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Lamb Chops: The Tools and Techniques Behind Lamb of God’s Crushing Comeback Album

Lamb of God guitarist Willie Adler plays a signature ESP model with signature Seymour Duncan pickups. “They’re high-output,” he says “Kind of a blend between the ’59 and the Duncan Distortion.” Photo by Atlas Icons / Chris Schwegler

John Campbell, Mark Morton, and Willie Adler discuss their first release since the tragedy that nearly destroyed their band.

Before the official announcement of Lamb of God’s surprise release VII: Sturm und Drang, teasers like the cryptic website hinted that a new album was in the pipeline. But that website’s message was ambiguous, since many fans consider Burn the Priest (released when the band still went by that name) to be Lamb of God’s first album, which would make a new release album number eight. The band also teased gear shots on social media, implying that they were cooking up something in the studio. The anticipation became excruciating for fans awaiting the first new Lamb of God material since 2012’s Grammy-nominated Resolution.

That’s a long wait for diehards. But as you may have heard, the band has faced a life-altering experience that almost ended their reign as leaders of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal movement. Upon arriving in the Czech Republic for a tour, singer Randy Blythe was arrested and carted off by face-masked authorities bearing machine guns. They charged Blythe with manslaughter over an incident that happened two years earlier, when 19-year-old fan Daniel Nosek crashed the stage at a Lamb of God gig in Prague. Blythe pushed the aggressive fan offstage. The fall put him in a coma, and he died shortly after.

Blythe was acquitted nearly a year later, but the incident changed everyone in the band. “That sort of experience doesn’t happen and not have an impact on how you view things from there forward,” says bassist John Campbell. The new album, VII: Sturm und Drang, is lyrically informed by the dismal experience. The lead single, “Still Echoes,” draws on Blythe’s time at Prague’s Pankrác Prison, referencing such macabre sights as a guillotine from the prison’s Nazi era.

VII: Sturm und Drang also features special guest vocalists Greg Puciato from Dillinger Escape Plan on “Torches” and Chino Moreno from Deftones on “Embers,” and sees the return of longtime producer Josh Wilbur. Premier Guitar spoke with Campbell and guitarists Mark Morton and Willie Adler about creating such a powerful comeback.

Was the writing process for VII: Sturm und Drang different than it’s been in the past?
Willie Adler:
It was a little different. I’d been writing consistently in our off times throughout tours. When Randy’s situation happened, I used that time to write, so I had a lot of material compiled—I was ahead of the curve by the time the emails came around saying, “We have to start thinking about this new record.” When we went in, it almost reverted to the way we wrote ages ago. It turned out to be one of the more collaborative records we’ve done.

Mark Morton: It’s probably the most collaborative record since As the Palaces Burn in 2001. But I’m always writing, so for me, it wasn’t any different. Often when I pick up a guitar, I’m playing something new. And almost to a fault, I’m evaluating whether it’s appropriate or viable as new Lamb of God material.

“I love writing songs and riffs, and I love playing with the guys I play with. It hasn’t become stale at all, and if it ever did, we’d probably hang it up.” —Willie Adler

Mark, on Twitter you said, “Truth be told, most of my riffs suck—y’all just hear the good ones.” What makes a good riff?
For me, a good riff has groove—it’s so important, at least in the context of Lamb of God and what we do. I need it to make you bob your head. The reason I listen to so much hip-hop is because it gives me that head nod—a visceral reaction. There’s a lot of room in heavy metal to induce the same reaction. That’s always a big goal of mine. You should be able to sing or hum a riff in a lot of cases. Not always, but the listener should be able to recall some part of the song.

Do you record all your noodling in case you create something potentially significant?
Morton: I don’t know if it’s quite that bad. I can still pick up a guitar and just jam without having a panic attack that I’ll come up with some jewel I’ll never remember. But I am like that with lyrics. There’s a whole section of my phone where I have little lines and blurbs, and there are little scraps of bill envelopes with lines scribbled on them all over the house. My wife knows not to throw any of that stuff away.

Do you avoid any stylistic elements in your writing so as not to compete with your own legacy?
That’s a good question, man. I just do what I’ve always done and don’t pay attention to what I’ve done before. Obviously I don’t want to recreate the last record, so I keep a bit of an eye on the past. But allowing myself to just go with it when I’m at that moment—that’s what’s makes it fresh. And like you said, that is our identity. I’m not trying to come off as pompous or anything. I love writing songs and riffs, and I love playing with the guys I play with. It hasn’t become stale at all, and if it ever did, we’d probably hang it up.

Morton: My goal for this album was that it be different, even at the risk of alienating some of the audience. As an artist, on a creative level, I wanted to show our growth as musicians. I wanted to make sure we were breaking ground as a creative unit. I can’t speak for the band, but there was a two-album period when I felt like we were moving a little too laterally for my liking. I would rather push forward and carve out new territory.

Of course, some fans just want to hear what they expect Lamb of God to sound like.
It’s a balance, because a band that’s been together as long and been as prolific as we have develops a brand, and fans expect a certain thing. I see some bands just doing what they do, but as an artist, I’m not happy with that. So on a creative level, I feel like, mission accomplished. We do some things we’ve never done before, and we do other things better than we did in the past. That’s really what keeps me doing this.

Lamb of God bassist, John Campbell plays a new signature ESP Stream model with EMG pickups. He says he digs the unique body shape—sort of a cross between a Thunderbird and a Strat. Photo by Atlas Icons / Chris Schwegler.

Did you write any lyrics relating to Randy’s situation?Morton: No, I didn’t touch that. There was a conscious, deliberate practice of leaving more room for Randy lyrically. Not that he’s ever lagged, but on previous albums I’ve written a larger percentage of the lyrics. But given Randy’s recent experiences, there needed to be room for him to explore that. And that’s just not something I’m qualified or particularly willing to go into.

So let’s talk gear. What’s the vocal-type effect on the riff of “Erase This,” around 3:03?
We reamped the track through a talk box.

Adler: That might have been Josh’s idea. We didn’t intend to write a song using a talk box, but that riff became part of the tune, and Josh was like, “It would be pretty sweet to put a talk box here.” So we went with it, and it turned out great.

John, you just joined Willie in having an ESP signature instrument.
Yeah, I just moved to ESP. They sent me the Stream to check out, and it was just beautiful to play. It’s not a traditional Strat-type body—it’s similar to a Thunderbird. It’s got EMGs.

Willie, what pickups are in your signature guitar?Adler: I have my signature Duncan pickups. They’re high-output, kind of a blend between the ’59 and the Duncan Distortion. It has a little more scooped low end, so it’s not as round on the bottom as a typical JB. It has a bit more attack with distortion.

Mark, tell us about the signature DiMarzio pickups in your signature Jackson guitars.
We started with a DiMarzio model I was already using—the EVO, I think. It was pretty close to what I wanted, but I needed a smooth, even breakup on rhythm. It’s almost like talking about wine, though: “I don’t want it too sandy or barky—I need it creamy.” I wanted a smooth, silky crush for chords with the tight gain structure I look for. But at the same time—and this was the challenge—when I break off into a lead, I need a lot of sustain and cut. I needed it to address single-note, high-pitched stuff in a way that nothing else was doing for me. I could get that funky, tapping-on-a-watermelon, “shunk, shunk, shunk,” but it wasn’t getting that slicing sear on the lead stuff. We probably worked on that thing for over a year, and finally arrived at the DiMarzio Dominion, which does absolutely everything I need.

I saw a pic on the band’s Instagram page with four Tech 21 SansAmp RBIs. John, is that your setup?Why so many?
[Laughs.] The guy who took the picture—who shall remain anonymous—didn’t realize those were part of a rack I had before I switched to a pedalboard. Those pictures are from rehearsals, when I might have just been using a power strip or something out of that rack. But that used to be on my road stuff, and I have it sitting at the practice space, so if anybody wants to buy a SansAmp… [laughs]. I still run through a SansAmp pedal, and I also use an EBS compressor. It sounds beautiful, and I have it on all the time.

Lamb of God’s Mark Morton designed the DiMarzio Dominion pickups in his signature Jackson guitars. He started with the EVO as a base model and made his own tweaks for “a smooth, even breakup on rhythm.” Photo by Atlas Icons / Chris Schwegler

Mark Morton’s Gear

Jackson Dominion signature model

Mesa/Boogie Royal Atlantic RA100
Mesa/Boogie Mark IV
Mesa/Boogie Mark V

MXR Carbon Copy
MXR Il Torino
MXR Phase 90

Strings and Picks
Dunlop custom set strings (.010–.048)
Dunlop Tortex 1.14 mm picks
Levy’s 2” leather strap
Mogami cables

Willie Adler's Gear

ESP signature model

Mesa/Boogie Mark V
Mesa/Boogie Mark IV
Mesa/Boogie 4x12 cabinets

Mesa Five-Band Graphic EQ

Strings and Picks
SIT strings (.010–.048 and .011–.050)
Dunlop Tortex 1 mm picks
Levy’s straps

John Campbell’s Gear

ESP signature model

Mesa/Boogie 400+ amp
Mesa/Boogie Powerhouse cabinet

Tech 21 SansAmp
EBS MultiComp compressor

Strings, Picks, Accessories
DR DDT strings (.045–.105)
InTune 1.14 mm GrippX picks
Dunlop plain black nylon strap

Mark and Willie, what effects do you use?Morton: I use a lot of MXR stuff—the Carbon Copy, Phase 90, and a new overdrive pedal called the Il Torino, which I used a lot on the new album. I love that pedal—it’s currently my favorite overdrive. Before that, I was using the GT-OD—not for rhythm stuff, but for a little more cut on leads, almost like a line boost.

With the gain set low?
Yeah, because there’s so much gain coming from those Boogie amps anyway.

Adler: Live, I run straight off the head I’m using. At home, I use the Mesa Five-Band Graphic on the Royal Atlantic.

Are you setting the EQ with a scooped “V” shape like many players do?
I actually up the mids, which is crazy for me. I haven’t really gone that route before, but lately I find myself adding a bit more mids. The Royal Atlantic’s low end is unbeatable.

Morton: Yeah, both Willie and I tend to add midrange frequencies to our tones. The guitar is a midrange-oriented instrument. If you suck all that out, you choke the natural sound of the instrument. There was a trend in the 2000s where people were sucking all the mids out to get that silky, smooth breakup I was talking about earlier, but you lose clarity. For me, it’s a balance to find the right spot.

Willie, why don’t you take the Royal Atlantic on the road?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just one of those things, like keeping my favorite guitars at home [laughs].

Can’t you just ask Mesa/Boogie to send you another for the road?Adler: I’m working on it. There are definitely going to be some changes in my rig. But I don’t want to give anything away.

With a system like the Axe-Fx,you’d save a ton by not having to lug amps around. Morton: You sound like my tour manager [laughs].

Final question: How will VII: Sturm und Drang figure in the Lamb of God lineage?
We’ve had so many albums, and it would be silly to say this is our heaviest, our best, or whatever. It’s really just a snapshot of what we sound like right now, and I’m pretty excited about that.

Campbell: That question makes me wonder something for the first time: “What if we had three more records, and I was looking back at this one?” I guess it partly depends on how it’s received by the public. I think it’s our most focused, well written, and produced record. Some old fans may be bummed by some aspects of our development, but I think more people will be shocked, surprised, and pleased.

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Lamb of God whips the crowd into a frenzy with “Walk with Me in Hell” at Bloodstock 2013. Mark Morton takes a hellacious, Randy Rhoads-inspired solo starting at 3:37.