The mantle of “American metal” can be a dubious one. After all, most heavy historians point to the British as the genre’s inventors, and thanks to various refinements in Scandinavia, Europe and beyond, it is very possible as a fan to have an extensive and varied collection of heavy metal without owning one American album. So what does American metal even mean? Is it a rich vein of innovation, or a long continuum of impure blandness? Is eminence in American metal a real measure of quality, or simply a high place in a mediocre heap? These are valid questions to ask when talking about a band like Lamb of God, and their latest release, VII: Sturm und Drang.
Lamb of God’s rise to fame was fairly meteoric, and before long, they were accepted into the Ozzfest social set, rubbing elbows with everyone from Slayer, Pantera and Killswitch Engage to Slipknot and Mastodon. Their contemporaries run the gamut from progressive to metalcore to nu-metal to alternative metal, and Lamb of God don’t necessarily sound out of place next to any of them. However, they settled into their signature sound early on – predominantly groove metal – with plenty of death metal influence, as well as other more varied and subtle influences.
VII: Sturm und Drang is not a radical departure from anything Lamb of God have done before. It does, however, see the band re-establishing themselves after a certain spell of well-documented unpleasantness in the Czech Republic. Vocalist Randy Blythe is as dynamic as ever. His lyrics are pointed and writerly, and his vocals are furious and varied. His old approaches make welcome returns, including his deep, spoken intonations, venom snarls, manic screeches and rumbling growls.
The music does feel busy, precise and compositionally saturated, and the mix is big, steady and syrupy smooth. However, for a band that built their name on grooves and riffs, the building-blocks here aren’t terribly interesting or novel. They are given less breathing room than they were on say Ashes of the Wake, and have significantly less impact. Solid? Sure. Driving? Yeah – but more workmanlike than innovative. They feel orphaned somehow, detached, disconnected from any cultural tradition or greater meaning. They are just guitar riffs with note progressions and pinch harmonics. Is this the representative sound of American metal?
There are high-profile guest appearances, but Chino Moreno and Greg Puciato just kind of end up as voices in the mix. Moreno’s caterwauling on “Embers” doesn’t really mesh well with the rest of the song, and Puciato is so reverse-echoed and back in the mix in “Torches” that any musical character he might bring is washed out. “Overlord,” meanwhile, is definitely a “The Unforgiven II” moment. With its chorused clean vocals and hilarious shimmering chords, it sounds like a National Guard propaganda video or NASCAR on Fox promo waiting to happen. Somebody call Scott Stapp – they found his notebook!
Then there is the other thing. Blythe does address the elephant in the room with “512.” The song is a bit of an anti-climax, given all the hullabaloo in the metal community over Blythe’s incarceration stemming from a fan’s death at a concert in Prague in 2010, and subsequent arrest and trial in 2012-2013. (Also, it pales next to all the iconic, albeit fictional jail songs we’ve enjoyed over the decades, such as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) However, “512” is catchy, with Blythe intoning, screaming and singing “Six bars laid across the sky” and “My hands are painted red / My future’s painted blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack.”
The final three-song progression of “Engage the Fear Machine,” “Delusion Pandemic” and “Torches” is where the album hits its stride, beginning to feel epic and thematically rewarding. “Engage the Fear Machine” reads like a sign at an Occupy protest, and riding atop a very catchy guitar part, Blythe delivers the rest of the manifesto without shame. Like Job for a Cowboy vocalist Jonny Davy, Blythe is a progressive, ethicist metal musician, not afraid to abdicate the scary, fantastical metal guy image in favor of a more bookish, zealous one. In fact, parts of VII: Sturm and Drang share the well-composed, but somewhat indistinct quality of JFAC’s recent material; the songs bleed together, but they sound pretty good and sustain an absorbing mood.
And so we have another album from the cream of American metal. It will have broad appeal, and probably get a bit more credit than it deserves, but so it goes. VII: Sturm und Drang isn’t bad in any way, but that’s what makes it sort of troublesome; it doesn’t deserve any serious denigration, but it doesn’t deserve any rabid praise either. It will receive the latter anyway, and suck up lots of media attention. After all, who are the flag-bearers of American metal? Is it Lamb of God and Killer Be Killed, or Pallbearer and Deafheaven? The popular, or the underground? Lamb of God have ended up, perhaps inadvertently, releasing another album of safe, in-between sounds – a metal digestible enough for the late night shows, but edgy enough for people who like to mosh at concerts. Is this the balance of semi-popularity that American metal should strive for?
No. VII: Sturm und Drang is a moderately likeable record, but it is closer to the continuum of blandness than the spirit of exploration. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you’ve missed something important by staying inside while the storm and stress passed overhead.