Unlike tourmates Slipknot and Bullet for My Valentine, Lamb of God have achieved juggernaut status while mostly abjuring the nü-metal and post-hardcore/screamo elements that helped their peers poach fans from the Family Values/Warped Tour generation and score major-label contracts. They also have little use for either the genre purism or doom/drone vanguardism that the crossover indie crowd rallies around. Lamb of God is meat-and-potatoes modern metal, virtuosic but not cerebral, uninterested in theatrics, aimed straight at the solar plexus. But if career high-water marks Ashes of the Wake and Sacrament suggested they’d never run out of new ways to think inside the groove metal box, their holding pattern since suggests otherwise. VII: Sturm und Drang, their solid but unspectacular follow-up to 2012’s Resolution, doesn’t much change that.
While in Prague on tour for Resolution, singer Randy Blythe was arrested and held on manslaughter charges, following the death of a young fan who’d rushed their stage two years earlier. He was eventually acquitted, but not before spending over a month in a Czech jail, where a guillotine used by the Nazis stands as a memorial to its several thousand victims. Aside from being the sort of thing metalheads are bound to fetishize as supremely, well, metal, the thoughtful Blythe claims the ordeal was a wellspring of artistic inspiration. The two tracks that reference it directly are among VII’s more vital ones. “Still Echoes” charges the gates with a breathlessly nimble riff and double-bass stampede, as Blythe delivers a throat-searing harangue against the thousand-year pattern of corrupt Western power, from the crusades through the nominally rationalistic Nazis, represented by the “dirty heirloom” just down the hall from his cell. The anthemic “Anthropoid” is a speed-metal salute to the Czech paratroopers who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the “Butcher of Prague.”
Album closer “Torches” commemorates a Czech student who lit himself on fire in protest of the Warsaw Pact. Its theme of self-sacrifice is emblematic of how much of VII reduces suffering and injustice to matters of individual choice. “Delusion Pandemic” is particularly painful, with its spoken-word lecture about how “it doesn’t matter one bit how unfair you think the world is, all that matters is what you do right here, right now!” But in the post-Napalm Death era, parsing out lyrics is a labor of love anyway. Most of VII is devoted to Lamb of God’s merciless dual-guitar attacks, shaped by drummer Chris Adler’s tireless fills, rendering one helpless to resist their headbanging call. Even the few moments of questionable experimentation work: The voice box on “Erase This” should sound like an unholy union of Heartwork and Frampton Comes Alive and instead sounds thoroughly, teeth-gnashingly evil.
The major drawback here, then, isn’t the performances, which are first-rate, or the lyrics, which are hit and miss, but the compositions, which err on the safe side. For all its, well, sturm und drang, the bulk of Lamb of God’s latest is pretty formulaic. Since Sacrament, the band’s setup of chunky riffs gilded by cymbal taps has thinned out to a leaner, more dexterous thrash-inflected sound, which makes melodic demands of Lamb of God that they don’t quite fulfill here. The rudimentary four-bar riffs that structure nearly every track rarely stick in the ear after even the fourth or fifth spin, while the cleanly sung ballad “Overlord” is little more than serviceable. Longtime fans and metal diehards will no doubt find their fix in VII’s functional ferocity. Guitarists Mark Morton and Willie Adler’s chemistry, however, and the primal aggression throughout, suggest that Lamb of God is capable of much more.