by: Chris Rigney, KUCI Loud Rock Director
Although the growing negative publicity and public outrage expressed in the global media over conditions in the Middle East have painted a bleak image of both socially and politically oppressed masses in that region of the world, it has also helped shed light on the positive struggles undertaken on a daily basis to establish the basic, creative freedoms that we so often take for granted as citizens of the United States. In particular, something as simple as the freedom to write, perform, and record music with expression outside the confines of cultural conformity, is a massive undertaking, especially for heavy metal musicians. Even in the United States, heavy metal as a musical genre has been met with criticism, disdain, and even fear, since its American and British roots in the 1970s and ë80s. For those in the Middle East, especially citizens of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, metal bands have had even greater hurdles to overcome in order to express themselves at a local level let alone on the international scene. Two such bands, Acrassicauda and Breeze of the Dying, are the subjects of this article and have made leaps and bounds to reach out to the music community and spread awareness of the turmoil of metal musicians in their home countries.
The Iraqi thrash metal band Acrassicauda (Latin for the native black scorpion) is often heralded in recent times as one of the biggest success stories in the genre. They are frequently referenced as the first heavy metal band to surface out of Iraq, and they were featured in the 2007 critically-acclaimed heavy metal documentary titled, ìHeavy Metal in Baghdad.î The band was formed in 2001 and currently consists of four members. Vice Magazine ran a feature on the band in 2004 shortly after the United States began its invasion of Iraq, and the article helped the band to start gaining an international following.
After Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2004, Acrassicauda performed to a sell out crowd for the first time in the Al-Fanar Hotel, under strict security in Baghdad. Although the band began to see newfound recognition and success in a growing international fanbase, death threats from Iraqi nationalists continued to provide problems for the band, including the destruction of all of their equipment and studio space in the course of a bombing. Financial assistance from Vice Magazine, along with donations from fans worldwide, assisted Acrassicauda in fleeing to Syria, Turkey, and ultimately landing in the United States in 2009 as refugees. Shortly after their arrival, the band was invited backstage to a Metallica concert, where vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield presented the band with one of his guitars signed, ìWelcome to America.î Since then, guitarist Alex Skolnick of the thrash band Testament teamed up once again with Vice Magazine to help Acrassicauda release their first four song EP in 2010 titled Only the Dead See the End of the War. This EP is currently available for airplay in the KUCI library.
Although MTV has become increasingly suspect over the years as a media outlet, its original series MTV True Life struck a chord not long ago with heavy metal fans in the recent show titled MTV True Life: Resist the Power! Saudi Arabia. This episode emphasized different struggles of youth in Saudi Arabia to change the political and social mindset. One segment of this episode focused on the death metal band Breeze of the Dying (BOTD), who are from Jeddah, and the hardships the band has encountered as it tries to find the freedom for musical expression in an environment where heavy metal is shunned due to religious pressures within the government.
One of the biggest obstacles for BOTD was to find a single venue in Saudi Arabia where they will be welcomed and endorsed as a legitimate band. In the course of the MTV episode, the band was unable to find a single venue that would support their cause. The primary reason was that government officials labeled heavy metal concerts as devil worship and would shut down venues that supported the music. BOTD even went so far as to enter a music contest outside the Saudi Arabia border, but the concert was terminated because government officials of the host country there noticed band t-shirts worn by the crowd that referenced the word ìGod.î Nevertheless, things have finally begun to look up for the band. As of spring of 2010, BOTD was looking to release an album to the United States among other countries. Their feature on MTV has garnered them much deserved publicity and media attention worldwide.
Both Acrassicauda and BOTD have chosen heavy metal as their outlet for extreme music under extreme conditions. Although their stories are a testament to the tenacity and brotherhood of the heavy metal community specifically, hopefully they will remain inspirational to any musician of any genre facing monumental challenges and hurdles to achieving their goals. The hardships encountered in the Middle East will persist as some of the most extreme for protagonists of heavy metal, but these bands have shown that determination and fellowship can break even the strongest bonds.
* As explained in their brief epilogue on the MTV show True Life, Breeze of the Dying have since changed their name to The Sylla Empire after being convinced that their name was cursed due to their lack of success in booking venues and performing live in Saudi Arabia.