Unearthing The Metal Underground In Lynchburg, VA: The Schoolhouse Venue
Band Photo: Singleside (?)
“FREE SANDWICH,” the black-on-white marquee lettering announces outside the unassuming roadside deli. “JESUS LOVES YOU.”
For many Americans today, such a sight is instant “meme bait” – earnest religiosity begging for a sneering, sarcastic caption. For this returning Virginia native, who spent eight years in secular New England associating with metalheads and entertainment business types, it’s a fidgety sensation of dislocation, of being marooned between two worlds at odds with one another. Two worlds – let’s face it – at war.
Which is why I still have no idea what to expect – I am indeed attending a metal show, I have to keep reminding myself – as I turn off Route 29 South and weave my way uphill to narrow Old Colony Road in Madison Heights, minutes from Lynchburg.
The “City Of Seven Hills,” and the sole Virginian stronghold still in Confederate hands at the end of the Civil War, Lynchburg is home to Liberty University, a private Southern Baptist institution. Its local cultural influence runs deep, as evidenced by the modest, low-slung, use-worn building before me.
131 Old Colony Road has, to understate things, a history. Formerly Solid Rock Academy, a private Christian school, the building is currently home to several businesses, a radio station, four band studios, a woodshop, a seminary office, and a school office.
And, last but not least, the Schoolhouse Venue, which this evening hosts Annihilation Fest, a gathering of mostly local metal acts. Stranger things have happened, I tell myself.
It’s still mid-afternoon, Saturday, March 22nd, 2014. A couple dozen people mingle about in very “school recess” fashion, populating the traffic bottleneck on either side of the front door. A few wear the expected heavy metal black. Others white, others still, flannel. Some appear to have just hopped off work. Uniformity is not the order of the day here.
I’d never much pondered the concept of “dress codes” at standard metal shows before, but now it hits me. This is already a casual act of defiance.
Within seconds, local grassroots promoter Joe Little – who himself masterminds one-man project Braincell – introduces himself and sweeps me on the grand tour.
Through the entrance, a door on my left. The long, wall-to-wall carpeted cafeteria – a multipurpose room, as I’ll later learn, for weddings, charity banquets, and more. Almost windowless, dimly lit, empty of furniture except the small stage and a humble merch stand pushed further back into the gloom.
Up a gradual ramp to a mezzanine level, around a bend, into a longer, wider corridor. The spine of the rambling building. Band gear plopped in stacks every ten feet or so. Doors hanging open at intervals, revealing cavernous institutional rectangles, each nearly identical, telltale signs of former classrooms.
I’m led into the last room. It’s a bizarre, schizophrenic jumble, unsure of its identity: woodshop, art room, squatter’s paradise – someone is erecting a sizeable loft in the corner – or practice space? The full drum kit near the window suggests the latter, at least tonight.
The man testing his snare behind the kit is one Philip Laughlin, known collectively with the other guys lounging in rickety chairs around a makeshift coffee table as The Handsome Bandits.
My first impression is that this self-described “White Trash Rock” and “NasCore” outfit doesn’t take itself too seriously. That impression holds.
After some casual banter – mostly dedicated to sating my curiosity about this quirky local scene – Philip is the first to tackle the religious and cultural elephant in the room: “I’m a believer,” he plainly states, “But I also listen to bands like Behemoth. Metal is just the music that does it for me.
“For the most part, there’s real passion behind metal lyrics. Look at that song ‘Chicken Noodle Soup.’ What is the point? Where is the passion? What are you getting from it? Nothing!
“A good way to avoid this is by actually writing lyrics before recording. A lot of bands compose lyrics while already in the studio. Know what you’re trying to say, and why!”
Philip explains that he actually gave a presentation in defense of metal music and lyrics in a communications class at Liberty, PowerPoint graphics and all… and received a 100% grade.
I can see it. Any serious academic institution worth its salt, even Liberty, must recognize that a Christian is more likely to find SOME value even in Richard Dawkins over “My Humps.”
This is refreshing stuff, the mingling of earnest faith with metal culture. And not in the segregated “Xtian metal/hardcore” sense fostered by Solid State Records types, in which the “separate but equal” fallacy still lives, but a genuine, intellectually honest coexistence.
What I discover during the evening’s first two acts makes this even more apparent. Ytterbium slings eccentric, surprisingly complex progressive metal compositions, in the vein of The Faceless and Periphery; Blood Is Bound mixes Southern-style metal with “moshcore.” The growing crowd, mostly very young, does not discriminate. It’s all just heavy rock ‘n’ roll to everybody.
All this, as the merch stand hawks CDs by Singleside, the next band on the bill. Alongside copies of the band’s album “Moving Forward” sit stacks of pocket-sized New Testaments and faith-based pamphlets. It’s the most jarring combination I’ve ever experienced in all my years of metal concerts.
Nearby, Ytterbium frontman Ben Briscoe, something of a Norseman, looking like a future metal god, signs an autograph from an adoring young lady. I smile. Local heroes are still heroes.
After Singleside’s set, I track down the band’s creative nucleus: the Cash sisters Anna (vocals) and Candace, aka “Candy” (bass, vocals). I learn very quickly that these two ladies are, in fact, the dual proprietresses of this very venue.
“We both went to school here when this was actually a school,” Anna explains.
“And I taught here,” Candy laughs.
Anna: “Our parents own the building, so that’s how we ended up getting involved further. We had the big space, and figured we could put on some shows. This one guy, actually a youth pastor who happened to love the music, was all for it and helped us out, but nothing really came of it.
“Then after about a year, Singleside got rained out somewhere and needed a place to play. We said, ‘Let’s just use the cafeteria!’ So we played the show here. More people started realizing, ‘Hey, this is a thing,’ and I started realizing, ‘Why not put on shows here all the time? Why not bring in bands that can’t play the local bars, so we can create an all-ages space?”
Indeed, just minutes before, I saw several sets of parents with very small children. No “look how metal my kid is” posturing, just a legit family-friendly Saturday evening at a community event.
“It’s not just ‘our venue,’” Candy is quick to emphasize. “It’s everybody’s. We wanted it to be a place for people to get their music out there, people with nowhere else to go. There are plenty of good, quality bands that can’t get in anywhere, for whatever reason.”
I suspect I know the reason…
“Lynchburg has zero place for your typical local metal or hardcore band,” Anna says. “So we provide that for them. We don’t even care if they suck; they have to start somewhere. It’s very hard to say no to all the people that want to play here.
“We’re putting on something like two shows per month now, which is a lot. And it’s all on a volunteer basis, everybody that works a show, the whole thing. That’s the best we can do right now, because we’re not huge, but people love this place so much that they keep coming back. They love the community feel, the brotherhood. People are so supportive.”
So how did two young ladies from a religious community, brought up in Christian schools, become the prime movers behind a local heavy metal scene? I’m eager to bust up some stereotypes here.
“We grew up with a Southern Gospel, bluegrass background. We grew up singing in church,” Anna tells me. “And I still don’t really know all the metal bands out there; I’m literally just learning a lot of that stuff now. It was very different for us growing up. But eventually I realized, ‘Rock is my thing. Let’s keep doing it; let’s not stop.’
Candace: “We’ve done a lot of different styles of music, but the kind of heavy rock we play with Singleside is our passion. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. I can’t understand why I didn’t get into it sooner in some manner… It’s sort of weird, too, that in Northern Virginia they consider us metal, but compared to a lot of the bands here tonight, we’re clearly not.”
I display the pocket-sized New Testament I picked up earlier. “I’ve never seen anything remotely like this at any merch stand.” The girls laugh; this part was coming.
“People ask us if we’re a Christian band,” Anna explains, “And I tell them we’re Christians in a band. Here’s how I put our music: it’s Christians writing the lyrics, and you might find something you identify with and you might not, but guess what? Your ten-year-old brother can listen to us, because we’re clean.
“We’re not ashamed of it at all. It gets sort of awkward when we play in bars, telling people, ‘Hey, we’ve got Bibles too – want one?’ But we’ve never been bashed openly for it. People seem to accept that this is who we are; this is a part of us. Whether you’re Christian or not, you still might enjoy our music. And we’ll play shows or put on shows with outspoken atheists, and tell them, come on down and play, as long as you keep it clean and keep the vulgarity to a minimum.
“It’s just about having respect. But that respect can take different forms. We played a local bar that hosts national acts, and were rocking out for a charity event, and some dude shouted, “f*ck yeah!” And someone else said, ‘Shut up; they’re a Christian band!’”
She can’t help but laugh. “I was like, ‘Really, like I’ve never heard that word before?’ What I liked most is that someone acknowledged us as a Christian band while giving us the same amount of respect. And then I thought, this guy that yelled ‘f*ck yeah,’ if that’s how he expresses himself enjoying our music – because he wasn’t disrespecting us at all – then I’m okay with that. I’m never going to turn somebody away because I think they’re ‘not Christian.’”
After a half hour, dusk has fallen, tendrils of shadows are creeping across the floor and walls, and we call it an interview. I visit the restroom down the hall. On the wall above the toilet are posted these helpful instructions:
“OUR AIM IS TO KEEP THIS BATHROOM CLEAN. GENTLEMEN: Your aim will help. Stand closer. It’s shorter than you think. LADIES: Please remain seated for the entire performance.”
In the meantime, I’ve missed performances by the two visiting bands: Captive Eyes from Richmond and Threatpoint from Scranton, Pennsylvania. The members of Threatpoint catch up with me outside the doors. Drummer CJ Krukowski furnishes me with a copy of their debut album “Dead To Rise.” [reviewed here]
These are some happy campers. Like me, they had no idea what to expect when they showed up here hauling their trailer, a tiny stop on a multi-state trek across the Mid-Atlantic and parts of Appalachia. They report that Schoolhouse was their wildest stop yet – to me, a neutral observer, mind you – and that their merch supply is almost completely gone.
“Some girl came up to us a few minutes ago and gave us this bracelet,” CJ states, holding up the item. “She told us one of our songs saved her life. Lots of fans of bands say stuff like that, but she was very specific. She hadn’t known us before; we’re not a big band, and we’re not local. She was depressed and feeling suicidal, and checked us out online, knowing we were coming. She said our song ‘Never Say Die’ forced her out of her funk and compelled her to come on out to the show, where she says she had the best time of her life.”
Inside, that time is still in full swing as Jupiter’s Incense, another progressive metal band, churns out a set. Mid-song, there is an abrupt halt. The lights go up. A small circle of people surrounds a fallen body.
I didn’t see what happened, but as the limp, apparently unconscious figure is delicately hauled outside, I notice it’s the autograph-seeker following Ytterbium’s set.
Jupiter’s Incense frontman Will Gardner looks on with concern, brow furrowed, hand to his forehead to block out the stage lights. “Everybody else all right?” he addresses the crowd. “Good. Long as she’s okay and that we’re all safe. That’s all that matters.”
After The Handsome Bandits do their “NasCore” thing, tonight’s final band is another explicitly Christian act, Eyes Of Eli. This stuff seems more in line with the Solid State “Xtian metalcore” school, but they have some punishing, compelling moments, and are definitely a draw.
Afterward, Anna of Singleside takes the microphone. “Brianna’s going to be all right,” she announces, although I’m still curious as to what actually happened. Regardless, Anna goes on, “Most of all, she was pretty upset that she had to leave the show.”
As I myself leave, I can understand it. This is live music entertainment in its purest form.
“No one comes here to drink,” Anna had told me, “They don’t come here to party. If you’re here for any of that, you’re going to be disappointed, because all you’re going to get are hours of bands onstage, playing their music. And you’d better show up and be prepared for that, or you’re going to have a bad time.
“It’s a party, but it’s a MUSIC party. We’re not a bar; we don’t have sports playing on the TV; we don’t have arcade games.”
“And those things are great,” Candy had added, “But that’s not what we do. This is a music venue for the people.”
For people of all ages, all types, and all beliefs WITHIN beliefs, apparently. In a community dominated by religious conservatism, a musical subculture has developed that attempts a symbiotic coexistence with that community – rather than an outright rebellion.
We often think in terms of culture wars: stuck-up, prudish religion on one side, and countercultural rebellion – metal, in this case – on the other. Annihilation Fest proves it mustn’t necessarily be that way.
If anything, Schoolhouse Venue could best be described with the following slogan: “Everyone Has The Right To Rock.”
Days later, I receive an email from Handsome Bandits drummer Philip Laughlin. Attached is the aforementioned perfect-scoring PowerPoint presentation from his Liberty University communications class, along with some extra thoughts:
“Part of Christianity involves worshipping God not only with your heart and soul, but also your MIND. And if you fill your mind with useless garbage, that’s no benefit to anyone. Filling your mind with passionate lyrics that mean something important to someone – even if it differs from your own beliefs – can be beneficial, and can catalyze growth as a person, and as a Christian.
“If you don’t like ‘all that screaming,’ it’s important to try and look past it to see the passion hidden beneath.”
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