Lamb Of God
Photo: Travis Shinn
Why Lamb Of God Frontman Randy Blythe Is Rejecting The 'New Abnormal'
During his more than quarter-century as frontman for five-time GRAMMY-nominated metal quintet Lamb Of God, singer Randy Blythe has been on the receiving end of questions from journalists ranging from inane to tough. But in the heated spring of 2020, as conversations and actions about systemic racism become omnipresent, he is now asking himself those same "uncomfortable questions."
On Instagram, accompanying photos he shot from a June 2 Black Lives Matter protest near his Richmond, Va., home, Blythe was characteristically frank: "I'm a white man with black friends. In this time & beyond, I must ask myself what that really means—in fact, I must ask myself UNCOMFORTABLE QUESTIONS about what FRIENDSHIP ITSELF means." He goes on to mention his musical side projects that feature Black members, as well as his time performing as "the only white dude" in his favorite "legendary black punk rock group" (Bad Brains).
But it was the issues brought to light by the killing of George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis police, last month that truly changed the conversation Blythe is having with himself, as it has for many. When the singer meets his Black musician friends, across every genre, Blythe says they hug and call each other "brother."
"So what does that truly mean to me?" he wonders on Instagram. "Is it just a cheap word for me to throw around in MY world—the safety of a metal festival backstage dressing room where their faces look different than almost everybody else's there?"
To generalize broadly, metal has largely been the province of white, blue-collar suburban males. Even Body Count, the pioneering all-black metal band who formed in Los Angeles in 1990, attracts a predominately white crowd, despite the fact that the band is fronted by gangsta rap pioneer Ice-T.
In 2013, Canadian-born, New York-based journalist, scholar and metal fan Laina Dawes published "What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman's Life And Liberation In Heavy Metal," an acclaimed book that explores race, gender and heavy metal. She recently penned an article for metal/rock magazine Metal Hammer, writing, in part, "Black folks in the metal scene are realizing that some of their non-black and white friends – folks they hang out with at a metal show, talk to online or in some cases, are bandmates – are racist. Not uninformed, or simply naive, but balls-out racist."
Blythe, 49, is not uniformed, naive or racist, yet he notes that the phrase "'I'm not racist, I have Black friends,' is a pretty common thing you hear white people say- I've said it myself," he writes on Instagram. "Again, what does that really MEAN? It's UNCOMFORTABLE for me to ask myself this question, but there are A LOT of uncomfortable conversations that must be had if things are to get better … So I cannot have black friends only when it is convenient & safe for me to do so, not if I want to look them in the eye the next time I see them."
While he doesn't call himself an activist—though he's attended Black Lives Matter protests and has documented them on camera—Blythe literally stands up for what he believes, and by dint of his fame, combined with reasoned demeanor, people take notice.
"I let my words, actions and art speak for themselves, you know?" he tells the Recording Academy by phone from home. It's a not-uncommon refrain for artists, but it's not lip service for Blythe.
"Routes," the fourth single off Lamb Of God's new self-titled album, out Friday (June 19), draws from Blythe's experience protesting, in person, against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Its lyrics are gripping: "A black snake beneath the ground / Extinction dripping from his mouth / Poisons water, hearts of men / Who choke the sky and rape the land." The very intentional guest vocals on the track are from Testament singer Chuck Billy, who's born to a Mexican mother and Native American father of the Pomo Native Americans, an indigenous people of Northern California.
Blythe's convictions are well-suited to Lamb Of God's articulate, informed songs and albums, which have earned the band gold records, with 2009's Wrath hitting the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Hard Rock, Rock and Tastemaker charts and No. 2 on the Billboard 200. They repeated those No. 1 positions with Resolution (2012), while the band's last album, VII: Sturm und Drang (2015), debuted at No. 3 in North America and in the Top 5 in several countries. Alongside Blythe, Lamb Of God comprises guitarists Mark Morton and Willie Adler and bassist John Campbell; drummer Art Cruz, who's performed in and toured with the band intermittently since July 2018, makes his recording debut with the group on Lamb Of God.
As the band's eighth album, Lamb Of God is an eye-opener on every level: It kicks off with the spooky, slow, gloom-to-a-scream of the cri-de-coeur of "WAKE UP" in "Memento Mori" and ends with "On The Hook," a speed-metal, mosh-pit-worthy rager about opioid addiction.
With Lamb of God, the band created excellent, pointed social commentary bolstered by equally powerful musicality, well-suited to Blythe's biggest concern: climate change. On album track "Poison Dream," featuring Hatebreed singer Jamey Jasta, Blythe rails, "Fortunes made on misery / A burning river, a black sea … Toxic temple and polluted bliss / Residuals for evil men / I never had a choice in this / sacrificed for their profit."
"I realized that every single place I've ever lived has had water pollution," Blythe, an avid surfer, reflects on the song's genesis. "Right down the road from Jamey is some sort of manufacturing plant that spills tons and tons of shi*t into the river there. He and I talked about this, and it's against FDA regulations. But because they're bazillionaires, it's just easier for them to pay the daily fine." (The song's final lyrics capture this dilemma: "Because you're not a human being, just a fine to be paid / Just the cost of doing business in their cancerous trade.")
Blythe has a gift for transforming his outrage toward miscreants into words, but he doesn't want to spell things out too clearly for listeners. "I decided against doing a track-by-track thing on this album because I think it destroys all the mystery of the music; it's destroying art, in a way. I think people should look at things and take it in; I don't want my hand held."
Rather, he opts for the way he came up consuming music: not having an artist give a raison d'être behind every musical move, not being able to look up the minutiae on Wikipedia. For Blythe, not having a "guide" during his musical coming-of-age allowed him to internalize the music.
"It let me make it my own," he explains. "If I say, 'This song is about this and this song is about this,' [then] someone is going to listen to it with that in mind. When you make art, you let it loose into the world. It becomes everyone's. I don't want to deprive anyone of that experience."
That said, Blythe will give some hints to his passionate process: "Every single one [of the songs on Lamb Of God] relate back to my concern with the environment, from the first one, 'Gears,' because it deals with the industrial revolution, which has a massive, massive, massive impact on the environment. That's how we got here, you know?"
The song "Memento Mori"—the title means "an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death"—refers to "the universe in the palm of your hand," which is a pretty clear description of the world's addiction to small screens.
Once a former alcoholic, the now-sober Blythe recently battled a new addiction: the pull of endless information.
"I'm addicted to 'more,'" the dread-locked singer says. "More of everything. More alcohol, more drugs, more books, more whatever. For me, and this is something I've had to institute again starting yesterday, I'm going down the news and Instagram rabbit hole. I found myself, and that's where ["Memento Mori"] stemmed from, doing constant consumption of news, mostly."
His digital fixation got so intense—he says he was checking up to 15 different news sources on the daily, from "super tree-hugger left" to the "weirdest alt-right" sites, in search of "some objective truth"—he had to install a VPN blocker to restrict use of certain apps and websites.
"It was driving me mad," Blythe says, "and I was wasting too much time on Instagram in the studio while I was tracking, just mindlessly looking, under the pretext of 'keeping up with my friends.'"
Yet, he understood that "if I'm keeping up with my friends, I'm talking to my friends," he reflects. "I'm not looking at their posts, what they did yesterday." Rather than attempting to parse a million discrete sources, or give in to his screen-news addiction, Blythe opted to reach out to those very friends.
"During this pandemic, I've wanted to stay informed," he says. "But after a while, it comes down to me being responsible for my own health and looking at things objectively, trying to make a semi-educated decision. For me, it looks like talking to my friends who are in the medical professions, in [Emergency Medical Services], who are New York City firefighters, who are scientists. Because I'm not a smart guy, I got to call my smart friends [and] say, 'Guys, tell me what in the hell is going on and what I need to do.'"
When it comes to climate change and going green in the context of the music business, Blythe doesn't shy away from the tough questions—nor does he have all the solutions. There are groups such as REVERB, a nonprofit environmental organization that works with musicians to reduce the environmental impact of their tours. But it can be prohibitively expensive for a band to truly "go green."
"For touring, that's a frustrating thing," Blythe, who drives a 10-year-old truck he plans to replace with something more ecofriendly in the future, says. "I reached out to our management because there are tour buses that run on biodiesel. And there are hybrid buses, but they're very few and far between and very expensive to maintain. Our carbon footprint as a band is huge. It's massive, and it's distressing to me, because we're either in a plane, a train, on a boat, a bus or in a car on the way to the venue. We've taken every single thing to a venue except for a helicopter so far, and all of that runs on fossil fuels.
"It's important to do what you can and recycle and all that stuff, but I think that the bigger question that needs to be asked is, 'How are we going to move away from these fossil fuels—period?' Because on a purely pragmatic level, fossil fuels are a finite resource. Why? Because they're made out of fucking fossils, things that died millions of years ago, and it become compacted in the earth and turned into coal and oil and gas and all that stuff."
The singer has hopes that today's younger people—the Greta Thunbergs and future generations—will put words into action. "There's a population explosion, and we're using up these resources more and more and more. That means we do not have millions of years to wait until, you know, stuff turns into oil."
"On a purely pragmatic level, on a common sense level, this is where it drives me crazy" he furthers. "On a common-sense level, wouldn't we start looking for a replacement now? And implementing that now? Oil [lobbyists] and all that stuff, they care about profit margins, and that's it. That is disgusting to me; it drives me insane."
Fortunately, Blythe has music, especially his ultra-energetic and intense live performances, as catharsis—at least he does when there's not a pandemic. Lyrics and interviews serve as a form of activism, education and personal accountability for him, too. One of his crucial goals is to always work on keeping his "moral compass correctly calibrated." That said, he acknowledges, "I'm a human being and I make mistakes and I say stupid shit just like everybody else, but overall I'm a pretty good guy."
"I exist outside of my band. I think that's a misconception that people have," he furthers. "I am a human being; I am Randy Blythe, first and foremost. I believe what I believe, and I say what I want to say, when I want to say it, how I want to say it, without any regard whatsoever, as long as I'm not doing harm. And as long as I am speaking the truth as I know it, because I believe the truth is empirical."
On the Lamb Of God track "Reality Bath," Blythe urges listeners to "Reject the new abnormal," warning against slipping into "dull indifference / when horror has been normalized a cynical defense." The lyrics dig deeper into his hopes. "The strongest hearts will raise their voice against the murderous tide: No! It can't go on like this! / Millions of voices echo in the darkness, screaming: No! I won't accept this!"
The track ultimately concludes with the man who is not an activist growling his pained and passionate truth: "The faint of heart will fall in line, but I will not submit."