In 2013, despite widespread unrest, political turmoil, civil wars, and ongoing Western meddling in sovereign affairs, the Middle East hosts a thriving metal scene. The underground swarms with bands. There have been metal festivals in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. The Iraqi band Acrassicauda were the subject of a 2007 documentary, Heavy Metal in Baghdad. Israel’s Orphaned Land are among the most famous metal acts in the region. But if you dig deeper almost anywhere in the Middle East, you’ll unearth a howling collection of bands, representing every style and subgenre, who are seriously devoted to their music and determined to be heard throughout the world. This holds especially true in the tiny Kingdom of Bahrain, a tiny and relatively cosmopolitan island nation in the Khaleej Al Arabi (the Arabian Gulf, aka Persian Gulf), where Smouldering in Forgotten and Narjahanam have been leading the charge for Mideast metal since 2004.
Since I presume that the average American/Westerner knows almost nothing about Bahrain, some background would be relevant. A nation of 1.2 million people, roughly half of whom are foreigners, Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 islands (the largest being 34 miles long by 11 miles wide). It hosts the annual Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix and is home to a major US naval installation with over 6,000 active personnel. There’s desert and the Gulf and the seemingly ubiquitous oil, precious oil. Only 2.9% of Bahrain’s land is arable, so the country must import most of its food. But there’s much more than just sand and oil and military. Bahrain is not Western, but Westernized, more secular than some of its neighbors, which means it has Western problems: the fifth-highest rate of diabetes in the world, serious water shortage issues, and the aforementioned reliance on food imports, to name a few. Bahrain’s government has been cited by human rights organizations as having a “dismal” record on abuse and torture. But it also has one of the fastest-growing financial sectors in the world. It was named “Arab Capital of Culture” for 2012 by the Arab League. It is a stronghold for Arab literature and arts and is one of the most tolerant, relaxed societies in the region. The archipelago has been conquered and colonized many times since antiquity, by many different cultures, making Bahrain a nation at a crossroads—ancient and modern, geographic and geopolitical, Western and Eastern.
Thus the clash and contradiction at the heart of Bahraini culture. The melting pot population and influences from outside make it the perfect environment for heavy metal to grow and thrive. Not that this is easy, given the clash of cultural tradition and Western secularism. An analogy: a new restaurant opens in an odd location in some American Midwest college town. The restaurant serves exotic foreign food. To the locals, it seems very strange, even bizarre. Success, much less survival, is not guaranteed. The slightest hardship or bad dining experience could doom the venture. To make it, the restaurant requires a customer base—college students and young people—willing to give the strange foreign cuisine a chance. Eventually the locals can be won over, too. Diversity is born. That’s what I find interesting about Bahrain’s metal bands, how they’re struggling to succeed despite widespread indifference and rejection in their own country.
After writing about Arabian black metallers Al-Namrood, I wanted to explore how metal was growing and thriving in other Mideast cultures. I went directly to the source and contacted Busac, drummer for Smouldering in Forgotten. We corresponded at length about his two bands, the challenges of playing metal in a culture that may not readily accept it, and the state of the metal scene in Bahrain and the middle east in general. He’s a pretty straightforward guy who tells it like it is, a trait common to people from his part of the world and perfect for an up-and-coming metal act.
Narjahanam and Smouldering in Forgotten, while musically distinct from each other, share a few common members. The former was founded in 2004 by Mardus (later joined by Busac), the idea for the project being to compose something like death metal but that also draws from traditional Arabian musical influences. Late in 2005, Mardus and Busac recruited other musicians to form Smouldering in Forgotten, a traditional (in the metal sense) extreme outfit, blending death and thrash styles into something more familiar to a majority of metal fans. This five-member group has performed locally and in the United Arab Emirates with Nervecell, Obscura, and Melechesh, and has been approached by organizers in the US about possible tours there.
Smouldering In Forgotten cites many of the same influences as up-and-coming bands in the West, drawing inspiration from Marduk, Behemoth, Vader, Slayer, Testament, and Motörhead, among others. They have easy access to this music, as well as instruments and gear—unlike in neighboring Saudi Arabia, where the theocracy has no tolerance for metal or musical instruments. The musical style and lyrical themes have a familiarity to them that us Westerners hear almost instantly. Ancient gods and myths of Babylon, for example, inform the lyrical themes, much the same way Western metal bands resurrect slumbering pagan gods. Of course, producing records is only part of the dream. Smouldering In Forgotten writes music to perform live. As I mentioned, they have played with bands like Melechesh and Obscura. But most shows tend to be small, given the widespread indifference in Bahrain. They organize shows at venues in Manama. The scene draws a healthy number of local fans, fans from surrounding countries, and foreigners. All the same, “We won’t get hired to play gigs anytime soon,” Busac said. “We have to do it all by ourselves, at a loss most of the time. We do it for the love of it.” That could be the story of any metal band trying to claw its way into the spotlight. Yet despite the difficulties—or perhaps because of them—the band’s devotion to their music and their sound is clear. I can picture these dudes in any venue, tearing it up for legions of new fans, as they do below (from the DVD Resurrection: Bahrain Underground, Vol. 1):
Narjahanam, on the other hand, was never meant to be a performing band. Think of the “One-Man Metal” phenomenon, of individuals like Xasthur or Fyrnask. Narjahanam, with only two members, bears an uncanny similarity to the “black metal loner” aesthetic, in terms of sound and imagery. Though not always as fast-paced as traditional black metal, and structured not quite like death metal, there’s no less energy or fury than you find in the latter genres. What makes a band like Narjahanam unique is the way it draws from its cultural roots. Underpinning the metal sound are Arabian melodies and signature percussion styles. Busac explained how traditional sources, such as the music from A Thousand and One Nights and the soundtrack from Al Risala (The Message), plus readings on ancient Andalusian and Babylonian history, influence the band’s lyrics and style. Still, Narjahanam shares much common ground with Western metal. The name, translated from the Arabic, means “the fires of hell” (the word “Jahanam” being one of the many names given to what the West knows as hell, according to Busac). The album title Undama Tath'hur Al Shams Mn Al Gharb translates as “When the Sun Rises From the West,” which in the Muslim faith signals the end times. Seems that metalheads the world over do indeed speak the same language. Hell, the apocalypse, dead gods—universal themes tie together very different cultures with the common language of metal.
THE STATE OF METAL IN BAHRAIN
According to Busac, and despite what I’ve heard in the media, Bahrain has seen very little social upheaval. Compared to the dangers faced by metal musicians in neighboring Saudi Arabia, the greatest risks to metalheads in Bahrain are rather banal. For example, wearing an indecent t-shirt may prompt the police to escort a fan from a venue. But few authorities seem to care that metal is being written and performed in the country. There are instrument shops, music stores, recording studios, even dedicated metal bars such as Diggers and Rocky’s Cafe. Bands are free to organize and perform at events, but many venues are still reluctant to host metal shows. This may have as much to do with money as it does with the genre’s reputation. Busac said that rap, hip-hop, and techno get far more play at shows than metal, and I don’t doubt him. As far as recording and rehearsing, the biggest problem he’s encountered is scheduling five bandmates who all work full-time on different shifts, problems familiar to any band whose members work real jobs to put food on the table. To ease the conflicts, Busac and his bandmates are heavily invested in a home studio, recording gear, and software.
In a country as small as Bahrain, already physically distant from the major metal-consuming audiences, a developing local scene can take you only so far. This would have been problematic in the old days, before that newfangled thing called the internet. Self-promotion is simple. Reliance on major labels, obsolete. Musicians can reach ears on the other side of the world with minimum investment. Much of Narjahanam and Smouldering in Forgotten’s exposure has come via sites such as Metal Messiah Radio and Mideast Tunes, a Bahrain-based platform dedicated to all forms of music with cultural connections to the middle east, not to mention YouTube.
And it’s a scene that’s growing, pushing against traditional barriers, expanding into awareness, becoming a beast unto itself. It was inevitable, considering the events that have transpired over the past few years in the region, but it’s nothing new. Metal as a genre embodies the ideas of revolution, uprising, and rebellion. As an art form it questions entrenched, inflexible institutions of power and rejects their decrepit traditions. The paradox, as anyone familiar with metal and its fans would understand, is that metal nonetheless embraces power and tradition, the former in its direct appeal, and the latter in the way it refuses to let go.
Narjahanam’s forthcoming album, Wa Ma Khufiya Kana A’atham, is scheduled for release in late December from Haarbn Productions.
Undama Tath'hur Al Shams Mn Al Gharb. 2007, Haarbn Productions.
Wa Ma Khufiya Kana A’atham. December 2013, Haarbn Productions.
Smouldering In Forgotten
Legions Into Black Flames. 2007, Old Cemetery Records.
I, Devourer. 2010, Independent Release.