When Lebanese black metal band Kaoteon came along ahead of the February 23 release of their second album, Damnatio Memoriae, with a story of religious intolerance, arrests, and eventual escape, it was easy to buy into the hype and believe we’d been handed the (un)holy grail of metal narratives. On one hand, said narratives can enrich the listening experience, offering a fascinating insight into the artist and situations which have fed the art. On the other, they’re often horseshit—sensationalism, sprinkled with fact. Fortunately for the sake of this story, Kaoteon weren't interested in playing into any existing "Middle Eastern metal" stereotypes.
“Let me put this straight, because there’s been a lot of controversy about this,” says Anthony, the band’s guitarist and founder. “Yes, we got arrested because of some stupid accusations. But it’s not like if you live in Lebanon and wear a metal T-shirt, you’re going to be prosecuted.”
That’ll be the 60 percent sensationalism, then. Formed in Beirut 1999, Kaoteon have indeed fought hard for everything they have—between arrests, accusations of devil-worship ,and police raids, they have overcome more adversity than most modern bands ever will. But it also bears worth remembering that the difficulties the band have faced echo throughout the history of extreme music. Arrests and police raids? Look no further than 80s hardcore. Accusations of devil-worship? Pick a decade, and you’ll find at least one moral panic. The list goes on, with the issues faced by Kaoteon far from being some kind of geographical anomaly. Despite the ostensible difficulties the band have faced there, speaking to Anthony and Kaoteon vocalist (and only other core member) Walid, aka ‘WolfLust’, the pair frequently refer back to their home scene with fondness.
“The Middle East has the same kind of thing as heavy metal did in the 80s,” explains Walid. “There is a thirst and hunger because you don’t get much out there. So when you do have a concert, people go crazy and give it their all. I like that—it’s honest. They’ve survived some of the worst stuff that can happen in this life, but have come out the other side still able to love music. That takes dedication.”
Not missing a beat, Anthony jumps straight in. “These bands—the effort they put in is tremendous,” he adds. “It’s not like in Europe, where bands can just jump in a van and play on weekends, easily go from one country to another. Here, you have to pay huge amounts just to get out of the country. Crescent, Kimaera, Nervecell… there are many bands that have got their names out there. I’d take this opportunity to tell them to keep doing that and support each other. With all the differences in the region, we can sometimes take it to the metal scene and it can feel like not every band is supporting one another. But if we were to come together, we could put on festivals—maybe even tour together. Big shout out to all of them, I hope they all get what they deserve.”
But what about what Kaoteon deserve? Currently separated by over 6,000 miles (Anthony lives in Dubai, Walid in Amsterdam), the pair openly admit that things are better, but still not quite conducive to being a full-time band. “We’re still not where we want to be for many reasons,” explains Anthony. “For instance, I hold a passport that won’t let me travel without a visa; I am put on restrictions and people will pre-judge me as an Arab from the Middle East. The problems are different, but it’s all the same. Before it was coming from my own countrymen, today it’s worse because it’s coming from supposedly civilized countries.”
Lyrically, Damnatio Memoriae shows decided evolution in the type of anger the band employ in 2018—simply put, this isn’t the band that declared ‘this is a fuck you to our neighbors’ on their 2011 debut. “The themes are still quite similar,” Walid says when asked about the change. “But the first album was written under very different circumstances, as we were both still living in Lebanon. I think you just talk about things that are relevant to where you come from and your surroundings at that point and we’re not in the same place, in every sense possible. We’re still heavily influenced by personal and social struggles, but it’s also a reflection of nationality and life in general; our views on politics and religion, asking ourselves what would be a better life in the world.”
This wider view is also reflected in the dramatic expansion of their sound. Death and black metal influences still feature heavily in the mix, but new elements have also begun to creep in which suggest exciting new sonic avenues. The title track introduces a sense of the epic thanks to its decidedly 80s heavy metal histrionics, while the proggy, intricate guitar-work of "A Breath" suggests whole new musical realms entirely.
“On the first album I wanted the riffs to be direct and in-your-face,” explains Anthony. “Even when I was playing melodies, in the background was blood, fire and death, because that’s our background; growing up there would be planes flying overhead, bombs and explosions. I was dead, but now I’m out of the coffin and facing the world with a better view.”
Rounding out the line-up for this record, the band drafted in guest musicians Linus Klausenitzer—bassist of German progressive death metal band Obscura— and drummer Fredrik Widigs of Marduk. This relationship was more than just session work, however, and Klausenitzer soon found himself flying out to Beirut to play a show with the band. “Anthony invited me to Lebanon, took me around and showed me the country,” he says. “In Europe, you’re always a little afraid for your security when in the Middle East, but that’s because you only ever hear the horror stories. I spoke to people and they were just rolling their eyes; they thought I was stupid!”
Kaoteon are doing their part to change the world’s preconceptions of The Middle East one riff at a time. Far from being self-serious or put upon, Walid and Anthony can’t resist poking fun at each other and making light of their situation. Both work intensive day jobs; Walid works for a cloud computing company (“he sells web-space to porn sites!” interjects Anthony, “It’s true—whatever you do at night, I probably know,” Walid laughs), while Anthony works in the beauty industry (“I like to believe I sell corpse-paint,” he says. “The ugly fact is I lead a twelve-hour desk job”), but for the pair this is just part of the reality of being a musician in 2018.
“We’re not in this to be gangsters,” Anthony says, shrugging off financial concerns for how they can logistically make things work going forward. “This isn’t gangster music; it’s music for the righteous."
Preorder Damnatio Memoriae here.
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