Lamb of God: ‘It’s a Tradition in Heavy Metal to Have Political Commentary’
The American metallers’ guitarist Mark Morton talks about the making of their new self-titled album, keeping busy during a pandemic and solo material
Lamb of God riffsmith Mark Morton has had a busy 12 months by any ordinary stretch. It was in March 2019 that his debut solo album Anesthetic released and then in January, he released a follow-up EP Ether. Counting just those two records, the guitarist had worked with some of the best voices in heavy music – the late Chester Bennington from Linkin Park, Alter Bridge frontman Myles Kennedy, Alissa White-Gluz from Arch Enemy, Howard Jones (previously of Killswitch Engage) and Lzzy Hale, amongst others.
With Lamb of God’s self-titled album out last month, it’s been a whirlwind and Morton’s just realized it. “When I think about it, when you lay it all out like that, I work a lot. And I just don’t stop working lately,” he says over the phone from Virginia. The starting point for most Lamb of God songs, including the ones on this formidable 10-track album, is Morton and co-guitarist Willie Adler’s riffs and ideas. “We always start with the music first. Willie and I get together and start fleshing out outlines of song musically and instrumentally. And then from there, we build up and the band gets involved, meaning the all of us get involved and start really kind of taking that ball of clay and molding it into what the song is going to be,” Morton says of the process.
While that process hasn’t changed on Lamb of God, it is in fact their first album with Art Cruz (known for his work with deathcore band Winds of Plague), who joined in 2019 and replaced co-founder Chris Adler. Morton doesn’t directly refer to the lineup change, but does say they were “aware that it’s kind of a new chapter for the band.” Following their 2015 album VII: Sturm und Drang, this new record holds up the standard that metal bands might be growing older but they never take their foot off the gas when it comes to delivering rattling, intense music. Vocalist Randy Blythe is majorly pissed off for the most part, even a little prescient when he shouts, “This is the new abnormal” in the chorus for the particularly unsparing “Reality Bath,” which references the horror of school shootings and the world’s desensitized reaction to violence. Elsewhere on the album, Lamb of God invite hardcore/metal band Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta for “Poison Dream” and thrash metal titans Testament’s Chuck Billy on “Routes,” which talk about water pollution and environmental violations that are plaguing corporate cash-driven America.
Morton says about the lyrical content, “Randy writes most of the lyrics these days. He’s always written probably most of them. I’m writing less amount of the lyrics… but a song like ‘Checkmate’ that Randy and I co-wrote is very politically charged. It doesn’t necessarily take one side of the other really if you read it […] I wouldn’t feel authentic not addressing the moment that we’re in right now.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone India, Morton takes us through the making of Lamb of God, an album that they decided to put out with an eponymous title, plus lockdown times and India memories. Excerpts:
How has the album been received so far?
I don’t ever remember a Lamb of God album being this well received right out of the gate. There are certainly albums – people talk about Ashes of Wake, As the Palaces Burn and Sacrament being the go-to albums – but even those records, when they released didn’t get the response that this album has got. I feel like we always get a favorable response, I feel like we’re lucky that way, on all our albums. That’s really rewarding to see.
What is it like celebrating at a time like this, when there’s restrictions due to the pandemic?
It’s a fair question, man. You know, I’m so far into this career that celebrating for me is… I’m back in my studio working on music [laughs]. I just work, man. I love it. I’m home. I can’t tour right now. So I’m spending a lot of time with my loved ones. And I’m working on music. I’m being grateful for having a home and having a place where I can work and being able to be around people I love, so now that’s just everyday for me.
When did the decision to call this album a self-titled record come to be? Did it come early on?
No, I mean, we didn’t title the record until the songs were done and we knew what songs were on it. Self-titled has been an option all along. We’ve never put out a self-titled record and in the past, it’s come up but it felt like sort of a cop out, like a fallback. Like when you have nothing better. This time, it didn’t feel that way. It felt really appropriate to self-title the album. It felt like an album that sounded like that.
We knew that this was a very comprehensive album in terms of the things we do stylistically. We also were aware that it’s kind of a new chapter for the band. And we feel like this is sort of the benchmark for us in terms of… we’re now very definitely a veteran band. We’ve been in the scene for a very long time. We’re very established, we’ve kind of been through all the conflict and trials and tribulations. I’m sure maybe there’ll be more, you never know. But not right now. We find ourselves in internally at least and creatively and as a band, we find ourselves in a very sort of confident and inspired place.
It was just last year that you had Anesthetic and Ether out and you’ve jumped into this. Doing promo for both must be so vastly different, given the pandemic.
Honestly, it’s just overwhelming and mind-blowing. And I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to do the solo stuff, particularly this late in my career, to have these new opportunities open up and to be able to start building a body of work under my own name. That’s obviously with all deference and respect to my band Lamb of God, that’s my home. But I’ve had the opportunity to stretch out and do this outside stuff.
I guess the differences are… there are plenty! With the solo stuff, I kind of have the last word on everything. You know creatively, I consider myself sort of the creative director because I don’t write everything. I’m collaborating with these artists. Chester [Bennington] and I co-wrote “Cross” with [vocalist] Jake Oni. I co-wrote with Mark Lanegan and also with Myles Kennedy, but at the end of the day, it’s my name on the album, so I’m sort of a creative overseer. I have the last word on everything and with that comes a great responsibility and things that I had never even thought about, even in a 20-year career with Lamb of God.
The things that go into approving and all the text and album layouts and every little my new detail filters through me on the solo stuff. In Lamb of God, I’m certainly a very active participant, particularly creatively, but on a lot of the business stuff and a lot of marketing stuff, I’m not particularly involved, frankly, just because I think there’s people that are better than me. So I’m really still learning a lot during the process of the solo stuff.
There’s political and social themes for long in Lamb of God’s music and this album is no different. In your decades of experience in the metal community, what have you seen about the way metalheads grapple with politics?
That’s a great question. It seems to me that over the years, certainly in the current moment, it’s gotten to be a lot more divisive, a lot more divided. I think the pitch and the tempers seem to be a little higher now. I’m 47 years old, so I was listening to thrash metal in the mid late Eighties and there was a political charge to a lot of that stuff – Megadeth, Sacred Reich, bands like that. They had a political element to them, even [Metalica’s] …And Justice for All. Even Black Sabbath. There’s been commentary. It’s a tradition in heavy metal to have that kind of element.
I’m pretty vocal on social media about what I think and that kind of thing, and I get a lot of kickback. I get a lot of ‘Shut up and play guitar!’ I get a lot of other stuff too but it’s a common thing to hear that. Since when has anyone just shut up and play guitar? And certainly since when have we? We have historically, all through the career of Lamb of God, it’s in our DNA to talk about things that we see and things that we might be critical of.
I mean, that’s who we are what we write about. We also write about personal issues. So we write about what we’re thinking and feeling. I’ve kind of deviated from your question. What has changed I think it’s just gone through phases. It feels really divisive. There are plenty of bands that steer clear of it. And I understand why, from a business perspective and from, sort of a career management perspective and that kind of thing. But for me, I just wouldn’t feel authentic not touching on things that impact [us]. That we identify with personally or that are on our minds.
Randy writes, in “Reality Bath” – one of my favorite songs ever written – about school shootings, which is such an absurd and terrifying phenomenon here in the United States. He writes about climate change, which is an absurd and terrifying phenomenon around the world. So that’s just where we are. I don’t criticize someone for not doing that.
You had a tour to go out and play this album that’s got pushed back. It’s something that bands probably look forward to the most about a new album cycle. How does it feel for you to have that itch where you have to wait off on playing these songs live?
It’s an unfortunate situation for sure. It’s a new situation, I’ve never really had that. In my career and my patterns of activity be redirected in such a way that it was done on such a global scale and not on our own terms as a society [laughs]. That’s kind of a new sort of humility for us all to wrap our heads around.
I really try and stay aware of the fact that this whole pandemic is affecting people in ways that are so much more important, so much more serious than me not being able to go on tour. While that certainly impacts things in my life, and it changes some things and changes the way I see some things and some of my behaviors… in the big picture, I’m safe.
I just look forward to however and whenever and whatever it takes to kind of establish a new normal And where we can all figure out how to get, you know, maybe this is the maybe this is the pause and the reset that we all needed.
Since I’m calling from India, I thought I’d get you to recount your favorite memories from the couple of times you’ve performed here.
I think it’s really that first show. I mean, we’ve been there a couple of shows there but the first one [in May 2010 at Summer Storm Festival in Bengaluru] … The idea that I would ever go somewhere as far as India, growing up in a rural southeast Virginia town… it never really occurred to me that I would make it to India on under any circumstance, let alone playing guitar in a band.
When we showed up there that first time and the crowd was massive man both shows with us. But the first one, the crowd was just massive. And it was just a real kind of like surreal moment to be like, Man, I’ve made it all the way to India. We’ve been back [in 2012, for Nokia Alive] and it was great again. I look forward to being there and play some more in India. It’s wonderful to know that we have fans there. I see fans from India all the time on my social media and their words of encouragement, words of support. So we know you’re there, and we really appreciate it.
Listen to ‘Lamb of God’ below and more platforms here.