Black metal bands have never been keen on religion. However, in parts of the world where religion can actually be oppressive, bands inspired by Bathory and Mayhem and Burzum are few and far between.
That's presumably because it's a lot easier to be in an anti-Christian metal band in the US, than in an anti-Islamic metal band in Saudi Arabia. In America, your obstacles extend to overhearing your mom tell a friend you're just "going through a phase." In Saudi Arabia, you face social ostracism and the possibility of imprisonment or death.
With that in mind, you've got to give it to Saudi Arabia's only black metal band, Al-Namrood, whose lyrics include all sorts of things that could get them executed. I got in touch with guitarist and bassist Mephisto for a chat.
The artwork for "Ana Al Tughian"
VICE: How did Al-Namrood first come into being and what's the meaning behind your name?
Mephisto: Three men decided to put their aggression into music, specifically black metal. Needless to say, the concepts that are involved in black metal describe what we are experiencing. The band started with the creative idea of combining the Arabic scale with black metal and Arabic lyrics. The main goal was to create something catchy and harsh that fulfils the needs of extreme metal.
Al-Namrood is the Arabic name of the Babylonian king Nimrod, who was a mighty tyrannical king who ruled Babylon with blood and defied the ruler of the universe, according to the tenets of monotheistic religions. We find the title of Al-Namrood to perfectly fit the message of the band. [Literally, Al-Namrood translates to "non-believer."]
What's the motivation for adopting such a vehemently anti-religious stance in such a staunchly Islamic country?
We're fed up with religion. The fact is that everything that is connected to it makes us nauseous. I personally spoke to a shrink. He advised me that whenever I get inflamed I have to express [what I'm feeling]. So here we are, expressing. What can be more motivating than living in a place where everything is controlled by religion? Basically, individuals here have no rights to do anything. We're owned by the Islamic sharia. Everything we do must be justified by Islam and acknowledged by society. There are two outrageous powers: religion and our society. They both interact and fulfil each other.
Related: True Norwegian Black Metal
In what way?
While there's a lot of hypocrisy, it has been demonstrated that the local people are very much in agreement with the Islamic system. For example, in Islam, music is generally forbidden, but Muslim people listen to it on the basis that "God forgives." But when it comes to freedom of choice, "God never forgives." Everything is chosen for an individual from birth until death. A child is born and raised to become Muslim and never given a choice to look at other religions. Education is highly biased and focused upon the Islamic world. There is no chance of considering multiple points of views. The only view that can be adopted is the view of the acknowledged tradition and approved religious practice. Freedom of expression is a crime, justified by the fact that "it can disturb the peace." Even in marriage you cannot choose your partner. Rather, the elders choose for you. This social approach mixed with religious control is normally practiced in our country with no objection.
The music video for "Bat Al Tha ar Nar Muheja"
How did you first become interested in metal? I can't imagine black metal CDs are particularly easy to get hold of in Saudi Arabia.
It happened gradually, of course. When we were exposed to metal, we started basic, then we elevated to the extreme. We liked the concept of black metal, as it describes the irrationality of religion. Of course, this context exists in other genres, like death metal, but we lent more towards black metal because it has many elements of punk metal, which has awesome music and concepts. We purchased CDs from neighboring countries and smuggled them in discreetly. We educated ourselves about the outside world by also purchasing smuggled books, thanks to some amazing crazy friends, and then the internet came to extend our knowledge massively.
I've read that you never use your real names and never have your photos published, and that even your families don't know that you make metal. Going to such lengths to remain anonymous must be quite a strain.
Not at all. We've been doing this from childhood. I mean, we've had a different perspective than the rest of our society from an early age, and we've learned that sharing these views is not feasible for us. Some of us tried hard to fit in and share our thoughts, but ended up serving time in jail, so the lifestyle of being mentally isolated from the surrounding environment started from an early age. When it came to our musical approach, we just applied the same methodology of coping.
Related: Heavy Metal in Baghdad
Why do you think that, in spite of the fact that metal bands frequently incorporate an anti-religious sentiment into their lyrics, there have been so few bands that have said anything negative about Islam?
Simply because they haven't experienced it. Christianity nowadays is passive. The church doesn't control the country. I think whatever rage that people have got against the church cannot be compared with Islamic regimes. You can criticize the church under freedom of speech in European countries, but you can't do that in Middle Eastern countries. The system doesn't allow it. Islam has inflicted more authority on the Middle East than any other place in the world. Every policy has to be aligned with sharia law, and this is happening right now in 2015. We know that, 400 years ago, brutality occurred in the name of the church, but the same is happening right now in this age with Islam.
What kind of obstacles do you encounter when it comes to recording your music?
The obstacles are greater than colossal—it's like living in a cave and demanding electricity. In radical Islamic countries, this music is considered to be a crime by Islamic law. We are living our lives in isolation. Basically, our identity is hidden and our musical interests are kept top secret. It's risky, and the risk gets bigger if we want to publicize our band. However, the obstacles do not stop at social aspects. Also, the lack of availability of decent musical equipment is an issue, and getting the musical equipment into the country can be a problem.
Have you ever played a live show, or is that straight up impossible?
It's impossible, because it's illegal. We can be sentenced to death if we do them.
Your lyrics focus heavily upon the demons and jinn of pre-Islamic Arabia. What's the inspiration for this?
We were taught in school that Arabs were living in utter darkness before Islam came to illuminate the people, but we find history more interesting than the post-Islamic world. We also like some Arabian tales from the Middle Ages, like One Thousand and One Nights.
You mentioned that you made a conscious decision to incorporate regional instruments into your songs. Can you tell me about that?
Yes. When we compose a song we can sense that a particular part can use Arabic instruments, such as an oud or a qanoon. The tricky part is figuring out how to combine the quarter tone with guitar tuning. Once this part is done, the rest just comes along. We are not experts in music production. We just make music that is pleasing to our ears. Some parts just come naturally, and some parts require revising and editing.
Do you ever see a day when Saudi Arabia will have a fully-fledged black metal scene?
Judging by the direction that the country is heading in, I would say not in a thousand years.
More stories about metal: