It feels like an age since Lamb of God last graced us with their presence, and it must feel like a lifetime for Randy Blythe, the intelligent and eloquent artist who found himself facing a situation that must rank high amongst the very worst nightmare scenarios any musician, particularly a musician of conscience, might face. Following an onstage altercation with a fan which, with proper venue security and a suitable sized stage should never even have taken place, Randy found himself blamed for the teenager’s death and arrested by the authorities. Forced to evaluate himself, his actions and his position in the metal community, Randy Blythe was eventually cleared of any legal wrongdoing, but the decision of the court to hold him ‘morally responsible’ for the terrible tragedy that occurred in Prague had a profound impact upon him and the emotional trauma resonates in both Randy’s book, ‘dark days’ and on ‘VII: Sturm und Drang’. Although only two songs explicitly deal with the event, the influence of Prague is writ large across the album and you can feel that the history of that darkly romantic city seeped into Randy during his confinement there.
Considering the fact that Randy spent a considerable deal of time fearing for his freedom and the band spent a similar time contemplating their future, ‘VII: Sturm und Drang’ is both a powerfully confident album and a strong continuation of the sound that Lamb of God have been honing since they first emerged snarling and snapping with ‘Burn the Priest’ in 1999. One thing that has become abundantly clear in the intervening period between ‘Resolution’ and ‘VII: Sturm und Drang’ is that Randy is one of the few lyricists who stands behind his words. With a strong theme of taking responsibility for both your successes and failures running through the Lamb of God catalogue, Randy demonstrated the strength of his convictions when he voluntarily returned to the Czech Republic to face trial, and that sense of utter self-belief looms large over the new album. For John Campbell, Willie Adler, Mark Morton and Chris Adler, meanwhile, it’s very much business as usual with the tight-knit unit delivering a suitably monumental backdrop over which Randy unleashes his brutal roar. There are some sonic surprises here, however, and when the band do flex their creative muscles at various points, there is the feeling that the band are keen to open the way to new sonic avenues in the future whilst maintaining their grip on the signature sound they have spent so many years honing to perfection. In short, ‘VII: Sturm und Drang’ is a most welcome return to action from a band for whom integrity, passion and power are at the very core of their being.
The album gets off to a crushing start with the searing punk-metal hybrid ‘Still Echoes’ veering from a simple guitar riff to a full-band battering that bristles with energy and aggression. The message is simple – Lamb of God may have had some downtime, but the beast is back and it has lost none of its savagery. ‘Erase this’ opens with huge power chords sweeping out of the speaker before the percussion kicks in and suddenly the listener is hurtling forward propelled by the overwhelming power of Chris Adler’s distinctive percussive blasts. For sure there is little here that will convince those who have yet to find Lamb of God worthy of their time for it is a refinement of their famous sound and not a reinvention, but for those who have admired the band since the early days, ‘erase this’ is as furiously powerful as anything the band have put their name to. The first sign of the inner turmoil that came close to engulfing the band is on ‘512’, a track written in the cell in Pankrac prison that bore the titular number, and it appears as a slower, darker number than Lamb of God have traditionally dealt in. There’s a strong sense of melody in the guitar work and whilst that oh-so-familiar groove is still there, there is also a darker edge to the music that really works well. Randy, meanwhile, turns in a visceral performance that is shot through with doubt, rage and nervous energy. It is a classic example of a talented artist feeding off negative energy and using it to craft something positive form the experience. More typically Lamb of God in style, ‘Footprints’ is a surging blast of furious riffing and crushing percussion delivered with an unnerving power that has the ability to shock the listener into fight or flight by virtue of its searing power alone.
Perhaps the biggest shock of the album is the one two punch of ‘Embers’ and ‘overlord’. Opening with a single clean riff in the dark overlaid with stuttering percussion, ‘embers’ demonstrates some of the very best guitar laying yet heard on a lamb of god album, whilst Randy tears into the track with ever-increasing fury. Meanwhile Chino, who guests on the track, offers up a performance that is every bit as impressive as you could wish from such a collaboration. The power of the track is in no way reduced by the addition of melodic vocals – Chino and Randy judge their performances perfectly and their delivery is potent enough to induce shivers up and down the spine, It’s a departure for Lamb of God and yet it sounds perfectly in keeping with the material that surrounds it and there should be no surprise that this stunning song should be placed right at the centre of the album. Even more of a departure, ‘Overlord’ opens with some quiet, restrained guitar work, even offering up a bluesy solo, before Randy unveils a hitherto hidden clean singing voice that conveys depth and emotion on a track that may be one of the most varied and emotive pieces the band have every laid down. Full credit must go to the band for being brave enough to experiment with their signature sound without over milking it, and the result is a stunning evolution of the Lamb of God sound without being too radical a departure.
As if suddenly conscious of the melodic turn the album is taking, ‘Anthropoid’ is a short, brutal shock to the system that sees Lamb of God on electrifying form as Randy threatens to rip his throat to shreds. In contrast ‘engage the fear machine’ takes a moment to build up a full head of steam, the riffs building over a martial beat before delivering a blitzkrieg style assault that simply rolls over the opposition. ‘Delusion pandemic’ is even faster, the band standing heads down, churning out riffs that are amongst the best Lamb of God have yet devised. The album closes with another quieter track, the subtle, dynamic ‘Torches’ which sees spoken word, melodic vocals and scarifying screams combined to great effect as the band round out one of their most effective releases to date with a track that sees Greg Puciato providing a stunning counterpoint to Randy’s unhinged roars on another track that suggests Lamb of God are keen to expand their sonic palette.
‘Vii: Sturm und Drang’ is an astonishing album. First of all we should be grateful to have it all given the monumental upheavals that have affected the band, but, more than that, it is clear that Lamb of God have utilised the events to make themselves stronger. They are a better band now than they ever have been and the confidence, intelligence and power that leaps from every song marks this album out as a classic in the making. The guest spots are deftly arranged and the centrepiece of the album – the stunning ‘embers’ and the overwhelmingly brilliant ‘overlord’ are evidence that the band are not content to simply rest on their impressive laurels, and there is a strong argument that this is, in fact, the band’s finest release to date. Although Randy’s experiences are only explicitly dealt with briefly, there is no question that the album is heavily informed by the events of the last three years, and it is a mark of the band’s respect for their fans and the depth of their commitment that they were able to stand fast as a unit and work through their problems when others may have simply folded under the pressure. Lamb of God stand tall as one of metal’s finest acts and ‘Vii: Sturm und Drang’ proudly cements that position. It’s been a long time coming, but it was more than worth the wait.