Return of Hero’s metal gospel

by Jordan Green

The guys in the band are huddled around a tall, round table at Remix VIP, the erstwhile Flying Anvil, a well-appointed rock club that has been retrofitted with carpeting, swank couches and classy art-deco liquor posters.

One of the guitarists, Landon Ivey, a boyish pet store manager from Thomasville, waves a can of Red Bull under the nose of singer Ben Albertson, an earnest Bible college student whose bushy beard and flannel shirt signify his relative introspection and apartness from the group’s hijinks.

“I don’t need anything to get me going,” Albertson growls with mock biker bravado. “Someone read a verse to me – ‘Jesus Christ loves you’ – and I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s scream about it.”

Return the Hero from High Point is among three local bands – the others are Though He Slay Me from Reidsville and Lewis vs. Clark from Lexington – supporting two national touring acts – Burden of a Day from Florida and Pittsburgh’s Once Nothing – on the bill tonight that play Christian metal. Many of them born well after Ozzie Osbourne infamously bit the head off a bat, they combine ’70s-era rock wild-man antics with the speed and power of the kind of metal pioneered in the ’80s by bands like Slayer and Megadeth, flavored with the emo sensitivity of latter-day tinkerers like Coheed and Cambria.

Some of the young men, typically dressed in a uniform of scuffed designer jeans and studded belts, escort young ladies, who play the role of doting if unsure companions. Each band has an entourage, a knot of fans, family members and volunteer roadies comprising a closed circle forged from the synthesis of metal tribalism and the certitude of fundamentalist Christianity. The kung fu dancers and shadow boxers – all male, of course – act out the machismo of the scene, although the merchandise table, with its display of T-shirts declaring “Head bang gang” and “Gunfire is the sound of freedom,” isn’t getting much traffic.

The band’s name was coined by its former guitar player, Stephen Bohon. Albertson has his own theory, but since the former guitar player never told his bandmates the meaning of the name it’s open for interpretation.

“I think of Homer’s The Odyssey,” the singer says. “Odysseus leaves and all the suitors come to try to marry his wife. He returns and he sets everything back at peace – paralleling with Jesus returning from the dead.”

Many other bands have trod this path. Some of those cited by the members of Return the Hero as inspiration are August Burns Red, Me Without You and Oh, Sleeper. Churning out ear-splitting heavy metal was a choice. Identifying as Christians while doing so never was.

“I go to a Bible college. I grew up in the church. My parents are missionaries,” Albertson explains. “Everything I see reflects God’s love. So my lyrics are about trying to convey that love. There’s a lot of horrible stuff that happens in the world, but it all works out in the end according to God’s plan. As far as being in a Christian band goes, that’s in the lyrics, and the music is just the music.”

Bass player Wil McAbee attends public high school in Thomasville. Drummer John Ritner is home-schooled, as was Ivey before he entered the workforce. They snicker when they give this information. When second guitarist Justin Reed states that he attends High Point Christian Academy, they all burst into laughter for a reason they do not choose to explain. Their manager, Bill Snow, who is recording them at his studio in Jamestown, has told them to mention that they have a record deal in the works but they should not disclose the name of the label. When asked if the expenses of fielding a band pose any burden, they shrug and seem confused at the question.

It’s an early show tonight. After the two out-of-state headliners finish out around 9 p.m., the staff will clear everyone out, take an hour to clean and then start dispensing wristbands to the hip-hop crowd for night’s second event.

At around 7 p.m., after the members of Return the Hero finish their soundcheck, they gather around the drum kit in a prayer-like huddle. Then comes the thud of percussion and a squall of guitar attended by feedback, and McAbee counts off with his finger as the first song erupts and four fans on the front row bang their heads in unison.

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