Desert Demons - Part III
A look at African and Middle Eastern Metal
by: Quentin Kalis
Part III examines the scenes in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Jordan: Knights of Ammon

Like its neighbours, Jordan is a tiny country that has managed to give rise to a small number of bands. A story that is sadly becoming all too familiar is applying itself in Jordan in terms of state attitudes towards metal. Rabbath Ammon relates:

"Back in 1997, when metal was attracting attention, a group of policemen broke into our house at midnight, confiscated all the CDs, tapes and T-shirts we had. We were taken to a police station, where we spent approximately one month." It sounds arduous, but clearly wasn't enough to destroy their love for metal. "That is history; we always get up and continue our journey."

It seems that government repression has a role to play in inhibiting its spread and appeal, but do any other factors play a role? Rabbath Ammon suggests that there is an unfortunate tendency to copy major international acts such as Metallica and now Opeth.

"I am not saying there is not one good band, but there aren't any bands with something new. Even when bands record their own music, broadcast it on the net, make forums and show a great metal spirit, still in live shows they have to play covers? If they challenged this fucked up trend, then they might be able to achieve something. When the local scene supports your band and likes your songs, then you will know that others will listen."

Rabbath Ammon also cites a problem in finding a decent label that will assist in distribution. One label that seems poised to fill this void is the newly established Jordan River Entertainment, a division of Mute Records, who are committed to promoting Arabian metal. The label is still young, and so far only Oath to Vanquish's _Applied Schizophrenic Science_ (for Arab territories) and Ajdath's ferocious death metal onslaught _Triangle of Death_ have been released. While it is not surprising that Samer would cite Ajdath as one of the current major Jordanian bands, he also cites Bilocate, Tyrant Throne and Esodic, who have picked up the spiked gauntlets thrown down by X, Zahareth, Rapture in Hades, Scarecrow, Vinyl and Hebron and Hunted Cottage, whom he cites as the originators of the scene. All have since disbanded.

Ajdath's mastermind Omar Kilani has since relocated to Poland. After Rabbath Ammon's experience, I thought that perhaps Omar was facing persecution from authorities for performing death metal, but I was wrong and Omar quickly set me straight. "It was personal matter, I got engaged to my girlfriend, and since she was a student in the university in Poland, we decided to live in Poland. Later I met new musicians and reformed Ajdath."

On the whole, Jordanian metal and support structures such as zines, radio play and live shows appear to be limited, but kicking. "[A] rock / metal show on radio Jordan has been running since 1990 and is still going", states Samer. "Other stations play metal now and then -- commercial acts like Metallica and Nightwish. There are several webzines. The most professional one is jorzine.com; they feature local bands and fully support all Arabian metal." (Jorzine is indeed an excellent resource for Arabian metal, and the author recommends that those interested in the bands mentioned in this article visit the site.)

"Live shows happen on a monthly basis for local bands. We arranged an Opeth concert in 2003, but the band cancelled at the last moment."

On the whole, Samer is a lot more positive about the future of Jordanian metal than Rabbath Ammon. "[We have a] fresh, healthy and growing yet promising scene, with acts from different cities and different styles. Still, probably a couple of bands are signed, but I believe in the next upcoming years all these great fresh acts will get signed to labels."

Related review: Ajdath - _Triangle of Death_

Lebanon: Mot's Minions

Despite its many troubles, Lebanon appears to have the biggest scene in the Middle East outside of Israel. At least according to Elias, of Oath to Vanquish.

"The metal scene in Lebanon is small when compared to Western countries, and is underground in every sense of the word. It is however older and more developed than in neighbouring countries such as Syria and Jordan. There is a crowd for every type of metal you can think of, but I would say that thrash metal remains the general style of preference bringing together all these groups."

"Live performances are mostly limited to small pub venues, with a couple of open air festivals per year mostly involving local bands and some nascent or rising foreign bands. Many open air shows were scheduled to take place last summer, but were all cancelled due to the July war, and organisers have considered them a risk ever since."

It doesn't appear to be too hard to release metal in Lebanon, but there are other considerations. "Releasing metal music in Lebanon isn't hard, but needs money and advertisement and isn't easy for people like us, because we have to pay for everything", asserts ArCease.

Not that the Lebanese government is particularly keen on promoting metal. "They don't forbid metal, but neither do they encourage it; as long as you're away from them, you will be able to sleep home, not in jail." In other words, keep it low-key and don't draw too much attention to yourself.

This sentiment is backed up by The Arcane. "Metal has long been the black sheep of this area. We are often wrongly accused of Satanism and anti-social behaviour. Back in the '90s we could end up in jail for having a goatee, or a tattoo."

This was probably linked to a shooting incident. "In the early Nineties, a young boy aged fifteen shot himself in the throat on the school playground, during recess, in front of his fellow students, and spent a whole week in hospital in a coma before his family decided to lay him to rest", relates Elias. "His death was a major upset and marked the start of the police inquisition into metal, simply as his father -- a highly ranked army officer -- found some Savatage and Nirvana records in his room."

"The result was a tidal wave of arrests, confiscation of metal records and related merchandise, and a nationwide campaign on TV stations and in schools, heavily led by religious bodies and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Metal was branded as Satanic music and as a medium for drugs. Over the last two decades, this inquisition into metal has had calm periods with a minimal level of interference and torrid periods characterised by persecution, raids, arrests and trials. Metal is an easy prey for newly elected Internal Affairs ministers aiming to demonstrate their concern and goodwill to a gullible and misled population. Until this very day, extreme metal CDs are quite impossible to find in record shops, and any records arriving by mail will most certainly be confiscated. To acquire original material, we have to rely on relatives visiting from abroad."

More surprising is not the fact that they are being persecuted, but the manner in which they are being hounded, which is quite random and has no plan or direction. "The government has compiled a blacklist of bands haphazardly by questioning people and mostly by taking note of the names on metallers' T-shirts, which shows a real lack of objectivity and knowledge in this entire operation. Some musicians I know were forced to sign declarations that they have never and will never play music for Satan, not even if they were asked to do so by others."

"Back in the early '90s, when the scene was most vibrant, metal had great potential for growth; but due to the events and conditions described above, our scene remains a small underground movement."

But there have been problems this century as well. "In December 2003, we were locked in for three days of investigation with a bunch of friends and fans after we were stopped in the middle of our concert by secret agents wearing black masks with M-16s", states Anthony of Kaoteon.

This might explain a lack of metal media and venues. "[There] are some pubs that care about metal and do many gigs per month (seven to nine gigs)", state ArCease. "Metal magazines, radio stations and that kind of stuff unfortunately not."

When asked about why Lebanese bands are little known to the outside world, The Arcane cynically points out that "even when a lousy band comes from abroad, it gets more attention than an exceptionally good local band." This is not limited to Lebanon, of course, having seen American has-beens touring in South Africa receive more attention than local innovative and talented musos. "Very few bands around here "play" extreme music", states Balder, "and even most of them (not to say all of them) are cover bands, clowns and copycats of their favourites."

Anthony (Kaoteon) suggests that "the fucked up economical situation in Lebanon" could be a reason. "We can barely afford equipment and a practice room, not to mention recording expenses." Despite the apparent bitterness in this statement, he has a hope for the scene: "[A] few bands have been lucky with wealth, and others were well determined to record and release some great music in the last few years that makes us proud to be a part of this underground real metal scene."

Unlike their neighbours, there is a strong black metal presence in Lebanon. Apart from Kaoteon, there is also Veinen, Ayat, Kafan and Dammar, collectively outnumbering the black metal bands in neighbouring Jordan and Syria. Despite these impediments, Lebanon does have possibly the largest metal scene in the Arab world, and a wide variety of bands.

Related reviews:

ArCease - _A Chora for My Deceased Angel_
Oath to Vanquish - _Applied Schizophrenic Science_
Kaoteon - _Provenance of Hatred_

Syria: On the Road to Damascus

If the metal scenes in Lebanon and Jordan can be described as embryonic, then the Syrian scene is the equivalent of a ball of cells several days after conception. According to Skeeter (vocals, Slumpark Correctional), only four other bands have released anything recently, namely Abstentation, Nu.Clear Dawn, Olive and The Hourglass. All are either demos or independent albums. This is an extremely small number, even considering Syria's size.

Although Syria is not nearly as oppressive as Iran with regard to official attitudes towards metal, Skeeter claims that "[government authorities] make it really hard to get the go ahead and have a concert, and this inhibits the growth of metal." The Hourglass echo similar sentiments: "Any place that gathers more than one hundred metalheads will be under suspicion." Abstentation repeat the famous urban legend that "some think that we are Satanic, but we are not" -- but it does seem to be one that has a lot of currency in the region.

Speaking of devilish music, black metal is notably absent from the Syrian metal landscape. Abstentation perform death metal, Slumpark Correctional have switched from thrash to metalcore, the doomy Olive now perform "alternative" metal (whatever that may turn out to be), and The Hourglass and Nu.Clear Dawn perform traditional heavy metal.

The Hourglass, almost uniquely amongst all the bands featured in this series, have cited the language barrier as a problem to gaining a wider audience for metal. There is merit to this suggestion. I don't believe language is a major factor when it comes to appreciating death or black metal, where in most instances you need a lyric sheet to follow, but this is not necessarily true of heavy or power metal.

Skeeter also suggests that the low number of musicians is also a factor which prevents the emergence of more bands. "We do not have a lot of qualified instrument players and vocalists, which makes it hard to form a band and stick with it. Instruments as well are on a shortage, and the prices of pretty good guitars and drum kits are normally out of the range of the middle-to-low income, average Syrian metal fan. Even if we try our best, we are still hampered with the zero support we receive from anyone who's anything in the music industry in the Middle East."

Skeeter is still cautiously optimistic about Syrian metal: "I could say that the scene is improving, but it is doing so at a -really- slow speed."

Related reviews:

Olive - _Farewell: Doom_
Slumpark Correctional - _F.T.U.N._

(article submitted 24/7/2007)


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