Music Review: Heavy Metal Round-up — Lamb of God, Cro-Mags, and Living Gate

By Scott McLennan

A superior new Lamb of God disc was not entirely unexpected; an excellent new Cro-Mags record, well, I didn’t see that coming.

During much of Slayer’s two-year-long farewell tour, Lamb of God provided plenty of direct support, which left little doubt about the band’s next role: heirs to the heavy metal throne.

Lamb of God now assumes its symbolic ascent with the release of its eighth studio album, a self-titled project that feels as if the group is at the beginning of something. Lamb of God is the best start-to-finish disc this band has made since 2006’s Sacrament. Not that the other post-Sacrament recordings stunk, but they lacked the fierce focus of Lamb of God.

The new record gives us musicians who have lots to say, thought there is one straightforward and consistent message: “WE ARE PISSED OFF.”

Of course, anger is not a particularly original sentiment in heavy metal; in fact, you could argue the genre is built on that furious sentiment.

But rage can become sloppy and self-indulgent. This time around Lamb of God serves up its dark and brimming outrage via concise and sharp writing, both in terms of its lyrics and music. The twin shred of guitarists Mark Morton and Willie Adler remains inventive and distinct, while founding bassist John Campbell perfectly locks in with new drummer Art Cruz. The latter joined the band in 2018 and makes his recording debut here. Singer D. Randall Blythe is in top form, marshaling the band through songs that criticize the country’s political rot and moral decay (or the American Scream, as he puts it) in such finely sketched songs as “Gears” and “Checkmate.”

Lamb of God has never shied from social commentary, but it has been good about not becoming bogged down in Us vs Them polemics. Whether the group is taking on the ravages of the opioid crisis (“On the Hook”), gun violence (“Reality Bath,” which closes with the emphatic “End the new abnormal”), environmental pollution (“Poison Dream”), and anti-immigrant sentiment (“New Colossal Hate”), Lamb of God indicts all of the guilty parties. On its deeper reaching songs, such as the magnificent “Memento Mori” and thrashtastic “Routes,” performed with Testament’s Chuck Billy, Lamb of God suggests that the evils propelling school shootings and pill-pushing doctors are more profound than the standard perfidy of party politics and ideological stalemate.

The horror-metal send up “Resurrection Man” is more serious than may seem at first listen, especially when it is put in the context of the rest of the album. Blythe’s pitch black vision takes command with the closing lines, “I’m Loki in the counting room; Trickle down narcotic doom; Superfunds for cancer towns; The bottom line is six feet down; I’m gonna bury you in barren ground.” This is trenchant cultural commentary turned up to maximum volume; in other words, heavy metal at its finest. Lamb of God wears the crown well.

A superior new Lamb of God disc was not entirely unexpected; an excellent new Cro-Mags record, well, I didn’t see that coming.

But In the Beginning is a bruising dose of metallic hardcore delivered by the inimitable Harley Flanagan.

Flanagan’s notoriety goes back to the band’s 1986 debut Age of Quarrel, which became an accepted blueprint for countless metal bands that wanted to comment on social struggles, like punk rock, but yearned for a heavier sound.

Through the years, Flanagan has fronted a revolving cast of musicians in Cro-Mags. Though he nearly lost control of the band in 2008 when Age of Quarrel singer John Joseph and drummer Mackie Jayson launched a touring version of Cro-Mags without Flanagan. He sued and reached a settlement last year, which gives him sole use of the Cro-Mags name. And he does the moniker proud with In the Beginning.

This is the first batch of new Cro-Mags songs since 2000’s Revenge. Flanagan obviously wanted to maintain continuity in terms of sound; he rounded up hardcore stalwarts who have all previously logged some time in Cro-Mags. Flanagan sings all the songs and plays the kind of punishing brand of bass guitar that is central to the Cro-Mags’ sound (don’t skip over the nearly six-minute instrumental, “Between Wars”).

The material is grim and battle-scarred, with Flanagan really slathering on the doom in “No One’s Coming,” “Drag You Under,” “Final Test,” and “PTSD.”

For a bonus, Motorhead guitarist Phil Campbell plays on the thrash and burn of “From the Grave.” But the members of the revived Cro-Mags do just fine on their own, turning out a tortured, defiant, and weirdly triumphant record.

Finally, with so many metal and hardcore veterans releasing so much good stuff this summer, it’s possible to miss a little gem like Living Gate’s Deathlust. This five-song EP is the opening salvo from a brutal death metal outfit put together by members of Yob, Amenra, Oathbreaker, and Wiegedood — bands that are best known for creating experimental brands of metal.

But the musicians in Living Gate — the group was assembled while Yob and Amenra were touring together — strive for a more conventional approach: stripped-down, harsh guitar riffs, guttural barks, and relentless tempos that shift from rapid to blurring.

But even while working in the tighter confines of old-school death metal, Living Gate generates a dynamic ebb and flow that keeps the project from become mired in aged grime. Death metal is often written off as too narrow in scope to sustain interest for long. But Living Gate shows that, in the right skeletal hands, death metal is alive and kicking.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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