July 28, 2004 News & Features » Cover Story


Hard Rock Life 

Local metal heroes Lamb of God at Ozzfest and at home.

Lamb of God is approaching the end of its set at Ozzfest at the Nissan Pavilion in Northern Virginia, and it just wouldn't be a Lamb of God concert without the Wall of Death.

Randy Blythe, the group's singer, is stalking the stage in borderline Jimmy Buffett fan apparel: flip-flops, sunglasses and an anti-Bush T-shirt. The ensemble doesn't exactly scream "Satanic master," but the kids in the audience are following his instructions just the same.

"Form two sides," he yells at the people in the mosh pit, who dutifully create a doughnut hole in the crowd. Not the people smooshed against the barricades who've waited all day for Lamb of God, who've chanted the group's name for 10 minutes before they came on, and who cheered when the group's banner rose up from behind the drum set — they're not moving. No, the Wall of Death is strictly a service Lamb of God provides for the meaty young men farther back, who like to throw themselves at one another. Hard.

Lamb of God plays a resolutely pure form of heavy metal. That means no tales of hobbits, no power ballads and certainly no DJ. Just hair and sweat and beer, and a precise, rhythmic attack that indicates many hours were spent in the rehearsal space. Still, Lamb of God's music has melody and texture, not just simple vulgar displays of power — unlike the human whirlpool gathering below.

"Have you ever seen the movie 'Braveheart'?" Blythe asks the crowd as his band-mates vamp their last number, "Black Label." He would like them to behave just like the Scots and the English in the Mel Gibson movie's battle scenes. On Blythe's count, if all goes well, the two sides will crash into one another and a rollicking good time will ensue.

"Let me hear your war cry!" Blythe instructs. "When I hit '4,' it's gonna explode!"

The kids in the evil oval are losing their minds. Few of them have shirts, many of them have tattoos, all of them look as if they've spent a lot of time lifting weights. They want to smack into one another so badly that their neck muscles vibrate as one.

"One! Two! Three! Four!" Blythe shouts, and the two sides rush at each other as "Black Label" kicks in.

It is, in fact, kind of medieval.

By the time you read this, the biggest band in Richmond will be on its way to San Francisco, having directed a Wall of Death in Seattle the night before. But today Lamb of God is on native soil, and their members are totally psyched.

"We're from Richmond, which is your capital!" Blythe shouts to the crowd. "There is no place like home!"

Blythe dedicates a song to "the women of Virginia," grabs his girlfriend from the side of the stage and fireman-carries her around while he sings half a song. He runs backstage for an aggressive toast, smashing his can of Pabst Blue Ribbon against his friends' drinks during "11th Hour."

Friends and family are everywhere backstage - the father of drummer Chris Adler and guitarist, Willie Adler, with a folded copy of the Washington Post under his arm, guitarist Mark Morton's brother, and more wives, girlfriends and just plain pals than anyone can count.

Many sing along or play air guitar or air drums. And everyone's having a blast. The 5,000 or so people in the crowd are passing fellow fans forward over their heads. One young lady is so happy to see the band she plumb forgets to keep her bikini top on.

There is only one dissatisfied customer, a shirtless, muscle-bound Henry Rollins lookalike who did not conduct himself safely in the Wall of Death. He leaves the concert clutching his shoulder and crying.

"Great show, Randy," Morton tells the singer as they walk offstage. "How about that Wall of Death? I knew before it started it was gonna be a bruiser. They didn't even hit it. They just kind of … locked up."

Blythe agrees and then heads back to the band's bus. Lamb of God is playing Ozzfest's second stage, which means its dressing room is basically its parking space. Laundry hangs from the bus's mirrors. There's a welcome mat below the bus's door.

That's not to say this tour isn't a big deal. The band's very presence on this bill is a signal of just how much its next album — Lamb of God's third overall and its first for the major label Epic — is anticipated.

And to understand that, we have to go back a few years.

There may never be a year Virginia Commonwealth University's student body can hold a candle to, say, Yale in 1967, when Howard Dean, George W. Bush, Joe Lieberman and Garry Trudeau all wandered New Haven Green. But the Gods of Metal were on duty in 1990, when Chris Adler, John Campbell and Mark Morton were assigned to the same floor in Johnson Hall.

"We just met and became drinking buddies," Adler says. He's sitting in his living room in the Museum District the day after the Nissan Pavilion show. "A couple years later, we got together and said, 'Hey, let's make some noise.'"

That noise would be shaped by the hardcore punk and thrash metal the fellows had grown up loving in Northern Virginia (Adler and Campbell) and Williamsburg (Morton). But it was warped by Richmond's idiosyncratic music scene.

"Breadwinner. Sliang Laos. Alter Natives." Adler quickly lists, when asked to name his favorite Richmond bands. Yes, all three of those groups played outside Richmond, and the 'Natives toured prodigiously. But while all are still viewed with particular reverence in some quarters of town, their legacy thins out north of Ashland.

That's intentional, Adler says. "There's so many bands here that don't necessarily push the idea of becoming a commercial success. The idea of playing at a bar being your highest aspiration and practicing all the time — each of us knows that there's tons of people in this town that are better than us at what they do."

There's an exclusivity to Richmond's music scene that can be off-putting to outsiders. Your average scenester, for instance, can quote Breadwinner licks chapter and verse, has transferred his Brainflowr cassingle to CDR and rarely ventures out of his house to see artists from anywhere else.

"Richmond is a funny place," says Erik Grotz, guitarist for local rock group Tulsa Drone and owner of the small label Dry County (which is putting out a Brainflowr compilation). Grotz has observed and participated in the local music scene for more than a decade.

"Bands here never get the credit they deserve, and if they do get noticed they usually bow out very quickly," Grotz says. "There is plenty of support for local acts, and not enough support for regional or touring acts. You look at most band's touring schedules — they'll play D.C. one night and Raleigh the next. And the thing is, I can't blame them. It's no one's fault but our own."

It was into this strange vacuum that Blythe, Adler, Campbell and Morton threw themselves in 1995. Taking a name guaranteed to give Bobby Ukrop a coronary, Burn the Priest began playing anywhere that would have them.

"We went through five or six different vans just touring around the U.S.," Adler says, "playing basements for undercooked pasta."

Burn the Priest made a couple of singles and one album before parting with guitarist Abe Spear, replacing him with Adler's brother Will, and changing its name to Lamb of God. The band began to raise its profile outside of the underground metal scene by touring with Richmond metal legends Gwar in 2000.

Not coincidentally, that year also saw the release of Lamb of God's debut album, "New American Gospel." Fox Sports Net used Lamb of God's "Black Label" as theme music for coverage of the AfterMath skateboarding tour that year, and the group began to play shows overseas while maintaining a punishing domestic tour schedule. It only intensified with the release of last year's "As the Palaces Burn."

"Palaces" sold more than 100,000 copies and cemented Lamb of God's place of pride on the metal circuit. The group headlined several large festivals, appeared on MTV's "Headbanger's Ball" and cohosted it once, and sold out venues from San Diego to London.

Yet no prophets have honor in their hometowns. Since 2000, Lamb of God has been mentioned 14 times in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Most of those mentions have been calendar listings. Meanwhile the considerably less accomplished Carbon Leaf has racked up 147 appearances in those same pages. And even a lot of Richmond metalheads, Adler says, haven't had much use for the band since they left the basement.

"People in Richmond had this mentality like, 'I can already do what you're doing, so I'll just stay home and keep practicing,'" Chris Adler says. "That was kind of difficult, but we seem to have overcome that, just aspiring to be like some of these guys that don't really try to make any money, but they're excellent musicians."

Scenester politics aside, Lamb of God's strategy has paid off — it signed to Epic after strong sales of "Palaces" set up a bidding war.

"We weren't really chasing success," Chris Adler says. "It wasn't about getting on Ozzfest." (In fact, the band turned Ozzfest down the first time it came calling, last year.) "It was more about us having fun."

The day after the Nissan Pavilion show, in Chris Adler's tidy backyard, the men of Lamb of God are having fun for the cameras. Cable network Fuse TV's show "Uranium" is filming the boys enjoying a cookout. Tonight, they'll roll out to rejoin Ozzfest in Columbus, Ohio. So spending valuable time at home trying to act casual as cameramen stomp Adler's wife's impatiens requires a considerable work ethic.

That commitment was on display the day before, as the group gamely sat in the Ozzfest autograph tent, receiving fan after fan and signing torsos, T-shirts and dollar bills. "You OK, honey?" Blythe asked one fan. "Get some water in you today? It's hot as balls out there." It's a question he repeated often.

It may seem incongruous that a man who just directed something called the Wall of Death cares so much about his fans' hydration, but today's underground metal is firmly grounded in punk's ideals of equality between performer and audience member. Besides, most of these kids are Virginians, and Lamb of God members are nothing if not concerned for the common weal.

Some of their homeys are dropping by the Fuse barbecue, though not without a little prodding. "We got beer and food here," Campbell tells one friend on his cell phone. "Save your money, brother."

The cookout was scheduled to start at noon, but even national TV shows are powerless in the face of "Richmond time." Guests and even Blythe, who's bringing the grill, start showing up close to 1.

Blythe is looking a bit worse for the wear today. The PBR probably was a factor, but his hangdog look is also a result of his membership in Ozzfest's Shirtless Crew. The requirements: You must be in a second stage band. You must take your shirt off. And while drunkenness is not a must, it is helpful.

"Security is pretty tight at Ozzfest," Blythe explains. "But when you have 40 or 50 tattooed freaky dudes running and chanting, 'Shirtless! Shirtless!' you're gonna get out of the way." Last night was particularly successful for the crew — it invaded the main stage as the reunited Black Sabbath was playing, and Ozzy Osbourne himself joined them in the soccer chant "Olé Olé."

The rest of the stadium, some 25,000 metalheads young and old, chimed in. "It was awesome," Blythe says, adding that all Crew members are planning to get a tattoo of a T-shirt with a little ban symbol over it before the tour ends.

Juliya, "Uranium's" Russian-born host, is teetering around Chris's back yard in a skirt so short it's practically a belt, asking band members about their first metal moment (guitarist Willie Adler: "Uh, I got an Aria guitar." Juliya: "C'mon, give me a story!") Next door, the Adlers' neighbors' kids are playing and shouting over the fence.

There are veggie burgers on the grill, and the humidity's low. It's a perfect Richmond summer day.

An Epic representative mills around. He says that Lamb of God's upcoming album is "easily" the most anticipated release on the label's fall schedule. It's part of his job to say stuff like that to reporters, but if the fervor of the kids at Ozzfest is any barometer, the members of Lamb of God aren't gonna be spending much time in their back yards for quite a while.

Not that they're going anywhere.

"I've been here since '89," Blythe says. "You know the Richmond curse? Once you live here for at least a year, you can leave, but you can never really leave. You're doomed to come back always."

Chilling in a lawn chair, trading stories with his buddies, Blythe hardly looks like a guy who's gonna direct another Wall of Death soon. "Doomed" may be too strong a word — coming home to Richmond seems to suit him just fine. S

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