The Power to Rebel ~ Baghdad, Islam and Heavy Metal
As fans of heavy metal, we in the western world spend our time buying the newest releases, going to our favorite artist’s shows, proudly displaying their logos on our clothing, and head banging passionately to epic guitar riffing and blast beats. In this day and age, this culture is something we have a tendency to take for granted. But what if you lived in a place where the law stated that you couldn’t wear your Slayer t-shirt in public, because it would be viewed as Satanic? What if head banging to your favorite Iron Maiden CD was considered a derogatory anti-religious gesture? Well let Metalholic take you to a different place, deep in the heart of the Middle East, where freedom of expression has been almost completely snubbed, and the demands of religious beliefs have censored and restricted the “power to rebel” – and examine what changes heavy metal has had on the conservative nature of Muslim countries in general.
The Spike Jonez documentary, “Metal in Baghdad” takes a first-hand look at these issues. The film focuses on four guys; Faisal, Tony, Firas, and Marwan. The quartet are members of a band based in Baghdad, Iraq called Acrassicauda, a Latin word meaning “black scorpion.” Living in a country destroyed by war, riddled with insurgents and radicals, they dealt with relentless oppression to the very core of who they are. Every day they faced a battle against their own countrymen to create and enjoy the music that gets them through the struggles of daily life in their war torn country.
The documentary follows two filmmakers from New York, Moretti and Alvi, over a three year period. The pair follow and assist the members of Acrassicauda as they attempt to stage Iraq’s first heavy metal concerts following the 2005 ousting of disgraced Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. The film documents how, during the rule of Saddam’s regime, the band was forced to coin themselves as a “rock show,” to avoid political issues associated with the term “heavy metal.” Headbanging was prohibited during that time, because it was associated with the “head movements of Jews during prayer.”
Many metal bands write about death, war, and destruction because it seems cool and, well, metal. You can probably count on one hand the number metal bands that have been at the heart of the violence and persecution. Acrassicauda were there in 2003 when George W. Bush bombed the fuck out of their home city of Baghdad, killing family and friends. And still that was only the beginning of the story. The band’s sacred practice space, which served as their escape from the violence going on around them, was destroyed by a scud missile. Their first show in Iraq would be plagued with power cuts, and the group had to perform cover songs, because no one in Iraq had ever heard of them before. They would only play three shows in Iraq before their country started to disintegrate.
Religious fundamentalist groups called the band Satanic – going so far as to deliver death threats to them on many occasions. Death squads would torment them in the streets. As a result, the band could no longer find a venue in Baghdad where it was safe to perform. Eventually the band moved to Damascus, Syria in order to, with the help of the filmmakers, find a studio that was willing to record their demo.
A particularly moving scene in film comes when the band members ask to view the recorded footage prior to the filmmakers returning to the States. The quartet reveled in their success up until the film footage came upon the recorded scene of the band’s destroyed practice space. One gets a very good sense of how much righteous anger the band feels during this scene. But their anger would pay off in the long run. The film sparked the nation to lend a helping hand to Iraq’s first metal band, and when their visas were set to expire in Syria, they were moved to an undisclosed location in New Jersey, where eventually they would go on to meet their idols, the members of Metallica, as well as government granted refugee status, and an apartment provided by the International Rescue Committee. Companies like ESP, Peavey, Guitar Center, and Yamaha donated gear to the cause, and Acrassicuda’s first EP, Only The Dead See The End Of The War was released through Vice records on March 9, 2010. The first single is “Garden of Stones.”
Garden Of Stones “Recorded at Spin Studios in Long Island City, NY under the watchful eye of Nik Chinboukas, Alex Skolnick of Testament joined the band in the production process while Josh Wilbur (Lamb Of God, Hatebreed, System Of A Down) mixed the EP.”
Acrassicauda was fortunate to meet thrash metal legends, Testament backstage at a show in Turkey, where they formed a friendship with guitarist Alex Skolnick. Once the band made it to American shores, Skolnick mentored the guys and produced their debut EP, which was also engineered by Josh Wilbur (Lamb of God, Hatebreed, System of a Down). “Only The Dead See The End Of The War” is only four tracks, but the songs ooze with the angst and the struggle of their lives. The guitar work provided by Tony Aziz truly stands out, especially on “Garden of Stones.” The fourth, and heaviest song on the EP, a number entitled “The Unknown,” is perhaps the EP’s best for both its lyrical content and musical prowess. This band takes its craft seriously, and the circumstances they’ve had to overcome show in the end result.
Has the metal scene in the Middle East grown since the pioneering efforts of Acrassicauda? The oppressive nature of the Muslim religion would make you think that it hasn’t. But surprisingly, this isn’t the case. According to journalist Mark Levine, the metal scene has been in its infancy in the Middle East ever since the mid 1980s, inspired by bands like Black Sabbath, and Metallica introducing “power chords.” Blip.tv ran an article featuring a look at underground metal in the Middle East. They featured bands in Dubai, Jordan, and even Iran. The video speaks of the “Satanic metal drives” in the Middle East during the mid 90s, which resulted in fans and band members being imprisoned as a result of government legislations seeking to ban metal from their countries. So it would appear that heavy metal has overcome the religious oppressions of the Muslim world. Evidence of this can be found in bands like Oath to Vanquish and Nerve Cell, two examples of successful metal acts that have come out of the Middle East. Both bands feature the brutal riffs and blast beats that are associated with the genre, but still containing influences of the native music of their countries. Dubai has recently emerged as a refuge for metalheads, and was also the first Middle Eastern country to host a “metal fest” – where the fans can come together and congregated; something fans and musicians thought almost impossible in a society that had once forced the metal scene underground. According to Levine, “Metal has been the music of revolution, and of change. The best rock is a religious experience.”