By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008
It's showtime at Jaxx, a scruffy nightclub in a pink-neon-accented strip mall in West Springfield, and people are waiting politely in line to get their hands stamped so they can go inside and rock out to the very latest in Devil music.
"Sin stands for beauty, sin stands for life. Sexual sin is every man's right!! He will exalt the wicked of man: our king the Antichrist!"
Self-described Satanist Lord Ahriman, lead singer for the Swedish black-metal band Dark Funeral, is scream-growling at an internal-organ-rattling volume inside Jaxx's concert hall. Thrilled fans, many of them teenagers clad in black, shoot Devil-horn hand signs into the air. A horned, fang-toothed man-beast roars from a massive banner across the stage.
Most common T-shirt of the night: "The day you die is the day I smile." Most common adjective: brutal (in a good way). Most common piece of jewelry: It's a tie between chains and upside-down crosses.
These are Ronnie Bittinger's people. As with any tribe, sure, there are internal squabbles. The 23-year-old Fredericksburg auto technician finds the spooky whiteface makeup, pricey black fashion and showy Satan-worship a bit poserish. A bit commercial. "It's an insult to people who are actually Satanists," he says. But these are people who understand his draw to black metal, an increasingly popular musical genre that's moody, super-fast and blatantly anti-Christian.
"The more intelligent you are, the more unlikely you are to believe in God; it's a fact," says Bittinger, drinking a beer with a group of childhood friends at the Jaxx bar one Wednesday night. Music thunders from the adjacent concert hall. "People in the underground scene tend to have higher IQs -- my own being 143."
Bittinger is a good example of a black-metal fan because he's actually quite interested in religion. He is well read on the occult and the dark arts. Though not a Satanist, he can easily rattle off different Satanist sects, and he mocks black-metal fans who don't know that Saint Peter is said to have died upon an inverted cross. He knows all about black metal's connection with violence. (In the 1990s in Norway, members of two bands committed murder, and another group's lead singer killed himself; meanwhile, fans burned dozens of churches in a supposed tribute to pagan traditions wiped out by Christianity.) And Bittinger identifies strongly with the genre's clear theme: the role of evil in humankind and the world.
"Black metal is an outlet for darker things," he says. "It's mostly driven by anger, frustration, dark thoughts."
Fans generally describe this music as anti-religious, but saturated as it is in Judeo-Christian terminology, images and liturgy, black metal is frankly obsessed with the subject. In mood, trappings and lyrics, it explores man's wrestling with evil -- a key religious theme -- in a more direct way than most types of music.
And adherents of extreme metal bands are almost disciple-like. They separate themselves as purists by listening not so much to the big-name, old-guard groups like Black Sabbath or Metallica but to weirder offshoots. (Although weirdness is relative in a place where a 12-year-old walks by in a Goatwhore T-shirt -- yes, it's a band.) They have costumes and rituals: For example, the band Watain hurls animal blood on fans at shows.
Various sects abound. There's black metal, with its anti-Christian lyrics and famously gory lore. And death metal, with its technical guitar-playing and fascination with necrophilia. And Viking metal. And doom metal. And power metal. And offshoots of offshoots: progressive death metal, melodic black metal, and on and on.
But something else has been going on in the past few years that is shaking the scene and hardened fans like Bittinger: Extreme metal is getting hip.
After two decades of existing mostly in the underground -- primarily through low-fi recordings surreptitiously sent around and the rare live show -- extreme metal is having a heyday. Trendy music blogs, movie soundtracks and huge rock festivals like Ozzfest have started featuring the offshoot genres. The Cartoon Network in 2006 started a show about a fictional death-metal band called Dethklok; a real album called "The Dethalbum," released by creators of the show, last fall debuted at No. 21 on the Billboard 200.
And Jaxx, a longtime classic rock and country club tucked between an Afghan kebab house and a Pakistani grocery, has improbably emerged as one of the East Coast hubs for extreme metal, one of the only places where you can see bands like Dark Funeral and the Greek black-metal band Rotting Christ, which played there last month. People trek to the suburban parking lot from all over the country, and Jaxx's Web site gets 8,500 hits a day, mostly from overseas.
"It's so strange, to be there in this strip mall; it's surreal," Albert Mudrian, editor of the new extreme metal magazine Decibel, said of Jaxx. "I've seen Napalm Death there twice."
All this isn't entirely great news for Bittinger, who calls music -- mostly extreme metal -- "my life." He listens to dark, ambient music during his entire two-hour commute to and from Alexandria, all through the workday and on weekends at the home he shares with his girlfriend and two cats.
Black metal was meant to be private, he says, for people who get it. Who understand the imagery of knights on the mount, who want to lose themselves in blasting melodies that are the musical equivalent of a scary, gray winter sky. Who know the difference between fantasy and irony.
"Now it's quote-unquote cult," spits Bittinger. "MySpace ruined black metal, that's my thought. Now you've got idiots who sit there on their computers downloading nonstop. Now everyone has access to the music, and it wasn't meant for everyone."
Jay Nedry, Jaxx's owner, certainly isn't in mourning. The flashy 57-year-old drummer for the longtime local Southern-rock band the Roadducks is an unlikely patron of extreme metal. Tanned, lean and coiffed, Nedry zooms around the club in his denim jacket and jeans, looking like a dandyish magician who stumbled into a metal convention. By the way, he hates this music.
"It's like nothing good ever happened in the world, right?" he said in a raspy chortle, eyeballing the Dark Funeral fans.
Nedry's relationship with metal is pragmatic. He started out in the early '90s hoping to compete with places like the Birchmere and host the kind of music he likes. But as a small club in a strip mall, it was impossible to compete. And he began agreeing with his daughter, who told him fans like him are getting old.
"She said, 'You better start booking stuff you don't like.' "
That's when he began to drag himself and Jaxx out of financial holes by stumbling across and embracing an underserved niche: heavy metal. At first that meant '80s hair bands, but in recent years it's also meant the extreme groups, which are particularly popular with teenage fans.
While mainstream metal has a solid fan base, Nedry knows the offshoots are small and too disturbing to ever be huge. "But the niche is very enthusiastic, and I'm the one everyone knows will have them."
For Bittinger and his friends, the ideas raised by black metal are intellectual nourishment for people who find humor in horror and calm in the chaotic. Be warned, though, the scene can be snooty.
"We're like an evil Mensa," Bittinger says.
Hanging out at the show with Bittinger is Eric Buchanan, a 26-year-old father of three from Stafford who got into black metal when he was 13 and who studied music theory in college. The soft-spoken Buchanan is into Mesopotamian mythology and did his senior thesis on comparative religion. He considers himself a Christian. Yet he isn't appalled when Naglfar, another Swedish band playing that night, wails about "failed abortions that never should have been born."
Sometimes, in his view, the bright lines drawn between good and evil by mainstream religious rhetoric are too simplistic to handle the messiness of being human. When Buchanan was operated on in 2006 for a growth on his brain, his wife brought both a crucifix and a Dark Funeral CD -- both helped, he says.
Buchanan once played in a band that faced criticism for thanking God in its CD liner notes. "Some people take the satanic thing too seriously," he says.
But some of this is just about teenagers trying, in time-honored fashion, to find a way to fit in, or stand out, or just release their angst. At the show was Christopher "Lord Kratos" Burke, a Montgomery County high school senior whose band, Valhalla, was one of the night's early acts. Just after playing, the sweaty singer-guitarist flipped his long hair and checked his streaked whiteface makeup as he explained that Christianity "doesn't seem real enough." It seems like a fairy tale, he said.
"If you can figure out what they're singing, tell me, because I'm afraid it might be 'Kill my mother, Kill my mother,' " Nancy Burke, who brought her son to perform, said with a nervous chuckle. "At heart he's a great kid. I don't think he wants to kill anyone."
That's black metal -- blurry lines: between loving and hating God, between fantasy and reality. Even Bittinger, who calls church "boring, inconvenient and droll," won't be pinned down when asked, point-blank: Is there a God?
"There might be, there might not be. If something is there, I don't want to limit myself."