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The floorboards in Darkest Hour’s dingy 9:30 Club dressing room rumble with the pop-punk vibes of Pittsburgh’s the Vacancy. Mike Schleibaum, however, couldn’t care less about the opening band’s aesthetic. Clad in a faded Iron Maiden T-shirt, loose jeans, and a Confederate-style cap, the metalcore quintet’s 26-year-old guitarist and de facto spokesperson is just happy to be on tour—all the time.

“We’re part of the other D.C. scene,” Schleibaum says, referencing Washington’s insular punk/indie community. Relatively anonymous at home, Darkest Hour scored a contract with Chicago mega-independent Victory in 2001 and over the past year has played throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. Yet it took a California band, political pop-punkers and current tour headliners Anti-Flag, to get Schleibaum & Co. tonight’s gig—only their second at the club in eight years of existence.

“I mean, the scene in D.C. is seriously divided,” Schleibaum says, in between noshes on a meatless sandwich. “We can play [in the area] and have 750 kids show up, and it’s totally, completely different kids than anybody [who] would know anything about the other world.” Though original members Schleibaum and vocalist John Henry, 23, grew up hardcore kids in Northern Virginia, the band’s current sound comes closer to that of the melodic death metal of Northern Europe.

“Me and John weren’t super into this type of metal when we got into music,” Schleibaum says, “so as the lineup changed that also had a lot to do with it.” Drummer Ryan Parrish, 25, guitarist Kris Norris, 25, and bassist Paul Burnette, 28—all Richmond residents—Schleibaum notes, “have been playing this style of music since [they] were 13.”

Still, the bespectacled Parrish says, “We don’t consider ourselves a metal band per se. We’re more like dudes who like playing metal with a punk-rock ethic.” Darkest Hour functions “like a punk or hardcore band,” according to Schleibaum. “Most people who try to do a metal band try to do it the same way as everybody else,” he explains. “We all came from a different place, really, so we kind of operate the band like the bands that we know. But we just happen to play a totally different type of music.”

So despite their dual-guitar harmonies, brutish vocals, and constant double-bass drum rumble, Darkest Hour purposefully avoided signing to a metal label after its previous company (the appropriately named MIA) went belly-up the day it released the band’s first full-length, The Mark of Judas. “We didn’t want to be on a metal label,” Schleibaum says, “because we wanted the ability to still do tours like this and still play basement shows or whatever and still be hardcore.” One glance at the shows page on Darkest Hour’s Web site makes it abundantly clear the band maintains a hardworking, punk-rock approach to playing live: It’s hitting 12 countries on two continents before the end of the year.

Yet these punks don’t completely eschew the headbanger world. “We’ve done some metal tours,” Parrish says. “We did a 10-day Haunted tour.” The band also toured around the United States last year with another Swedish death-metal act, the Crown. And it was Darkest Hour’s good relationship with that band’s singer that led directly to the recording of the D.C. group’s third and latest full-length, Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation, the title of which is a reference to America’s reputation abroad.

“Usually the way things work with this band is that we all shoot out ideas,” Schleibaum says, “and even though they sound stupid, we just try to figure out how we could, practically, make them happen.” One of last year’s crazy ideas was to record the band’s third record in Sweden. (“Why not just go to the source?” says Schleibaum.) So Darkest Hour got on the horn with the Crown’s then-vocalist, Tomas Lindberg: “We asked Tomas,” Schleibaum says, “‘Hey, how would we do this?’” Lindberg, in turn, called Fredrik Nordström—producer for Swedish death-metal heavies Opeth, Arch Enemy, and Lindberg’s old band At the Gates—and booked him to record Darkest Hour at Gothenburg’s storied Studio Fredman, the Sun Studios of the genre. “[Lindberg] got us in there,” Schleibaum says. “He kind of made it happen.”

Of course, the band had to convince its label that it was a good idea. “Here’s the thing,” Schleibaum says: “People see that and they think, Fuck, how much money did Victory spend?” But in fact, the new album didn’t cost much more than Darkest Hour’s previous Victory record, 2001’s So Sedated, So Secure: The label paid for plane tickets, studio time, and equipment rental; the band took care of everything else. “The honest truth is that we gave the idea to Victory in a way that they couldn’t have said no,” Schleibaum says. “We were willing to do stuff that other bands weren’t willing to do.” Too broke for bus fare, the fivesome slept on a Swedish friend’s floor for a month and “ate, like, eggs and bread,” Henry jokes. And they walked an hour each day to the studio and back in the midwinter Gothenburg cold.

Was the Studio Fredman experience worth it? “It was incredible,” Parrish says, leaning forward in his chair. “[Nordström]’s done a lot of records that we all really love,” Schleibaum adds. “I mean, his studio has put out some of the best-sounding European death-metal records.” It was also the first time the group had worked with a producer who was at all familiar with the genre. “The main difference was that we, as a band, were so intimidated by the situation and the people there,” Schleibaum says, “and you walk in there and you’re kind of more ready to let a producer or whoever take control, because you really respect what they do.”

And the respect was, apparently, mutual. “They never called us a hardcore band,” Parrish says. “They were like, ‘You guys are metal. I don’t know what they’re talking about.’” Henry adds, “They didn’t really judge us or anything.” And Lindberg even stepped up to the mike on the album’s first track, “The Sadist Nation.” “Since At the Gates was one of the main influences of everybody in the band,” Schleibaum says, “it just made sense that Tomas would be on the record.” Lindberg also made some calls on Darkest Hour’s behalf. “He was all, like, ‘Yeah, I’ll talk to Anders [Björler, the guitarist from the Haunted and At the Gates], and he’ll do something,’” Schleibaum says. “‘And we’ll get Marcus [Sunesson] from the Crown; he’ll do something.’”

Though language was never a barrier—most everybody the group encountered spoke English—cultural differences were sometimes a surprise. “[The Studio Fredman staff] worked 8 to 5 every day,” Parrish says, “and when it was 5 o’clock—even if you were in the middle of something—those dudes were out. Like, ‘Oh, see you tomorrow.’” And “everyone” in Sweden “knows who [power-metal band] Hammerfall is,” Henry says, still amazed. “They’re like the Backstreet Boys.”

Also, Parrish notes, if you tell an American you play metal, that’s enough information. “Over there,” Parrish says, “they say, ‘What kind of metal? Speed metal? Thrash metal? Black metal? Death metal?’” “Just some random person waiting on you somewhere will say that,” Schleibaum adds. Yet many of the musician heroes Darkest Hour met were interested only in America’s most commercial hard-rock acts. “Some of those bands really like American nü metal,” Schleibaum says, adding, “[nü-metal] bands that we just think are total jokes.”

As for the guys in Darkest Hour, they’re happy to stick with their “straight-up” Swedish influences—even if that means making small refinements as opposed to seismic shifts in their sound. “[Some critics] think a huge leap forward is going to be rapping,” Schleibaum says. “We don’t wanna do that. We just want to write a better thrash record.” —Brent Burton