Extreme metal isn't something you usually associate with Tel Aviv—Israel's second-largest city, financial center, high-tech hub, and prime Mediterranean beach spot—but it's there, and similar to other unlikely metal communities, it's thriving. The city's metal scene—or really, Israel's metal scene, as the area claimed by the state of Israeli is about the size of New Jersey—is nothing new, and its most established bands, Salem and Orphaned Land, have been around for decades. Salem recorded their first demos in the mid-80s, and later garnered international attention with their 1994 release, Kaddish. Orphaned Land started in the early 90s and pioneered a style that fuses metal with Arabic and other Near-Eastern musics. Both bands are still at it, albeit with significant lineup changes. Now, newer Israeli bands are also getting noticed. The biggest of the current crop—although they aren't exactly new, they released their first EP in 2000—is the groove metal outfit, Betzefer.
But to really understand the scene, you need to see it up close. Walk west, toward the beach, from Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station for about 15 minutes and you end up at the Rebel Bar—ground zero for Israel's metal scene. "It's really the only rock and metal place in Tel Aviv," Sarah Liberstein, a promoter, DJ, and sometime bartender at the Rebel Bar, says. "A lot of us hang out there, meet each other, have some drinks, and listen to metal."
The scene is small—small enough to see many familiar faces at shows and onstage. "We see each other at shows, parties, and bars," Liberstein adds. "The Rebel Bar is a very key part of the scene. The important people of the scene go there and the bands go there after their shows and party there."
The downside of a scene that small—one where everyone seems to know each other—is that it's difficult for musicians to earn a living. Paying gigs are limited and most shows are in small, 200-person capacity clubs. (In Hebrew, these venues are called mo'adon, and are similar to the multipurpose DIY spaces popular in the American underground metal and punk scenes.) Most Israeli musicians—especially those playing a niche style like extreme heavy metal—have day jobs to pay the bills.
The most serious Israeli bands travel abroad. They sign with labels overseas, tour, and cultivate an audience in Europe and with luck, the U.S. "It's not really hard because the DIY scene in Europe is pretty big," Zafrir Tsori, the lead singer and guitarist in Dukatalon, says about booking gigs in Europe. "You can always book shows, but if you want to get bigger, you can't do it by yourself. You need a big label behind you or a booking agency."
What about politics? With the exception of Orphaned Land, whose raison d'êtreis politics—their universalist message is about building bridges between Israeli and Arab audiences—most Israeli bands are apolitical. Their lyrics are introspective and personal, with a focus is alienation and death. According to Tsori, the people he meets on the road are often more excited about the novelty of Israeli metal than in discussing the political situation there. "From my experience, nobody cares that we are from Israel," he says. "Quite the opposite, people are enthusiastic about it."
But working in Israel has benefits, too, and the scene's size fosters camaraderie. Established bands take younger bands under their wings, promote their shows, book them as opening acts, and sometimes share members as well, and that close-knit atmosphere also brings together fans of disparate extreme styles. "You see a lot of shows that are half punk/half noise or half grindcore/half metal," Tsori says. "As long as it is extreme, it's OK. The people here who like punk, they also like metal."
Israelis are often called "sabras." A sabra, or a prickly pear in English, is a thick, tough cactus fruit. It is thorny and difficult on the outside, but sweet on the inside. That's an apt metaphor for the Tel Aviv metal scene, too. The surface is brutal, and dark, but peel back the layers and it's a warm, supportive community. "We're a big happy family," Liberstein says. "We party together. We go away together. We take vacations together."
Tom Cohen (vocals and guitar) and Elad Meidan (guitar) started Mortuus Umbra in 2012, following the breakup of their previous band, Kaos 218. They released their first EP, Catechism, in 2015 via Totalrust Music and Forneus Records, settled into their current lineup, and began touring and gigging locally. Mortuus Umbra's take on extreme metal has layers; their music isn't just bombastic, heavy riffs, it's also atmospheric and moody.
The band is currently back in the studio working on their second EP. "Every release has its magic, as well as its significance for us," Cohen says. He's also positive about the state of Israeli's metal underground. "We've never felt that the underground combines well with the more commercial side or with the awful new trends that emerge now and then. The underground scene in Israel is very active and very united. Bands definitely perform together and legitimize each other."
Dukatalon started in 2006 and soon after signed with Relapse Records in 2010, who re-released the band's debut, Saved by Fear, in 2010. Zafrir Tsori, the band's lead singer and guitarist, says. "We've since recorded our second album and right now we're looking for another label—we are no longer with Relapse—but our main goal is to spread our band abroad. We don't want people to connect us to a particular area in the world, we're trying to be much more global."
Their sound is super heavy sludge, though according to Tsori, that sound is evolving. "The music that we're writing right now is not extreme, crazy metal anymore. It's much more progressed, accessible, and yet still very heavy."
Dim Aura started in 2010 and includes former members of Sitra-Achra, plus the vocalist, H. The band recently released a seven-inch, Negged, wherein you can hear their influences—which includes a load of Scandinavian black metal and older hardcore acts like GG Allin and the Exploited—on the EP's three tracks. Negged also includes an interesting cover of the Sisters of Mercy's "Marian."
The band is currently in the studio, working on a full-length release. "Our main focus these days is our new album," Ferum adds. "We also have some upcoming gigs planned [including] a gig in Haifa with Lehavoth."
Although the black metal outfit Lehavoth started back in 1995, they were forced to put their plans on hold for three years due to Israel's compulsory military service. They regrouped in 2000, released their debut, Hatred Shaped Man, in 2003, but went on hiatus two years later. Lehavoth regrouped again in 2014, released a four-song EP, Grinder, at the end of last year, but their sound has evolved. The pace is just as intense, but they've incorporated electronics and samples—including complex rhythmic figures and a impossible-to-actually-play bass drum parts.
Shiver, based in Haifa, formed in 2012 and settled into their current lineup a few years later—although that's since changed with the release of their first full-length, When Everything Fails, in September, 2016. They're heavy, as one would expect, although they also explore tight technical breaks and occasional math-like rhythms. They do the djent-style, 8-string guitar thing, too, which adds an extra layer to their bottom end and distinguishes them from most of the other bands in the local scene. "Our main influences are Gojira, Textures, and Meshuggah," Or Grinberg, Shiver's lead vocalist, says about their obvious influences. They're looking to hit the road soon, too. "Our goal is to start touring Europe this year and to continue writing our next album."
The thrash/groove metal unit, Shredhead, formed in 2009, toured locally, and released their debut, Human Nature, in 2011. The next year they won the Israeli Metal Battle, which landed them a spot representing Israel at the Wacken Festival in Germany. Death Is Righteous, the follow up to Human Nature, came out in 2015. It's thrash, although it showcases the band's more anthemic, melodic side. It's also helped them garner an international following and opening slots for bands like Overkill and Vader.
Shredhead is the least extreme of the bands featured here, but they are still an integral part of the scene. They headline locally, and recent opening acts have included Lehavoth and Dukatalon.
Sonne Adam started in 2007 in Tel Aviv. Their 2011 release, Transformation, received a lot of international press and attention, eventually landing them a deal with metal industry behemoths Century Media Records. Transformation is not for the uninitiated. Their sound is built around deep, detuned guitars—the strings sound loose enough to feel slack on the neck—and a thick, heavy, plodding chunk. They also favor breathy, atmospheric textures—like subtle reverb—which gives their music its haunting quality. Check out "We Who Worship the Black" from Transformation for a good taste of their menacing, dark metal of death.
Tzvi Gluckin is shredding on Twitter.
Cover photo of Dukatalon by Avihai Levi