsided us,” Morton says from his daughter’s bedroom, the only place in his house where he can get any privacy.
“When Randy was arrested, we weren’t aware there had even been any sort of incident, and suddenly he’s being hauled off to jail. It’s hard to describe what we went through because, ultimately, the reason that it happened is so tragic.”
Morton is talking about the subject he’s least interested in addressing, but knew would come up—the 2012 arrest of vocalist Randy Blythe in Prague for allegedly committing manslaughter.
In summary, at a concert in 2010, 19-year-old Daniel Nosek clambered onstage and Blythe allegedly shoved him back into the crowd. Nosek landed on his head, suffering brain injuries, which he died from two weeks later. When Lamb of God returned to Prague in 2012, a team of armed policemen surrounded them at the airport and arrested Blythe, who spent five weeks in jail before he was released on bail.
Blythe returned to Prague in February 2013 to stand trial, even though he faced up to 10 years behind bars. After six days of testimony he was acquitted by the court, which determined he was morally, but not criminally, responsible for Nosek’s death.
“The whole time he was in there I wasn’t worried about what might happen to the band, I was worried about my friend Randy,” Morton says. “It was a super-heavy and depressing thing to go through, and those feelings don’t just go away because it’s over now.”
When asked if he was elated when he learned Blythe was exonerated, Morton pauses, then responds, “How can you be stoked about a situation in which someone died? I never thought Randy did anything wrong, but knowing that justice was served after this long period of time went along with the knowledge that this family lost their son. How does someone cope with that? There’s nothing about this situation to celebrate.”
A few long moments of silence later, it becomes clear that the phone connection has been severed. It seems Morton has hung up. Guitar World leaves messages on his manager’s phone and publicist’s cell voicemail. Five excruciating minutes pass. Then six. With interviews already conducted with co-guitarist Willie Adler and Blythe, it would be a shame if Morton is through talking.
Then the phone rings. “Hey, man. I know it must totally seem like I hung up on you, but I swear I didn’t,” he explains. “I’m out here in Virginia and my cell service is terrible. But I’m back. Ask me anything.”
It’s a huge relief to know Morton didn’t get pissed off and bail on the interview. Even without touching on Blythe’s incarceration, which had a major impact on the songwriting process, sound and spirit of the new album, there’s still plenty to talk about. And Morton played a major role in the creation of VII: Sturm Und Drang, which features some of Lamb of God’s most trenchant thrash and tech-metal riffs, satisfying accompanying lines, creative production techniques and insightful lyrics.
There’s a new resilience, enthusiasm and creativity throughout the songwriting and playing, as if the realization that they could have lost their vocalist for 10 years gave Lamb of God fresh life.
Mentioning Morton’s skill as a songwriter and soloist doesn’t downplay the considerable talents or contributions of rhythm guitarist Willie Adler, who was actually the first one in the band to start writing for the follow-up to Resolution.
“When Randy was in jail, for some reason I just wanted to dive into writing,” Adler says. “I had to make that my priority. I became obsessive. Not that my thoughts weren’t with Randy or the family that was going through all of this, but my therapy was to continue pushing myself and continue writing. And that’s kind of all I could think about. It was hard not to keep in the back of my mind that the music I was writing might not even be for Lamb of God. That thought was ever-present and I don’t know if that filled me with the drive to keep going or if my drive was to distract myself from that thought.”
With few exceptions, the songs on Sturm Und Drang are more adventurous and the performances more cohesive than most of Lamb of God’s past output. “Embers” starts with a clattering industrial beat over a slow, moody down-picked melody before igniting into a series of chugging riffs and rapid-fire licks. “Engage the Fear Machine” couples queasy guitars with a martial beat, and leaves space between chords for swinging southern rock guitar lines and haunting arpeggios. And “Delusion Pandemic” is built around swift, complex rhythms that shift throughout the song, intermingled with guitar earworms that overshadow the abundant twists and turns.
“If anything, the whole situation with Randy in jail really put this whole band situation in a very different light and context,” Morton says. “Now, three years later, we’ve come out far stronger and bonded closer as a band because of what we all went through, as horrible as it was.”
One could surmise that VII: Sturm Und Drang sounds so vibrant and vital because Adler, Morton, bassist John Campbell and drummer Chris Adler were stoked to be making music together again. Even if that’s the case, Blythe sounds furious for an entirely different reason.
The last place he wanted to be was in the studio.
“Seriously, I was like, ‘Fuck, I don’t wanna go back in there,’ ” he says, sitting on the outdoor porch of his home in Richmond, Virginia, on a 90-degree day, bare-chested and dressed in a pair of $14 black Target shorts.
“The sessions went well and all and I’m very happy with the songs, but I’m bummed out every time we have to make another record because I hate recording. Some guys are studio dudes. Mark loves the studio. He’s not such a big fan of touring. I like touring. I do not enjoy the recording process. It drives me fucking nuts. But it’s a necessary evil when you’re in a band.”
Sturm Und Drang, which translates in English to Storm and Stress, was an 18th Century German romantic literary movement that valued individuality, awareness of nature and spontaneous emotional expression. Morton, who co-wrote some of the lyrics, suggested the title to Blythe, who loved it.
“Mark and I were texting one day and talking about this theme that had developed in the record about how people react when placed in extreme situations,” Blythe says. “So we were like, ‘We need a title that reflects this.’ We were trying to think of a single English word or phrase that encapsulates it and we were beating our heads against the wall. Then Mark got back to me and said, “Do you know what Sturm Und Drang is?” I said, ‘Yes, of course I do.’ I know it because I read a lot. And I knew a bit about [the scene’s founder] Goethe and the development of literature. But I also knew it from the general context it has taken on, and I said, ‘Yup, that’s perfect.’
We had to argue for it a bit because everyone else was not as convinced that it was so perfect. But it really encapsulates what the record is about and where the band has been over the past few years.”
As the group’s main songwriters, Morton and Adler naturally had the most impact on the eclectic sound of VII: Sturm Und Drang. Having gotten a jumpstart on his co-guitarist, Adler spent more time writing than usual and penned some of his favorite riffs during the time between Blythe’s incarceration and the continuation of the Resolution tour.
Morton, meanwhile was less ambitious in advance than usual. Instead of writing complete songs and demoing them with lead guitar, bass and a guide vocal, he cobbled together a batch of riffs and segues, and in late 2013 brought them to practice to figure out where they would work best.
“We presented our ideas to each other, and almost immediately all these lightbulbs started to go off,” Adler says. “Any time Mark had a riff, it seemed like I had a part that fit together with it and that hadn’t happened in a long time.”
The songs on Sturm Und Drang benefited from the guitarists’ collaborative energy. Simple and complex passages clicked like Lego blocks, and the counter-melodies sounded equally spot-on. “After all this time in Lamb of God, we know how each other plays,” Adler says. “So when we’re working on our own, it’s almost like we’re writing for the other guy’s part even when that wasn’t the original intention.”
In the spring of 2014, Morton and Adler presented their song ideas to bassist John Campbell and drummer Chris Adler, and the four musicians fine-tuned and sometimes revamped the material as a full band. That’s when politics entered the equation. The band members voted on every idea and majority ruled. It’s the way Lamb of God have always worked, only in the past there were fewer parts to vote on since more of the songs came in complete. Having such a democratic writing process has sometimes caused tempers to flare, so to prevent blowouts each member of Lamb of God has the power to veto anything egregiously objectionable.
“Say four guys want a particular song to be called ‘Candyland’ and one guy’s totally against it (I’m using that as an example because I’m looking at that game right now),” Morton explains. “I could say, ‘You know what? I don’t care if it’s four to one. I cannot live with that title. I hate it, I’m gonna hate it forever and I’m gonna be so pissed off about this that it’ll always bother me.’ Then, you can use your veto. But you really only get to throw that card when it really counts. I’m not sure I’ve ever even thrown mine.”
The first couple songs the band wrote for VII: Sturm Und Drang didn’t make the grade, so they were dissected and the best parts were used in other tunes. Song number three was the charm. With the propulsive “Still Echoes,” which features a blood pressure–raising, off-time opening riff before leveling off a tad, Lamb of God hit full stride and never looked back.
“I had been farming a little bit on my laptop at home between tours and I came up with this high-energy part that demanded a reaction,” Morton says. “Everyone loved it, and when we could play ‘Still Echoes’ in rehearsal, or at least a version of it, that, to me, was a big moment. It was the first time in the session that we all went, ‘Okay, we’re on to something. That song’s bad-ass.’ ”
“When Mark first played that opening riff, it reminded me of old Burn the Priest [the band’s former name under which they released one self-titled album in 1999], and when Chris put the blast beats over it, a lot of memories of those days flooded back,” Adler says.
Producer Josh Wilbur, who produced Resolution and has also worked with All That Remains, Hatebreed and others, flew to Lamb of God’s practice space in August 2014 and spent a month working with the band to narrow down the best ideas and help tie together loose ends. At that point, Lamb of God had 15 completed songs and 24 unfinished ideas, many of which had been sewn together in various configurations.
“Even the complete songs were absolutely torn apart,” Adler says. “In some cases, we stole riffs from finished songs and added them to unfinished songs, and this was way before any of them had titles.”
Lamb of God continued tweaking and revising, and Blythe frantically wrote lyrics once he heard the material. Then in January 2015 Lamb of God flew to Suburban Soul Studios in Torrance, California, and tracked for two weeks with Wilbur before heading to Australia for a short tour. Instead of recording the drums first, as they had done in the past, Morton, Adler and Campbell played to basic MIDI beats, which gave them more flexibility when it came to the final recording.
“That was Josh’s idea,” Morton says. “He discovered that when you track drums first there is very little room for the song structures to change, and he wanted us to have the freedom to be able to change a vocal part or extend or shorten a rhythm. Once the drums are done, you’re committed. It was a little less fun to do it that way, but the strategy seems pretty smart to me.”
Wilbur had other, more subtle ideas that added to the diversity of VII: Sturm Und Drang. These included adding talk box guitar to the ripping “Erase This.”
“One day I was driving our rental car to the store to get a drink, and Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ came on the radio,” recalls Morton. “I got back to the studio, handed Josh a drink and asked, ‘Hey, who produced “Livin’ on a Prayer”? And Josh said, ‘I don’t know, but it’s funny you brought that up because I was just thinking it would be really cool if you put talk box guitar in the middle of the song. And now that you brought up Bon Jovi, we have to do it. I think it’s a sign!’ I was like, ‘Okay, fuck it, but if we’re gonna do the talk box we better make sure this is where we want it because we’re never going to do it again.’ ”
“I had never used a talk box before, so our friend from Dunlop came in with a couple for us to try,” adds Adler. “Josh was stoked on the idea, but in my mind I’m just thinking about Peter Frampton and Joe Walsh, and I was like, ‘Uhh, I don’t know about this.’ But it came out awesome.”
In addition to experimenting with new guitar techniques, Lamb of God took liberties with vocals. Instead of screaming his way through the entire album, Blythe only roared and howled for about 80 percent of the songs. Elsewhere, he talked, ranted, half-sang and even crooned; the song “Overlord” is probably the closest Lamb of God will likely ever get to Metallica’s “One.”
“I started writing ‘Overlord’ two years ago, and I would play little bits here and there on the road for Mark,” Adler says. “But I never envisioned it as a Lamb tune until it came back up in rehearsal and I brought it in. At that point it was still in a really skeletal phase. But once everybody gave their input it started to form into this really rad song.”
“It’s not the first time Randy’s sung clean,” Morton clarifies. “There was a deep cut on Resolution, ‘Insurrection,’ where he did the fourth verse clean. And it served a really great purpose because we kind of set the stage with that song. So it wasn’t a completely foreign idea when we went to do ‘Overlord.’ ”
For Blythe, adding melodic vocals to his plate was neither daunting nor enthralling, it was just…necessary. “Honestly, I didn’t think much about it,” Blythe says. “It all happened very organically. Willie sent me some riffs. I started singing in my truck and I went with my instincts. It happened naturally. I did a bunch of takes for it in the studio, but it was actually easier for me than screaming. And it’s not auto-tuned. That’s my real voice.”
Contrary to what some media outlets have reported, VII: Sturm Und Drang isn’t a concept record about life behind bars. Nor is it a treatise about being back on the outside. And despite the intensity of Blythe’s vocals, writing and recording wasn’t particularly therapeutic for him and didn’t provide any sort of closure to his ordeal in Prague.
“I don’t need to write a prison record for closure, so this is not a prison record,” Blythe insists. “People constantly want to call it that and they want to put me in that state of post-traumatic stress disorder. They’ll say, ‘Do you have nightmares? Are you depressed?’ I’m not a fucking fragile egg. Sometimes shit sucks and you man up and deal with it. Maybe people are too fucking fragile now or something because this term ‘PTSD’ always pops up. That one should be reserved for combat vets. Those motherfuckers have to face life and death situations all the fucking time. I don’t get PTSD when I have an argument with my wife or when someone cuts me off in traffic. I’m not that soft.”
Blythe started writing two songs, “Still Echoes” and “512,” in his journal while he was in prison, and each reflects a different aspect of his experience there. The former is a tribute to the Misfits’ “London Dungeon,” which was about the time the band spent two nights in a jail in Brixton, England, after frontman Glenn Danzig and guitarist Bobby Steele got into a fight with skinheads while waiting to see the Jam. “I kept singing that song to myself for inspiration while I was in jail, along with Bad Brains’ ‘Attitude’ and Black Flag’s ‘Rise Above,’ ” Blythe says. “Those were my jams.”
“512” is a more serious track about the psychological change prisoners go through when they’re locked up. “If you want to last in there, you can’t think and behave like you do when you go to the grocery store because it’s not a normal place,” Blythe says. “So I was thinking about that and reading through the journals that I kept. I was like, Man, I was having some crazy thought processes. And then I thought about other people put in extreme situations and how they behave.”
The theme of “people in extreme situations” resurfaces throughout VII: Sturm Und Drang. The closing cut “Torches,” which features guest vocals by the Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Puciato, is about self-immolation. It’s one of two numbers that feature a cameo; the other is “Embers,” in which Deftones’ Chino Moreno lends his unmistakable pained wail to the cinematic outro.
But back to protesters setting themselves ablaze…
“Everyone has seen the image on the first Rage Against the Machine album cover with the monk burning,” Blythe says. “At that point in time, that was a valid response to an extreme situation. There’s a guy named Jan Pallach in the Czech Republic, who I learned about while I was waiting for my trial. He immolated in protest over the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968.”
“The Czechs had been occupied for so long and the people were getting beaten down and apathetic after having been occupied by the Nazis. Then they had a bit of freedom and then they became Communists. Finally they said, ‘No, we’re not going to become communists anymore.’ So Russia and the rest of the Warsaw Pact said, ‘Okay, fuck you,’ and invaded and the Czechs were beaten down.”
Much happier discussing the content of his lyrics and what he learned since he returned home than he is talking about his boring experiences in the studio, Blythe eagerly continues. “In protest, this guy Jan Pallach immolated right there in Wenceslas Square, and he became a symbol of free talk and dissidence during the Communist era. That was a valid choice he made. He wasn’t mentally ill. And there are Tibetans who do it to this day over the treatment of them by China.”
“Sadly enough, because we live in this gore-saturated internet mass-media world, people are barely noticing people setting themselves on fire in protest of something. Now that’s an extreme situation. I did a lot of research on immolations and the whole time I was thinking, Fuck man, how upset do you have to be about something to set yourself on fire?
Other songs are less historical. “Delusion Pandemic” confronts the “generation of mockingbirds” that has become so reliant on technology it has shut itself off from the real world. “This is the rise of our demise!” roars Blythe, between elongated guitar chugs and off-kilter riffs.
“What’s terrifying to me is that kids being raised in this environment don’t know anything else,” he says. “We were in Australia on the Soundwave tour recently, and I had a talk with this band whose members were all in their mid-to-late twenties. They weren’t 12. We were talking about the old days of touring, and they were astonished that anyone could tour in a van without a cell phone or a GPS.
“One of them said, ‘Well, how did you know where you were going?’ ‘Umm, I got a fucking map.’ And they went, ‘Well, how did you get directions to the club?’ And I said, ‘I called them and asked them for an address and they gave me directions.’ There was no Mapquest at that point. The fact that these people can’t even conceive of that scares me. Soon, they’re going to make a machine that wipes your butt for you, and what’s going to happen when the system fails? These kids are all going to be walking around with shitty drawers.”
Photos: Travis Shinn