Walking down Mainstreet Richmond it is 9:30 at night and my friends and I are all carefully reading the street signs, there is one we don’t want to miss again. Suddenly I spot it- Walnut Alley, so I speak up “ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived.” the crew and I turn down the alley. There is a small door to the right with the words “Alley Katz” on it in chipping, peeling paint. This is our final destination.
Upon opening the door our eyes have to adjust to the light, the familiar smell of alcohol and cigarette smoke softly plays with our senses. “money and ids! Have money and ids ready!” a rather beefy security guard is sitting at the counter, he is a nice guy but a little impatient.
I go first, “Age?” he asks, “18” I reply. He looks at the id then looks at me, satisfied, he takes my money and puts “Xs” on my hands. My friends are put through the same procedure. When all of us are stamped, we walk through another doorway and take a small, dark, narrow hall that veers off to the left. The end of this passageway opens up into a large, dimly lit room. Immediately there is a change in smells. The cigarette smoke and alcohol seem almost stifling but as my lungs adjust, the smell becomes just another part of the experience and almost comforting.
Walking up to the stage I scan the sea of fifty or so people there already. Ripped jeans, dark eyeliner, band shirts, long hair, tattoos, an odd piercings are the norm for this crowd. I’m looking for one person in particular, “Crystal” I hear the familiar voice of my cousin off to my right, “Hey!” I reply and we hug. “Nice turnout tonight eh?” I say, “Yeah” he replies, this show is his bands debut and he is trying to conceal his excitement.
Ben motions for me to follow him, I leave my friends and walk with him to the back where the musicians instruments are sitting, waiting for their for their time. Ben shows me a sticker the band had made, a sticker that showcased a design that I had created for them. “That’s awesome!” I exclaim, and Ben looks pleased with my reaction.
By this time the first band has taken the stage and their first set has begun. Their music is so loud I can feel it in my bones, a feeling that cannot be matched by anything else on earth. When the music starts it fills the endless caverns of the mind with thoughts and images only found in the darkest corners of the human soul. It feeds upon the energy, emotions and thoughts of the listener leaving one helpless to the raw talent pounding through the speakers. It is this kind of assault on the senses that Richmond metal lovers live for.
One of Ben’s band mates walks over and yells something in his ear. Ben looks up, his face lit with excitement, a devilish grin crosses his face as he turns to go. I watch him walk away with a swagger only a true rockstar could pull off. He’s excited, he’s nervous but mostly he’s confidant. I know this show is going to be spectacular.
Several events leading up to that night at Alley Katz had peaked my interest in the local metal scene. One being the promotion before and after the Avenged Sevenfold concert at local hotspot Toads Place. Many of the local bands, knowing the type of audience Avenged Sevenfold attracts, were set up outside, passing out stickers, CDs, and flyers to anyone they could.
The next day I met up with Ben at the family Thanksgiving get-together. Ben had no idea I was into metal and I had no idea that he was in a metal band. He invited me to their debut show at Alley Katz and opened up a Pandora’s Box into a whole new world, and I thirsted for knowledge about this gritty underworld of local metal.
When did it come about? How had it changed? What is the cultural connection? And where can I get one of those awesome belts? Ok, so scratch that last question, but regardless of the awesome belt or not, I still wanted to investigate the rest.
The groundwork for Richmond’s metal scene was laid 147 years ago. In 1861 the most recent war to be fought on American soil began, it was a war that pitted Southern Americans against their Northern counterparts, and Richmond was right in the middle. Bodies in the street and the James River running red with blood was a common sight in this dark time in Richmond’s history. The city that once strived with life had been completely torched twice and was now forced to admit defeat. However the Southern heart still pulsed with pride and this coupled with its angry history led Richmond to develop its own sound, an infusion of folk and Southern rock, sprinkled with the heated passion of the city’s inhabitants forefathers.
Reconstruction came and went ,as did the turn of the century and as Americas landscape changed new music began seeping into the cultural cesspool. New Orleans had jazz and blues, New York had disco, Seattle had grunge, and Los Angeles had psychedelic drug induced music. For a while it seemed that the music scene had become stagnant in Richmond Virginia, but something was brewing under the surface, something dark, something heavy, a beast that would be nigh untamable, metal was coming.
In 1990 three floor mates at Virginia Commonwealth University realized they had a small problem; nobody was playing the type of music they liked. Sure there were some great punk bands but they wanted something more Black Sabbath than The Sex Pistols. So Mark Morton, Chris Adler and John Campbell came to one conclusion, they had to start their own band, thus Lamb of God was born.
Lamb of God didn’t reach their full potential until around early 2000. Over the course of the 90s the band had been a constant staple on the tight-knit local scene, however they had gone through a few lineup changes due to wishes for higher education and differences in opinion of band direction, leaving them crippled with a lack of stability. It was in 1999 that the permanent line up of Lamb of God which included founding members Morton, Campbell, and Adler along with Randy Blythe on vocals and Adler’s younger brother Willie on guitar was formed.
This new found stability and a rigid practice schedule, set the stage for stardom for these old dominion born boys, but the success of Lamb of God would prove to be much more than a dream come true, it would in fact become the driving force of the American metal movement, and Richmond Virginia became the perfect home for the hardcore.
Alongside Lamb of God the rise of GWAR, Strike Anywhere , Agnostic Front, and Avail have all received national recognition for their music, along with national underground favorites such as Four Walls Falling, Swamp Thing, Bracewar, Cast Aside, Impulse and Ten-33. I got curious during my research, I wondered if with all of the hardcore resurgence and the spotlight glaring on Richmond if there was a pressure on the smaller local bands to “fit the mold“
Who better to ask than a member of a local band? When I asked if there was a “pressure to fit the mold” Ben Rinker of Thousand Yard Stare had this to say;
“Not at all, we’re just fortunate to live in a place where bands can get noticed. RVA is a great jumping off spot for local bands. There’s no pressure at all because first and foremost music is about expression, and as long as you’re happy with what you do then that’s all that matters. Some bands have worked really hard to get where they are in their careers to be able to do this for a living. Sure everyone dreams of being rockstars but we all are local rockstars in our own little way. we play because it feels good to play. It feels good to be creative, and it feels good knowing that everyone has a blast at local shows.”(Interview: Ben Rinker)
Ben mentioned having to work really hard to be able to do this for a living, I held the belief that this was a true statement any where if a band was on the local level, I soon however found out otherwise. John Campbell of the afore mentioned internationally acclaimed Lamb of God was quoted as saying;
"To this day, we practice five days a week out of necessity. The bands in Richmond can flat outplay you and if you don't practice, they will blow you off the stage”
Back at Alley Katz as I watch Burn to the Core take the stage and start setting up, many questions are running through my mind, I love my cousin dearly but being that this is not only their debut to the world, but the debut for me as well and, considering I have brought my friends with me I hope he wont let me down.
The radio “filler” entertainment has come on as we all hold our breath waiting for the tuning to begin. I scan the room for my friends, they have scattered here and there, talking to the other bands who mingle with the crowd and I busy myself by finding the bassist from the first band and asking him about their merchandise and any promo deals I can scratch up.
After some small talk, I walk with him up to the stage. My friends migrate to where I am as the last note of the tuning process hangs in the air, this is it, no turning back. I take a quick sweeping glance around the room all eyes were on the stage. Then it happens, the first note, that first chord rings out and the crowd around me goes nuts. The power surging from the instruments that have been sitting so docile before is surreal, I can feel it coursing through every fiber of my being. For a moment I look away from the band and see the look on the faces of the crowd and for a single moment it takes me back to the crowd at the Avenged Sevenfold show, the pure awe that takes over their countenance and the look in their eyes are reminiscent of not a local show in a shiesty bar but of a sold out concert in Madison Square Gardens. I realized at that moment I was staring at the heartbeat that pumps the blood of the underground metal scene not only in Richmond but across the nation. I can see what Lamb of God has to be so worried about.
I look over at the bassist for the first band and he too is seemingly in shock, and as I turn my attention back to the stage I can see Ben in a whole new light, he’s not just my cousin, he’s not just another guy in a band, Ben is a rockstar plain and simple. And the other bands in the room, came to that very same conclusion that night.
I sat down and had a chat with Saint Diablo, a local band that has had some widespread acclaim along the east coast. I asked them, from a traveling bands perspective, how is the Richmond metal scene different from any other city? Their reply confirmed my belief that history does have a role on the sound of the hardcore sound of Richmond.
“The scene here in Richmond is great! All the bands support each other, from the guys that are just starting to the bands that are signed! You can go out to any metal show here and you will see really good bands! Richmond has a lot of talented bands. We (Saint Diablo) are on the road a lot and we always hear how much other bands want to play in Richmond. A few years ago I think the fan base here for metal wasn’t that great, but now with new clubs opening up and more traffic for outside of the area to come in has help bring life back to the crowds and bands that are here! I think this town has always been a heavy based music scene and its good to see it stronger than ever now!!!”(interview: Saint Diablo)
Little echoes of our great city’s history are every where, from the historic buildings and the old money last names, to the huge oak trees and timely traditions to the museums and cemeteries filled with reminders of great Richmonders long dead, nothing in the city is without a story, and the Richmond metal scene is bringing that story to life one beat, one chord, one scream at a time. The camaraderie felt by the bands is much like that of the soldiers, the bass notes are the sound of them marching off to battle, the drumbeats are the cannons, and the primal screams are the agony of defeat in a city so proud.
However the music does differ in one way to war and the agonies of unrest, the music brings people together, people seek refuge amidst the shiesty bars and dubious clubs. These people do not see just the history but they see the future, they see peace and solace in this gritty world, in Ben’s words;
“the Richmond scene is like a big incestuous family, there’s always bands splitting up and new ones forming….”(Interview: Ben Rinker) Old endings and new beginnings Richmond is a phoenix, her wings are the music in her streets but her heart, muscle and soul belong to her metal scene.
By Crystal Snyder
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