Empire’s final concert

It was the best of venues, it was the worst of venues. Empire, Jaxx, Zaxx, whatever you called the movie theater turned concert venue located at 6355 Rolling Road in Springfield, Virginia, it was certainly one thing: the most important venue in Northern Virginia to heavy metal fans. It had been a club that transitioned through a few names and hosted many bands of various musical genres but it wasn’t until Jay Nedry took it over in 1994 that the venue became Jaxx. Jaxx became a place to see rock and heavy metal bands come through on tours and they would regularly book performances by underground and European metal bands that you just couldn’t see anywhere else in the area. In January 2012 new ownership took over Jaxx and rebranded the nightclub Empire. I personally attended literally hundreds of concerts at Jaxx/Empire over the past 20 years or so, far more than I’ve seen at any other concert venue.

It was pretty surreal going to Empire/Jaxx’s last concert on Sunday, May 3rd of 2015. I wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t the venue’s final show ever and I think a lot of people there would have said the same thing. I said hi to lots of friends, most of whom I’d been to concerts with at the venue in the past, and I talked to a lot of the staff throughout the night. I had a lot of great concert memories at this place. I remember seeing Arch Enemy on their first US tour with Angela Gossow on vocals there and people were blown away by her stage presence. I remember seeing David Vincent’s sweaty return to Morbid Angel there, a sold out show where the AC didn’t work. I got drunk and saw Napalm Death play there on Easter one year. I saw Electric Wizard open for Macabre and Enslaved there (the only metal show I ever convinced my mom to attend with me). I saw plenty of other shows with eclectic line ups like when King Diamond played with Entombed and when Cannibal Corpse, Dimmu Borgir, The Haunted and Lamb Of God all shared the stage for a night. I remember taking a piss in that awful men’s room troth while talking to Lord Worm of Cryptopsy as he cleaned live worms in the sink to feed to fans from the stage. It was at Jaxx that Rob Dukes, at the time the vocalist for Exodus, stage dived right on top of me while he was wearing a cheerleader costume during Kreator’s encore, all while I was shooting video. These memories and more floated through my head at the final show.

But it was a show, not some flashback montage, and while my mind often wandered throughout the night there was plenty to remind me that hindsight isn’t always 20-20, it has a way of looking at things through those rosy lenses of nostalgia. The same old problems the venue had were still very apparent at the final show. The farewell show itself had way too many bands on the bill, a total of eight, only two of which were on the tour package. I had brought my nice camera hoping to take some shots of the final show but the lighting was so bad for most of the bands I didn’t even feel like bothering. And of course the same old issues of bands not being allotted enough time, or being put in the right order, were glaring. Locals Iris Divine and Oberris had been on the bill for several weeks before the announcement on April 23rd (here) that Empire would be closing on May 5th, though once word of that got out bands started jumping on to the line up. I can understand that, but the bands that were already busting their asses to promote the show shouldn’t have been bumped to play earlier and had their amount of stage time reduced. The sound guy cut off Iris Divine’s set mid song, which I thought was a technical issue at first. Then Yesterday’s Saints played, and their set wasn’t bad but I’ve seen grindcore bands put on longer sets than they were allowed to play, something like 15 minutes. A shame since they had driven home from Louisville, Kentucky the night before to be able to play this show. The final local to play, A Sound Of Thunder, was also cut off while on stage. It was all just handled poorly and left most of the locals feeling slighted to differing degrees.

After a longer break than Yesterday’s Saints was even allowed to play the first touring band came on. Next To None is a lesson on what nepotism can get you. The Pennsylvania based prog band is made up of teenagers aged 15 to 17, the most notable being Max Portnoy, son of the famous ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy. Mike was even on hand to introduce his son’s band at the start of their set. I guess they were technically proficient but like most bands made up of kids, they don’t really do much besides mimic other bands. There wasn’t anything new or innovative about what they were doing, it was well rehearsed and safe, but they’re just teenagers so I guess you have to cut them some slack. I could totally see them touring with Unlocking The Truth and playing shows for younger kids.

After Next To None finished it was time for Haken to perform. I had heard they were planning a two and a half hour set this evening, which I suppose is fairly normal for prog bands, though it actually ended up being a little under 2 hours. The band is based in London and I believe this was the final date of their first US tour. I wish they had gotten a band that had played Jaxx many times over the years to close the place out, or even one that had played it once before, but that wasn’t really a practical request. The Haken vocalist, Ross Jennings, made some comments between songs about the closing a few times, wondering why the place was closing because it was so awesome and commenting that it was a strange privilege to be the last band to play there. The crowd had thinned out quite a bit by the time Haken got to their scripted encore, though the final two songs were definitely the highlight of their set. To close out the venue they played a cover of Metallica’s “Fade To Black” then Mike Portnoy got behind the drum kit and Haken covered “The Mirror” by Dream Theater to end the set, their tour, and the venue’s history of concerts.

At the end of the show I hung out and talked to a few friends while the bands tore down their gear. Eventually I said goodbye to the staff as well, who have always been good to me (going back to the Jaxx days) but that probably has something to do with the blog I run, local bands seem to have mixed reviews. The show was over but I didn’t want to say goodbye to the venue, I think I was the last person to leave that wasn’t an employee or part of the tour. I’ve spent a lot of time in that place, complained about plenty of its problems over the years, but I still kept coming back. When I first started going to see concerts that weren’t at giant amphitheaters or arenas Jaxx was there to let me see the bands I was into perform live, and to discover more bands as well. Jaxx was there showcasing locals from around the region before I even knew of any of our local bands. When I first started attempting concert photography, several years before I started this blog, the first shows I shot were Behemoth and Watain at Jaxx. I lived about a mile down the road from Jaxx for a few years as well, sometimes if I was bored on a particular night I’d check their calendar for what was playing that night and head over if it sounded interesting, or at least not terrible. Empire/Jaxx had a lot of problems though. The room wasn’t a great shape and the speakers were set up in a way that the sound was really bad in several areas of the room, and there were the days the AC would be turned off in the summer to increase drink sales at the bar. On some nights Empire would actually charge for water at the bar, a practice that isn’t illegal but is pretty underhanded and potentially dangerous. However the most polarizing aspect of the venue was always its pay to play policy, which had the local bands pre-selling tickets to the shows they were added to. It was great that they allowed locals to play on a stage that size but it was awful that they had to shake down their friends time and again to do so. Many bands boycotted playing the venue because of this policy, and many people refused to even see shows there because of the policy. The fact that after the closing announcement was made so many people took to social media to comment about it, even people that hated the venue and were glad to see it go, is a testament to the impact it had on our area’s metal scene.

Empire/Jaxx definitely wasn’t perfect, no concert venue is, but it is the one we had for so many years, a constant in our metal scene. This is officially the first day that there is no Empire, no Jaxx, in Springfield. It has been bought by the kabob restaurant next door, they want to expand to add a banquet hall for weddings and other special occasions. There is a part of me that is sad to see the end of Empire/Jaxx. I made a lot of friends and memories there, I saw many bands close up, and I probably wouldn’t be the metal concert addict that started a local metal blog if it didn’t exist for all those years. But like the overdue end to a long term relationship, I’m also glad that I don’t have to put up with its bullshit any more either.

Behemoth at Jaxx in 2007
The first concert I ever shot, I’d like to think I’m a little better by now

Rob Dukes stage dives on me while Kreator plays at Empire

Metal Show Of The Week: Acrassicauda

I figure that running this website is simply not taking up enough of my free time already so I’ve decided to start a new feature that I’ll call Metal Show Of The Week. In these posts I’ll write about an upcoming metal show to feature that I think people should know about and I’ll give it a little more back story than is given on the calendar. It could be huge national or international touring bands or it could be a locals only show or anything in between. Despite the name I probably won’t write one every week, particularly if there isn’t a metal show that I’m really fired up about in any given week. As always feedback is welcome so if you like the idea let me know. If you think I could make things better let me know how. Feedback is always welcome as long as it’s constructive.

Who? Acrassicauda
When? Sunday, October 6th
Where? Tally Ho Theater (map)
How much? $15 day of show, $10 advance

This first metal show of the week post is going to be about Acrassicauda coming this Sunday, October 6th, to the Tally Ho Theater in Leesburg, Virginia. These guys are a thrash metal band originally from Baghdad, Iraq and they’re probably most famous for being featured in the documentary Heavy Metal In Baghdad but they’re a damn good band too. They’ve only played the area once before, opening for Destruction at Jaxx (now named Empire) back in May 2011, but unfortunately their set was cut considerably short. This time they’re headlining and it’s sure to be a much better show. Acrassicauda, named after a black scorpion in their homeland, is getting ready to record a full length album and since this is the first show of their tour we may be the first ever to hear some of the new material live!

The venue is the Tally Ho Theater, a recently renovated theater that now can put on concerts (more info about the venue in this Washington Post article here) and to my knowledge this is their first ever metal show. Hopefully a good turn out means they’ll get more great metal shows like this one in the future. I haven’t even mentioned the openers but they are worth getting there to see, particularly Iris Divine, who are probably the area’s best progressive metal band right now. There will also be sets by Dispellment, a local black metal band and Silence The Blind a thrashy ‘core band. Tickets are $15 but you can get them in advance for $10 here. And I know it’s out in Leesburg but if Acrassicauda can get out of their war torn country on the other side of the world to bring the thrash then your ass can find a ride to Leesburg for this rare opportunity to see them play live. Now headbang to this Acrassicauda song, “Message From Baghdad,” and I hope to see a lot of you there!

Recap of Mandatory Metal 3 at the State Theatre

Mandatory Metal 3 was the third local metal night at the State Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia held on 16 December 2010. This was the first Mandatory Metal to take place on a Thursday night, instead of a Friday, and that combined with the fact that it snowed a couple inches that day unfortunately kept the turn out rather low. For those who did make it out though, it was a really entertaining show. As usual there were four local bands who played and this time they were Scream/Ruin, A Sound Of Thunder, Iris Divine and Division. While the previous Mandatory Metal show had been more death and black metal based, this one was more melodic and most of the bands used clean vocals (aka non-growling/screaming) at least some of the time. Now if you’ve been reading this blog you’ll know that’s not usually my preference, but of course there are exceptions and this show was a great way to stay out of the cold.

The first band of the night was Scream/Ruin, a hardcore band with some thrashy elements based in Loudoun, Virginia. They had a lot of heavy breakdowns and some nice shredding in parts. The vocals were mostly somewhere between shouting and screaming. One thing that sort of set them apart from your typical hardcore metal band is they had atmospheric keyboards in parts of some songs. I’m generally not a huge fan of most hardcore, but these guys were entertaining. The drummer seemed to come from the Lars Ulrich school of drumming, not really too fast but high drama most of the time. I really enjoyed the parts of their songs that had the faster drum beats most, but that might just be my bias for extreme metal talking. Their stage lighting was very dark, with a couple of flood lights on stage that blinked on and off throughout the set. I was right up front most of their set but I’m not sure how well people farther back could see the stage. The video I shot of them is pretty dark too, but the audio is still decent. They were a good opening act and started the show off with a lot of energy.

The next band to play was A Sound Of Thunder. Their lead singer is a very charismatic woman named Nina Osegueda. While they may have a female lead singer, they don’t really sound anything like other local bands that also do, like say Todesbonden, This Means You or Rain Fell Within. This band is more in the vein of traditional and power metal stylistically. While Nina sings very cleanly, it’s not in that operatic style but more of a female rock or metal style. The band itself was more talented than the bulk of the metal bands that have a woman up front just as more of a gimmick. The guitarist had a cool solo with the spotlight on him for a bit at one point, and you could tell the band was really in tune with each other on stage. While they did rock out a lot they had some slower and more melodic parts too, showing some range in their songs. The stage was still fairly dark for them, and since my camera sucks in dark lighting you don’t really get as good of an idea of how they looked on stage, but the audio is listenable enough. They were certainly fun, and while I wish I’d gotten to record their song Walls, probably my favorite song of their set, I did get their closing song Wings Of Steel at least.

The next band to play was Iris Divine from Alexandria, Virginia. They’re a more progressive style band, though that genre label has always seemed a bit vague to me. They reminded me a lot of Maryland’s Periphery, though I wouldn’t call them a djent band. They do have some complex song structures that are also catchy, not a lot of bands seem to be able to do both. The songs have lots of rhythm changes, and the vocals alternate from a rough yelling to singing. Their keyboard player, Farhad Hossain, would step away from the keys to play guitar in some parts, as well as share the singing with their other guitarist, Navid Rashid. Probably the biggest issue I had with their set was that sometimes they had problems harmonizing their voices on the parts where they were both singing together. Either one by himself sounded fine though. Really that’s a minor issue as this band is one that you focus more on the musicianship anyways. The clean vocals as well as the programming and keyboards did seem to fill their sound out with some atmosphere, and there were some more heavy and energetic parts too. You could definitely tell they had put a lot of thought into all these songs. In all I was impressed by them, as this was the band that I knew the least about going in to this show.

Next up was the fourth and final band of the night, Division from Woodbridge, Virginia. I met some of the band members at the first Mandatory Metal show back in August and they had given me a copy of their latest CD, Control Issues (buy it here). It’s definitely grown on me and I was glad I knew some of their material by the time I got to see them live. They opened with their song Hunt, which is probably my favorite song of theirs. Their setlist wasn’t only songs from the new album, but also songs I didn’t recognize from older albums. Both were fun to watch live though. They really put on a show, members of the band were constantly shifting position on stage and their showmanship certainly made it easy to watch them as they walked around on the stage like they owned it. The thrashy and heavy riffs were fun to listen to as well. The two guitarists seemed to be playing dueling solos at points too. I guess you could call them power metal, but vocalist Nick Kelly doesn’t overdo it in that annoying way that reminds me of 80s hair bands like plenty of power metal bands do. He has a good voice and knows when to sustain and when not to, the latter being noticeably rare in the world of heavy metal. They were my favorite band of the night, and they were a great headlining act. The highlight of the entire night was definitely their closing song, a cover of Metallica‘s Disposable Heroes. They really had the audience participation going, and also had Alan Margazano (the guy who organizes the Mandatory Metal shows) of Death Penalty singing back up vocals on that. Those of you who missed the show or left early are lucky that I shot video of it and have posted it below. They really put on a great show, my only gripe was that they didn’t play their song Short Attention Span Society, which is another tune I really like of theirs. But that’s ok, gives me something to look forward to the next time I see them.

In all it was another great night of local metal at the State Theatre. I enjoyed all four bands, none of which I had seen live before. I just wish more people had shown up, the bands really deserved it. I suppose nobody can control the weather, but people really should have come out, it wasn’t THAT bad out. Alan told me there were a lot of people who had bought presale tickets and didn’t even show up! If you missed out though, you can check out three of the bands that played, Scream/Ruin, A Sound Of Thunder and Division, who all have free mp3s you can download on my Download’s page here. You can also see A Sound Of Thunder, Iris Divine and Division play with a few other bands in Richmond at Alley Katz on March 5th, 2011. There will also be another metal show coming to the State Theatre, though not a Mandatory Metal (the next one will be in February). In late January King Giant and Death Penalty are playing a gig, the State Theatre’s first non-Mandatory Metal concert. Details are on the calendar of upcoming concerts. AND don’t forget I’m giving away a pair of tickets to see Gwar on 29 December 2010 at the 9:30 Club, you can enter here for free. You can check out the rest of my pics from Mandatory Metal 3 on my Flickr account here, and as usual I’ve posted all the videos I shot at the show below. Enjoy!