One morning in May, Lamb of God guitarist and lyricist Mark Morton awoke in the early afternoon, flipped on the TV and watched a news report that turned his blood to ice. A 26-year-old Philadelphia telecommunications contractor named Nicholas Berg had just been beheaded by Islamic militants in the latest episode of bloodshed in the Middle East.
"Every time you think things are as bad as they could possibly get, there's a dude getting his head sawed off," Morton said, recalling the incident with disgust. "We've got all these rich white dudes in suits playing Risk with 18-year-old American kids who are dying over there, and it feels like Armageddon. It seems like we're bringing on our own demise."
The rage, fear and cynicism that have become a part of daily life since U.S. forces engaged in a war with Iraq played a major role in the savage fury of Lamb of God's third album, Ashes of the Wake. The disc, which entered the Billboard albums chart two weeks ago at #27, combines the brutality of death metal, the raw intensity of thrash and the mathematical precision of prog-metal. And Lamb of God bind their music together with the kind of political content usually reserved for hardcore.
The instrumental title track contains a sound bite of a soldier saying, "I honestly believe that we're committing genocide over here. I don't believe in killing civilians." At this year's Ozzfest, singer Randy Blythe repeatedly urged fans to vote Bush out of office. However, as politically aware as Lamb of God seem to be, Morton insists they're not out to educate or enlighten their audience.
"We're not a political party or a history class," he said. "We're just always true to ourselves, so we say what's on our minds. If other people happen to feel the same way, then that's great. But we don't have an agenda, and we're not out stumping for the Democrats. It's about the five of us. That's it."
Clearly, the unrelenting barrage of Ashes of the Wake was largely a result of the political climate in which the quintet created the album, but the terse, wired tone of the LP was equally influenced by the hair-raising deadline imposed by Lamb of God's new major label. Soon after the 2003 release of the incendiary As the Palaces Burn, they were signed by Epic Records, which demanded an album in 2004. Since they already had tour commitments for Palaces, Lamb of God were left with just six months to write and record the new album before they departed for Ozzfest. And since they had spent an average of 18 months just writing each of their previous albums, they were overwhelmed by the Herculean task they faced.
"It was incredibly stressful and emotional and draining, and I think you can hear it in the songs," Morton said. "I totally freaked out and was falling apart because we had to do everything so quickly, but once we accepted it, it was almost liberating. We had to trust ourselves as players and artists and really believe that we could do this. We couldn't second-guess ourselves at all. And we rose to the challenge and wrote our best record."
Ironically, one of the most widely hailed metal records of the year was written by a band whose primary songwriters hardly ever listen to metal anymore. Sure, they grew up on Slayer and Metallica, but these days Morton favors hip-hop and alt-country, second guitarist Will Adler is a closet pop fan, and Blythe is mostly into hardcore. "I think that's one of the coolest things about us," Morton said. "We listen to such different things, so by the time everybody brings their influences to the table, it's a real melting pot. You may not hear any hip-hop in there, but some of the vocal cadences and the way we use drop beats and some of the time signatures definitely come from stuff I listen to, like Jay-Z and Kanye West."
It's hard to picture the grimacing Morton grooving out to West's The College Dropout while Adler jams to something by No Doubt. Just the thought might be enough for some haters to question the Lamb's credibility — none of which bothers Morton in the least.
"We write our own book, man," he explained. "Nobody ever thought we could get this far, and we did it anyway. We were doing it before anyone wanted to interview us, and we'll be doing it when they all don't care anymore."