Chris Adler: The Irresistible Force

chris adler

Chris Adler is flying.

The sun is setting over the blurring canopy of oak and sycamore trees, a lush palette of oranges, reds, yellows, and purples, as Adler’s four-door sedan speeds down Interstate 64, the Blue Ridge Mountains disappearing behind him. Just how fast Adler is going on this two-lane stretch is unclear; he’s definitely over the posted 70 mile-per-hour speed limit, but the ride on this nearly empty two-lane road remains surprisingly smooth — after all, there are but a few lone tractor trailers on the road and the wheels on his gunmetal gray BMW 325is don’t begin to shimmy until at least 120.

Adler is hardly in a rush. He knows this road well, the major artery that connects his home in Richmond with Charlottesville, where his mother lives. He grew up here, in Virginia; the eastward transition from the mountains to the flatlands is comforting and familiar. And now that he has a three-year-old daughter, Adler appreciates more than ever the otherwise mundane commute that ends on the asphalt driveway in front of his house.

In six weeks, Adler will trade trees for tour buses and Dad duties for drums as he returns to “The Project,” as he calls it, the groove-metal band Lamb Of God. For the next 20 months, Adler will pound the drums nightly in support of “Straight For The Sun,” “Ghost Walking,” and the many new songs on the band’s latest full-length album, Resolution. It was only a year ago that he returned home to Virginia after two long years of touring; now, he’s preparing mind and body to hit the road once again. “We are very much in the calm before the storm,” he admits as the last rays of the ruddy sun wink beyond the treetops.

If this trip down I-64 is any indication, it promises to be a fast, smooth ride — with luck, returning home in 2013 just in time to see the leaves turn colors once more.

The Itch

It came on hard and strong in March.

Outside, winter’s grip was receding from view, giving way to birds and flowers and the warming Virginia breeze. After a solid four months at home playing husband, Dad, and son, Adler felt his vocation begin to stir — an insistent impulse to play drums again, but not the kick drum, hi-hat, and snare combo he keeps at home to teach his daughter the basics.

He called his younger brother Willie, rhythm guitarist for the band. Willie felt the itch, too. Phone calls were made, pen met paper, and by July, Adler found himself sitting 350 miles away in a recording studio in Long Island City, Queens, scratching the terrible itch. For days and days, he laid down drum tracks that Willie, bassist John Campbell, lead guitarist Mark Morton, and vocalist Randy Blythe would build upon. His weapon of choice: the same massive, double-bass Mapex Black Panther kit he used for the albums Sacrament and Wrath.

It took an awfully long time to get through basic tracking, Adler admits. But for a mid-career musician, it is pleasure, not pain.

“It’s not lost on me that when we started this, the drums were done in ten hours. I’m still ready to knock it all out in one day, but our producer insists that you do two a day and go home and refresh. The studio is a luxury for me [now]. It makes for more creativity on the spot. If anything’s different than previous records, it’s that. When you get to the studio, you have to perform perfectly right away. There’s no time for overdubs. Get it right, or it will live on the recording. This is the first time that I came in and realized that I don’t have to kill myself that hard — I know 99 percent of what I’m going to do, but I can improve a fill along the way.”

Call it a perk of being on your seventh album in 13 years. Under the low lights of Spin Music Studios, Adler particularly relished the idea incubation — that creative give-and-take between producer and musician — that the extra studio time afforded him. Whether through headphones or on Spin’s plush, overstuffed tan leather couches, Adler embraced the experience as a time to meditate on his chops.

“It’s fun for me to not come into the studio so immediately focused on every part. You’re open to entirely new things. If you have time in the studio and you’re not in love with everything in the song, that’s a really good place to be in.”

The song, of course, is everything to Adler now. Like many young metal drummers, Adler was swept up in the beats-per-minute arms race early in his career, playing ever faster and more complex in a subconscious effort to demonstrate supremacy. Now, at age 39 and well past the point where he needs to prove himself to his peers, Adler has developed a laser-like focus on serving the music — not the ego.

“These are guys that oftentimes flow in and out of bands and are on 20 different albums by the end of their careers. This has been my only project ever playing drums. When you’re only in one project, that project is very much ego-driven for everyone in the band. I’ve really tried to get rid of that and step back and be objective and understand that it’s not about you or the capabilities of the band, but what is best for the song and the album. That’s played a big role in my progression as a player in the recording process of this record.”

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The result? A blistering, plodding compendium of meticulously recorded salvos that could easily serve as the soundtrack to a battlefield brawl, from the rollicking rat-a-tat of “Desolation” to the nightmare rock of “Invictus.” Through it all, Adler is making full use of the more than ten cymbals, seven drums, and countless practice runs leading up to the main event. It’s the crispest, cleanest metal drumming he’s ever laid to tape, and it shows, with ear-splitting efficiency.

“This is our seventh record. It’s not easier to do anything better, or else we would have done it better to begin with. It’s analogous to how you swim — you might race your best lap, but six months later you’re a little bit better, and two years later you’re twice as good. Every time we do an album, we think, ‘Holy s__t, I can’t believe we got here.’ It’s this natural evolution. If you’re not getting better, you should probably stop. That’s the conversation we’ve had with each other. We’ve built a career where we don’t necessarily need to make metal records [anymore]. But we want to make them.”

Gathering The Flock

It took a long road to get to Resolution. It began in 1970s-era Richmond, where a young Chris Adler sat down for his first piano lesson. The instrument, which would blossom into an eight-year obsession, was a kind of gateway drug to the arts, nurtured by a mother who was a voice teacher and a father who was an actor in the local theater.

“There was this bug in the house to have a creative streak, and they were very supportive of that. From the piano, I started playing saxophone, which was not as cool as the guitar, which I started playing at 11 through about 21. I played in several bands at that time, even put out a record and toured the U.S.”

Soon Adler found himself in his final year at Virginia Commonwealth University, with a decision before him: become a network engineer with a steady paycheck or take a risk on a dream. The choice was clear — and that’s when “The Project” began to emerge. With classmates Morton and Campbell, Adler formed a band called Burn The Priest and began building the foundation on which Lamb Of God would be built. To do so, he traded the bass guitar for another new instrument: drums.

“I didn’t start playing drums until I was 21. There’s this period of time where you’re a teenager and you fall in love with music and an instrument. I fell in love with heavy metal, but I was huge into guitar — early Megadeth, Testament, Forbidden, because it was really technical compared to some of the more dumbed-down punk-rock stuff. These were guys that took a lot of time practicing their instruments. It’s not something everyone can do. It made it more elite, if you will. But the guy who really set [the drums] in motion for me was Shannon Larkin [Godsmack, Amen, Glassjaw, Stone Sour] — the most entertaining drummer I’ve ever watched. Watching him play, I knew I wanted to be that good at anything in my life.”

A record deal with Legion provided the band with the opportunity to record two 7" records, which in turn gave the new band material to tour behind, playing hundreds of shows across the U.S. That in turn garnered the band more attention, which led to a second deal with Prosthetic Records. In 2000, a full-length album called New American Gospel emerged, along with a new, less antagonistic name: Lamb Of God.

“I worked my ass off. We spent ’94 to 2000 literally touring everywhere we could. We sent out letters and demos and cassette tapes to anyone who would let us play their party. We did that almost six or seven years, but the first two [albums] were the most important in stepping up my game on the instrument.”

Two years of rigorous touring paved the way for a third album, 2003’s As The Palaces Burn, which gained the band its first significant radio airplay, reviews from Rolling Stone and Revolver, and its first Grammy nomination. That success led to a record deal with Epic/Sony in 2004, from which Ashes Of The Wake was born, offering plentiful evidence that the band deserved a headlining spot on the popular Ozzfest tour.

By the Sacrament album in 2006, the band was being mentioned in the same breath as metal legends Slayer and Pantera, each new release further solidifying Lamb Of God’s place atop the metal food chain. More Grammy nominations followed, Billboard chart records were broken and live shows were quickly sold out across the globe — all this at a time when metal was supposed to be irrelevant.

“A couple of years ago, it was very cool to like metal. That’s fading away — now there’s a generation of kids who really aren’t going to live that lifestyle. At the same time, there are a lot of guys like myself that — where my career started to blow up at 22, 23 — a lot of guys approaching 40 who took on responsibility and fell out of the timeframe to listen to this music. The last time they looked there was a bunch of hair metal and guys with jumpsuits and masks on. They’re getting back into it and finding us.”

With Age Comes Wisdom

For a guy who first picked up drum sticks at age 21, Adler has understandably spent the last decade finding himself — as a technician and as a career musician. His first challenge was abandoning his bid for speed king, avoiding a trap that befalls so many players of double bass-drum kits.

“Our first record has some of the most aggressive drumming I’ve ever done in my career. I was showing off. But having a guy in the band that’s only interested in going 300 bpm all the time and showing off does not make for an interesting song. It’s really a race that nobody can win, and if there is a winner, you get nothing. The more time I played, the more I realized how futile it was. I was overlooking so much more on the instrument that it was driving me crazy. It was more important to not play than to overplay. I try to find holes to not fill. It’s not entirely 180 [degrees] from when I started, but once I got up to speed, I very quickly backed off of it.”

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Like drum hero and jazzmaster Billy Cobham, Adler focused on the spaces in between — unusual for a professional metal drummer who revels in sixteenth-notes. Still, Adler’s rapid rise to success and a lack of formal training led to fundamental problems that he had to grapple with on the road.

“I’m left-handed, but I play right-handed. For several years, I was really having trouble with my right foot taking lead on a pattern on the bass drum. It was annoying, and so depressing. I thought there was a problem with my muscle group; I could not figure out what was going on. Then it came to me: I’m left-handed, what if I start everything with my left foot? Allowing myself to do it, coming up with these things, it just worked, listening to my body.”

Chris Adler

Adler's Setup

Drums Mapex Blaster (Walnut Burst)
1 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2 12" x 5.5" Chris Adler Signature Black Panther Snare (discontinued)
3 10" x 9" Tom
4 12" x 10" Tom
5 16" x 16" Floor Tom
6 18" x 16" Floor Tom

Cymbals Meinl
A 14" Soundcaster Custom Medium Soundwave Hi-Hats
B 14" Generation X Filter China
C 8" Classics Bell Effect Cymbal
D 8" Byzance Traditional Splash
E 12" Soundcaster Custom Distortion Splash
F 14" Soundcaster Custom Medium Crash
G 16" Mb8 Medium Crash
H 18" Byzance Brilliant Medium Thin Crash
I 14" Byzance Dark Hi-Hat (played closed)
J 17" Byzance Traditional China
K 24" Mb20 Pure Metal Ride
L 16" Generation X Filter China

Electronics Roland
M PD-6 Single-Trigger Pad with TD-7 Module

Chris Adler also uses Mapex cymbal boom arms, Gibraltar rack, Trick PRO 1-V pedals, Aquarian Clear Response 2 heads, Pro-Mark Chris Adler Signature sticks, and DB drum shoes.

Exposure was also an issue; the landscape quickly becomes familiar when you only play for one band. To keep his playing fresh, Adler forced himself to ring up peers and trade tips. It wasn’t an easy mental hurdle to overcome.

“I’ve been sitting down with different guys. A lot of the new trend has been bringing almost fusion stuff into metal. I also started reading tabs. That may be simple, but I never used to do stuff like that. It adds little tools in your tool belt. I want to be better on this record than I was on the last. If there has been evolution, it has been driven by me opening myself up to other peoples’ headspace and gaining an appreciation for different types of playing.”

The roles quickly reversed. This year, Adler toured the U.S. solo behind the “A Throne With A View” drum clinic. For a month, he had to play unaccompanied to hundreds of diehard drumming fans. Alone. The experience was sheer terror.

“In the past, I was so insecure in my playing that I was unwilling to sit down with anyone else and share my playing. It was honestly an embarrassment. Recently, I got out and did a clinic tour that was very well accepted — but it was torturous for me because I couldn’t believe it was happening; I didn’t feel I belonged there. Doing that — what I was afraid of, and conquering it — made a huge impact in my accomplishments.”

Success on the clinic circuit gave Adler renewed confidence to examine his technique, and on Resolution, Adler decided to retrain his focus from his feet to his hands.

“From the beginning, I had a natural talent for doing things rhythmically with my feet. It gave me kind of an advantage on an audio level. Now, I’m spending a lot of time with the hands and varying time signatures on different kinds of fills. I now really understand some of the math behind it. It’s really helped me expand on what’s available.”

When Loyalties Collide

When the seemingly endless string of shows that comprise a 20-month tour loom in front of you, preparation is key. Between clinic dates and recording sessions, Adler says he’s taken pains to do just that, readying his body and his mind to be even more resilient on the road than in the recording studio. It’s something he takes quite seriously.

“In a live setting, I’m harder on myself. Both really require a lot of me off of the kit. There’s a tremendous amount of practice, of course, but for me as I get older I need to stay in pretty good shape and avoid injury performing. The seven months leading up to the recording process, I didn’t have a drink, didn’t smoke, ran 45 miles a week in the gym — this is my job. I really want to do my job really well. It’s a matter of pride for me. I know when I get on stage, I want to be in top form — for myself and for the people paying money.”

For a seasoned pro, however, the grind is mostly mental. With a three-year-old daughter in tow, it’s getting harder for Adler to leave home for long periods of time — even if he’s doing something he loves. It’s something with which his bandmates are intimately familiar.

“It’s very difficult for us to leave our wives for that long a period of time. It’s not easy. It is emotionally torturous to be away. It’s very similar to military couples. It’s support for both people, because the wives are behind and wake up in the same house with the same chores to do. At least we wake up and there are people smiling and wanting to hear our art. It’s probably the most difficult part of the job. The tradeoff, though, is that if I didn’t do it — if I only stayed at home to be a Dad — it would really build a sense of unhappiness and regret.”

As Lamb Of God comes up on its 17th year as a band, it’s safe to say that the path of rock and roll is no longer paved with girls and beer. But it’s a rewarding one all the same — every night, under the Klieg lights, enveloped in the din of a thousand roaring fans.

“There’s an overwhelming commitment to both the instrument and the love of the art we create. A lot of people see past that and expect the glamour and limousine moments. But there’s a lot of time, effort, and loss to do it at this level. Being a musician now and trying to make a living by that, it is probably, other than real estate, one of the most difficult ways to try to make a living.”

It’s a long road. But at the speed at which Adler can handle it, it promises to be surprisingly smooth.

Next page: Chris Adler transcriptions with streaming music

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Groove Analysis

As the thrash powerhouse behind Lamb Of God, Chris Adler always creates interesting parts that groove well. He never relies on mindlessly blasting throughout a song. This skill set has made him an iconic figure in thrash metal. The band’s new release, Resolution, is as heavy as ever with even funkier guitar riffs than past releases and should help LOG expand its already impressive fan base.

“Desolation”
This cheerful song begins with snare and sloshy hat unison hits that are punctuated with syncopated accents or quick flurries of kick drum notes that are sometimes doubled with Adler’s crashes. The third line shows an eight-bar blasting section that ends with a blazing quad lick that sets up the guitar hit on (4)e.

DRUM! Notation Guide

chris adler

“Invictus”
This one starts with a unusual and surprisingly funky groove that at first listen might make you wonder if it’s in an odd meter. It’s actually in 4/4, but Adler’s creative approach makes this one feel decidedly off-kilter. The third line shows a more typical thrash beat, though he throws in a couple of quick thirty-second-note bass drum ruffs to keep it fresh.

chris adler

Next page: More Chris Adler drum transcriptions

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“Insurrection”
This track has a driving half-time groove with a thirty-second-note ruff that kicks into the snare note on 3 , which really fits this track. The cymbal track isn’t prominent in the mix so I’ve notated this as a hi-hat part because it sounds like an X-hat with an FX cymbal on top, or it could just be a small muted China cymbal.

chris adler

“Terminally Unique”
The title of this song just might be referring the groove Adler created for this track. Think of this one as a metalized version of an Afro Cuban bembe groove. The accent pattern of Adler’s part follows the main pulses of that type of groove. Since the feel is very straight, I wrote it in 3/4 rather than the more traditional 6/8.

chris adler