When and how did Lamb of God become a metal institution? They still seem like a new band, even though they've been around for more than 15 years. Their first album, a self-titled disc from when they were still called Burn the Priest, came out in 1999. New American Gospel, their debut under their current name, arrived a year later.
Since then, it's been a ten-year rocket ride: multiple Ozzfest slots, support for Megadeth and Slayer, and a Grammy nomination for the song "Redneck" in 2007. They spent most of 2009 opening for Metallica, which singer Randy Blythe says was a bid for "prestige ... [and] maybe we'll pick up some fans, because a 50-year-old guy isn't gonna be aware of the Lamb of God show at House of Blues. But he'll check out a Metallica show."
One Metallica gig was particularly special for Blythe: When the band played New York, he brought his mom. "She was right in between the barricade [and the stage], standing by our techs," he recalls. "She'd never been to New York City, so I flew her and my wife up early, and she got to cruise around the city for a day or two. I'm probably never gonna play Madison Square Garden again, so I had to have Mom there."
But bigger stages haven't changed the band. "We do what we're gonna do," says Blythe. "Whether we're playing with Eyehategod or Brutal Truth or playing with Metallica." That relentless individualism has been a major factor in Lamb of God's popularity. The group's breakthrough albums, 2003's As the Palaces Burn and 2004's Ashes of the Wake, were stridently political. This earned them a diehard following and praise from critics, who always fall all over themselves to point out any sign of unexpected intelligence in metal.
But Lamb of God made a sharp left turn on 2006's Sacrament. "I had been writing politically oriented stuff since the Burn the Priest days, because I come from a punk-rock background," says Blythe. "Palaces and Ashes were fairly highly politicized records during the Bush regime, [but] there's only so many ways you can say 'fuck Bush.' It's beating a dead horse after a certain time. We tried to step away on Ashes, but it didn't work. We were still too pissed off. But after we did that, we were like, All right, we need to try something different. We're trying to write each record to be different. Why write the same record over and over?"
The band's most recent album, 2008's Wrath, lives up to its title. Musically, they plow the same crushing groove they've spent a decade and a half perfecting, driven by Chris Adler's astonishing drumming. Lyrically, they mix politics with introspection and general pissed-offness. It's the perfect formula for starting furious mosh pits, but Lamb of God haven't been able to do that for quite a while. The Metallica shows were in arenas, and they're now occupying a main-stage slot on this year's Rockstar Mayhem Festival alongside co-headliners Korn and Rob Zombie.
"When we were main support for Ozzy, there were a lot of 55-year-old dudes eating hot dogs and nachos, looking at us like we were space aliens and going, 'Where's Ozzy?'" recalls Blythe. "If you look up past the seats onto the lawn, which is where our fans are, they're up there destroying shit. That's what our fans do. They're like the bad kids in the back of the school bus."
With arena shows and platinum albums on their résumé, Lamb of God have crossed the divide that separates newbies from legacy acts. They even got a box set: Hourglass, a three-disc compilation of album tracks, demos, and a few rarities, came out in June. The most deluxe version of the set — one that retails for $1,000 — includes a banner, a custom guitar, and the band's entire catalog on vinyl, all packed in a coffin-shaped guitar case.
"We were on tour when it came out," says Blythe. "We were doing an in-store and they had it, so we were like, Oh, so that's what it looks like. We all kinda pored over it. Then in Luxembourg, a girl who works for Sony bought us five of them. The band is always the last to get anything."
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Lamb of God, with Hatebreed and 3 Inches of Blood
8 p.m. Thursday, July 29
House of Blues
308 Euclid Ave.
Tickets: $32 advance, $34 day of show
PULL QUOTE: "Our fans are like the bad kids in the back of the school bus"
CAPTION: A day at the beach with Lamb of God.