"People shouldn't expect a prison record," Lamb of God frontman Randy Blythe says of the group's upcoming LP, VII: Sturm und Drang. "But I write about things that affect me very deeply. And going to prison in a foreign country and being charged with manslaughter will affect you – trust me – very deeply."
Today, Blythe and his bandmates have unveiled the incredibly heavy "Still Echoes," VII's first single ahead of the 10-track LP's July release and a tune that holds a very personal meaning to Blythe. "The song is a history of [Prague's] Pankrác Prison," he says. Three years ago, Czech authorities arrested the frontman under charges of manslaughter – they claimed a Lamb of God fan died as a result of injuries from Blythe allegedly pushing him offstage at a 2010 gig – and placed him in Prague's decrepit 19th century prison. He was found not guilty in 2013. "It was a tragic experience," Blythe says. "It's a chapter of my life that's in my head daily."
It's a bright late-April day in New York City when Blythe meets with Rolling Stone, and the singer has slunk in the booth of a hotel restaurant near Chinatown, his long hair pulled into a ponytail that's draped over his Black Flag "Everything Went Black" T-shirt. He speaks earnestly about the period he was incarcerated and how it played into the song, which he began writing while locked up.
He recites the first lyric from "Still Echoes": "A thousand heads cut clean across their necks, right down the hall from me." And while, at face value, the words might read like generic gory metal imagery, Blythe asserts that their inspiration was very real. "There was a guillotine right down the hall from me, from when the Nazis had the prison. From 1943 to 1945 they executed almost 2,000 people by the guillotine, because it was cheaper than shooting and quicker than hanging."
Although the Nazis attempted to hide the execution device by throwing it in a river, the Czechs dredged it up and put it back in the room where the occupiers murdered thousands. "They call it the Pankrác 'Saw Room' or the 'Axe Room,'" Blythe says. "I sat there at night, and I'd think about all those dudes that got their heads chopped off – men and women – in that place not too far from me."
Blythe says he actively sought out information about the prison's history, from guards and fellow inmates alike, while he was incarcerated. "I was like, 'How old is this fucking place?'" he says. "'Cause it was fucked up in there. It was 123 years old when I was in there, and it hasn't been under renovations. Parts of it look like downtown Detroit – just broken windows and abandoned stuff. It's crazy in there. So the song is a history of the repression the Czech people have undergone."
From time to time, people have asked Blythe what being in prison was like, and he always compares it to being in a Misfits song. Moreover, he wrote "Still Echoes" specifically to be Lamb of God's take on the legendary punk group's "London Dungeon," which that band's former singer Glenn Danzig allegedly wrote after being locked up in England. "I had three songs in my head while I was in prison," Blythe says. "'London Dungeon' by the Misfits, 'Rise Above' by Black Flag and 'Attitude' by the Bad Brains. That was my soundtrack."
VII: Sturm und Drang is not the only medium through which Blythe is revisiting his experience in the Czech Republic. The singer will be putting out Dark Days: A Memoir, in July, in which he recounts all of the events surrounding his arrest – from wondering whether or not he actually did cause a fan's death to his not guilty verdict – in vivid language. "I never wanted my first book to be about going to prison," Blythe says with a laugh. "I wanted it to be the punk-rock version of Hemingway or something. But that's not how it happened."
He claims the major theme of the book is personal accountability. "Who wouldn't want to know why your child is dead?" Blythe says, praising the fan's parents for never attacking him in the press. "I felt ethically obliged to try and find out – at least try and find out – at the same time as them what in the hell happened. And if that meant I had to be held accountable, then I wanted to know. I wanted to know if I was responsible."
"What did I want to do when I got out of jail? I wanted to go to the beach."
The singer began writing the book in January 2014, following the extensive touring Lamb of God undertook in late 2012 and 2013 as a means to offset his legal fees. "What did I want to do when I got out of jail? I wanted to go to the beach and go surfing and go skateboarding," Blythe says. "I wanted to relax. That didn't happen. Six lawyers ain't cheap. And we borrowed money for the bail.
"Thank God for the fans that made the T-shirts and sold them and bought items at auctions and helped us out," he continues. "Thank God for my friends in bands that did benefits, otherwise it would have just been nightmarish. Luckily, we didn't go bankrupt, but we came pretty close to broke."
Once off tour, Blythe took eight or nine months hunkered down in a cheap rental house in North Carolina to write his book. The day after he finished the book, he turned his attention to VII: Sturm und Drang. Somehow, he also found time to compose music for the Richmond Ballet. But all of this productivity doesn't mean he's moved on from the dark days that defined his past few years.
"Someone recently asked me, 'Did you get some sort of closure from writing the book?'" Blythe says, looking back on how he managed to process everything that has brought him to this point. "It's not a fucking Hallmark card. It sucked."