The Old Dominion in Song

Lamb of God's "Hourglass" and Virginia's Brand of Violence

by Dan Johnson

12 April 2017

Bombardments, assaults, volley-fire, flank attacks -- this is the vocabulary of Virginia’s bellicose imagination. It's also an apt lexicon for describing Lamb of God’s catalog.
 
cover art

Lamb of God

Ashes of the Wake

(Sony Legacy)
US: 31 Aug 2004

With the release of their 2004 magnum opus Ashes of the Wake, Virginia’s Lamb of God cemented their position as the potent poster children of the early ‘00s American heavy metal revival. The album was a visceral blend of riffs, bass-rich breakdowns and punishing rhythms laced with bristling critiques of neo-conservative foreign policy spoken in throaty vocals that hedged on the demonically Pentecostal.

Ashes of the Wake sold over 500,000 copies—an astonishing feat for a heavy metal album.

Consequently, the music press hailed Lamb of God as the heirs apparent to southern thrash metal. The band earned apt comparisons to Pantera, given singer Randy Blythe’s pugnacious delivery, the strong technical interplay of guitarists Mark Morton and Willie Adler and the lock-tight weave of bassist John Campbell and drummer Chris Adler.

No group in the canon of American popular music has captured the cultural tapestry of Richmond, Virginia in all its battered, proud, gothic splendor quite like Lamb of God. After all, every band is a product of its environment.

Lamb of God came of age in a Richmond underground titillated by the sound of hardcore punk. Bass player John Campbell once described the outfit as a “punk band that plays heavy metal music.” The forgotten ferocity of a city tucked ignominiously in the seam between Mid-Atlantic and Deep South bled onto the floors and walls at places like Benny’s, Hardtimes and the Mosque.

An entire generation of kids raised on Marshall Tucker and Ted Nugent augmented the languid compositional vocabulary of classic southern rock with blistering feedback, hard churning speed licks and confrontational vocals. As the external Black Flag influence bled into the scene, homegrown notes of heaviness began germinating into pounding and sometimes bizarre musical statements. Lamb of God is a kindred spirit to bands like Alabama Thunderpussy and Municipal Waste. Better still, the grandiose showmanship apparent in their style owes a great debt to GWAR.

Lamb of God first formed in 1994 under the oft-offending nom de amp Burn the Priest. That same year saw the release of This Toilet Earth, the fourth studio album from the costumed metal mavens. With gut-punching and humorous body blows like “SounderKommando” and “Fight”, This Toilet Earth presaged Lamb of God’s instrumental sensibility while influencing Randy Blythe’s presence in the mix.

There’s an obvious link between Oderus Urungus’ low register mic work and monstrous stagecraft and the howling, growling stomp of D. Randall Blythe. Blythe himself paid tribute to Gwar in a short anecdote published in a 2014 round-up story on ‘80s music in Richmond. Randy waxed nostalgic on seeing the band for the first time while also tripping on three hits of acid.

Amidst a plethora of musical influences, there’s something deeper and darker lurking at the core of Lamb of God’s identity. The band’s thick roots in Richmond feed into a legacy of conflict.

In an interview given to filmmaker Sam Dunn for his 2006 documentary, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Mark Morton described the sonic ambiance of his Virginia childhood. “On a Saturday night, you hear guns,” Morton said, “It becomes part of the landscape.” “Your psyche,” Randy Blythe chimed in.


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When you tell people from other parts of America that you’re from Virginia, they’ll likely remind you what a beautiful place it is. While true, the stunning aesthetic component doesn’t begin to justify a psychology haunted with an unseen and ceaseless sort of torment. This discontentment, this essential strain at the core of the Virginian being accounts for the profusion of restless, aggressive, shadowy musical forms to emerge from the Piedmont.

It’s written in state history and implanted on the Commonwealth’s cultural DNA. That combativeness is a great part of what Virginia is.

Tobacco and presidents: this was the substance of the mandatory Virginia history lab administered to fourth graders across the state. Later, the curious, disillusioned or well read will tack on bitumen and anthracite coal and slavery to the dubious list of products associated with the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Yet, the Old Dominion’s most prolific resource is rarely acknowledged. It has killed more than tobacco and held greater sway over the march of time than the rhetoric of Washington, Jefferson, Wilson and all the others. It is violence: a superlative export.

The Commonwealth’s bellicose heritage is felt worldwide. American ships sally forth across the globe from their home berths in Norfolk, the world’s largest Navy base. Clandestine strikes in anonymous and inaccessible terrain around the world begin at the SEAL base in Deep Creek. The Officers of the United States Marine Corps are baptized at Quantico. Up at the Pentagon, the efforts and aims of the most potent standing military in human history are coordinated in concentric rings of bureaucratic hierarchy. Within great palisades of shatterproof glass, the United States’ technological warfighting capacity builds in exponential accordance with Moore’s Law at Ballston’s DARPA. Out in Langley and various unmarked points to the west, the imprecise business of intelligence forecasting and surreptitious intervention proceeds undeterred.

Virginia’s violence is a well-established brand. Vandegrift and Chesty oversaw its acute application on Guadalcanal. The United States Third Army moved at the deliberate behest of a Virginia Military Institute Keydet. Even Erwin Rommel wove the legacy of Stonewall Jackson into the blitzkrieg.

Virginia hosted some of the most terrific, infamous and lethal campaigns of the Civil War. Cherished sons from rebel Robert E. Lee to Yankee George Thomas prosecuted a war heretofore unrivaled in the annals of American history. Years prior, Santa Anna tucked tail at Buena Vista before the army of Barboursville, Virginia’s own Zachary Taylor.

The Tidewater absorbed tormenting British raids in the War of 1812. The Marquis de Lafayette’s columns traced the roads of the Old Dominion in an elusive cat and mouse game during the Revolution. Bannister Tarlington’s horse raised dust through the Piedmont. Lord Cornwallis and the vaunted red coats ate crow at Yorktown. Benedict Arnold set Richmond aflame.

Old George Washington himself sojourned north beyond the Potomac to stir up a literal world of hurt at a place named Duquesne. Today, commuters in northern Virginia crowd the Braddock Road where Sir Peter Haklett and his host of ne’er do wells in the 44th Foot marched on their date with death in 1755.

Twenty-three hanged for Bacon’s Rebellion. Totopotomoi’s own crimson stained Bloody Run in 1656. Three Anglo-Powhatan Wars inaugurated Virginia’s spurious legacy with 16 years of total war between 1610 and 1646.

These conflicts are not a distant abstraction—they are spoken in a language writ large on the land itself. The soil is soaked in a flood tide of blood that oozes out to stain culture. Historical markers, marble and granite obelisks, cannons and caissons, snake-rail fences—these are the resilient ghosts that lurk in the early morning fog of the Virginian imagination.

There’s a sense of death grand yet inglorious that we cannot shake. There’s a cognizance of costs that can never be paid in full.

In a larger sense, Lamb of God is a beneficiary of that heritage of a lethal past. Though they are by no means cut from the cloth of unreconstructed Confederate nostalgia or Lost Cause sycophancy, their music exhibits certain markers of Virginia combat idolatry.

Very few who grow up pondering the tactical merits of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia find their mind wandering to daydreams of that Army hemmed up in the trenches at Petersburg. The Virginian consciousness of war is braided with a tradition of savage attacks where tenacity and superior momentum wipe a foe from the earth.

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