In June 2012, Lamb of God vocalist D. Randall Blythe was arrested in the Czech city of Prague and charged with murder. During a performance there just over two years earlier, in May 2010, Blythe had pushed a fan, Daniel Nosek, from the stage. Nosek hit his head on the floor, suffering serious brain trauma as a result. He fell into a coma, and died 14 days later.
Blythe was held in a Czech prison until August 2, 2012, though he returned in February 2013 for trial. He was acquitted after six days of testimony from his bandmates, the promoter, and other fans present at the show. The prosecution appealed, but in June 2013 the appeal was denied, bringing the case to an end.
Two years later, Lamb of God have released a new album, VII: Sturm und Drang, and Blythe has written a book, Dark Days: A Memoir. Each deals with this story in different ways.
Dark Days (buy it from Amazon) is almost entirely about Blythe’s imprisonment and trial. It begins with his arrest, backtracks briefly to give the unaware reader some history about his life, Lamb of God‘s career, and his philosophy on the music business, then returns to the main story. There are additional brief digressions, within the prison-set chapters, dealing with Blythe’s alcoholism and his two marriages, but the bulk of the book is a prison memoir, and eventually a recap of the trial.
Blythe is a good, if unschooled, writer. He’s overly enthusiastic about adjectives, too frequently opting for florid language over clarity of expression in the book’s early chapters. But he’s a clear thinker, and doesn’t romanticize anything—not his cellmates, not life in the modern music industry (he describes himself as “a semi-famous guy in a pretty well-known heavy metal band who makes a very respectable living touring the world as a glorified t-shirt salesman”), not his struggles with alcohol. His descriptions of life in prison are extraordinarily vivid, sometimes frightening but other times extremely funny, particularly when discussing his cellmate Dorj. And while the story is probably already known to most prospective readers in its broadest strokes (the fact that he’s home and publishing a memoir gives a big clue as to how it ends), he manages to generate a great deal of suspense in the telling. And he didn’t work with a ghostwriter or a co-author, which makes the book all the more impressive. Once he gets tired of selling shirts on the road, he could do worse than make the transition to fiction.
VII: Sturm und Drang (buy it from Amazon) is neither Lamb of God‘s best album (that would be As the Palaces Burn or Ashes of the Wake) nor its worst (that would be the rote Sacrament). It’s also, mercifully, not Dark Days set to music. There are a couple of songs that deal explicitly with Blythe’s time in prison—”Still Echoes” and “512” (the latter was his cell number)—but the majority are about history, rage-fueled self-reliance, human perfidy…the usual Lamb of God stuff.
Musically, it’s the usual stuff, too. This is a band with a defined style, and for most of the album, they stick to it. Chris Adler‘s precise, militaristic drumming, built around a uniquely nail-gun-like approach to the kick and the exact same ringing snare sound Lars Ulrich was pilloried for using on St. Anger, drives the riffs played by Willie Adler (his brother) and Mark Morton, while bassist John Campbell fills in the mid-to-low end. Lamb of God‘s music is not particularly bottom-heavy, though; their songs are rooted in Slayer-esque thrash, with fast riffs repeating in a mechanistic, almost looping manner and relatively little groove or swing in the rhythm section. (Chris Adler is in fact one of the more swinging drummers in modern metal, but the style itself prizes tautness.) Campbell rarely emerges into the spotlight—most of the time, he’s a rumble in the mix. And somewhere in the middle of it all, Blythe growls and snarls, his Southern origins apparent in the way he twists his vowels or lets phrases devolve.
The band don’t invite many guests onto their albums. Guitarists Chris Poland and Alex Skolnick, of Megadeth and Testament respectively, contributed solos to the title track of Ashes of the Wake (Poland also played on a song on As the Palaces Burn), and a female singer, Amanda Munton, duetted with Blythe on “King Me,” from Resolution. But Sacrament and Wrath were made by the five members and no one else. VII breaks the pattern, bringing in high-profile guest vocalists on two songs—Chino Moreno of Deftones on “Embers,” and Greg Puciato of the Dillinger Escape Plan on the album-closing “Torches.” Puciato’s East Coast sneer and Moreno’s morose, Gothy croon make them ideal foils for Blythe, whether he’s roaring and snarling, as he usually does, or reciting his lyrics, as on “Torches.” For the majority of the album, of course, he’s on his own, but even then, he surprises, employing a clean, alt-rockish singing voice on the simmering, bluesy “Overlord.”
This is the third Lamb of God album in a row to be produced by Josh Wilbur. The last one, 2012’s Resolution, brought in new sonic elements like acoustic guitars and string arrangements. There are a few quiet moments on VII, as well as a Peter Frampton-esque talkbox solo on the second song, “Erase This.” And the mix is worth discussing, because it does not serve the band particularly well. On previous albums, Lamb of God‘s music had a crispness, an aggression that pierced the listener’s brain and gave the songs an almost physical power. They demanded your attention, and it was impossible to deny it to them. On VII, the entire band seems overly blended together and muffled somehow, as though the speaker is buried beneath a pile of feathers. Adler’s drums are no longer a machine gun; they’re bubble wrap being popped in the next room. The ringing snare is gone, and it’s missed. Blythe’s vocals once sat in the middle of the music, leading but not dominating. Here, though, he’s shouting his bandmates down, because the decision has been made that his voice is more important than theirs. It’s disappointing. Still, they’ve lost none of their ambition, as the guests and new sounds make clear, and there’s a lot to like on VII. It’s just not a masterpiece.
Watch the video for “Overlord”: