Myanmar is a country that in many ways is just now introducing itself to the world. Since the general election of 2015 (the nation's first openly-contested election since the military junta annulled the campaign of 1990 and placed winner Aung San Suu Kyi under long-term house arrest), Myanmar has begun opening itself up to democracy, broad international investment, freedom of expression, and cross-border cultural collaborations.
On the flip side, it's also found itself condemned for Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Aung San Suu Kyi's lack of action on what is largely being reported as an extermination program aimed at the stateless, predominantly Muslim Rohingya people. Those who have escaped the genocidal purge are now living across the border, temporarily settled in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh with no resolution—or salvation—in sight.
Of course, Myanmar has always had its subcultures, and like anywhere in the world, it's the underground that raises its voice loudest when things go horribly wrong. In a place where speaking out can still land an artist or an activist in trouble, the original anti-authoritarian spirit of punk is still going strong. The Yangon punks (some of whom founded bands around the time of the 2007 Saffron Revolution that helped return democracy to the former British colony), are now world famous thanks to documentaries such as My Buddha is Punk.
One of the film's stars, Rebel Riot singer/guitarist Kyaw Thu Win—better known as Kyaw Kyaw—is now a controversial figure in the Yangon punk scene thanks to a published photo of himself dressed in a Buddhist robe, and the fact that he tries to meld punk culture with the ways of the Buddha. The photo made him reviled among Buddhist extremists. Now, in a classic case of “damned if you do, damned if you don't,” due to his public apology over the photo, factions within the punk community hate him too.
Still, no matter what might be happening with internecine scene drama, it's punk rockers like Kyaw Kyaw, along with Darko C. of the punk-adjacent Side Effect who are some of the few willing to speak out against the military action taken against the Rohingya.
The Burmese hip-hop scene, which dates back to the late 80s and was once the mortal enemy of the punks, is also booming. Some, like Jonathan—a local self-professed rapper/engineering student hanging out in Yangon's Maha Bandula Park on a typically sweltering Saturday—say punks and rappers still fight on sight in the city. "They are very dirty, very rude,” he says of the city's leather and spike-clad punks, some of whom seem to be in it more for the fashion than the music and falter when quizzed on song titles of the bands whose patches they sport on the back of their jackets. “When we meet each other, we fight," Jonathan says.
I'm not in Yangon to talk about punk or hip-hop, though. I'm here to learn about its metal scene. When I meet up with Aung Kya Zin, vocalist of brutal death metal band Senanga Privuta (the only band of the genre in the country, he says), he has a different take on brawling punks and rappers. The fights have migrated from the streets to social media, thanks to improved internet access in the country.
"Now they just fight online," he says.
Aung is part of what might be one of the most nascent metal scenes on the planet, one which he says is somewhere in the neighbourhood of just under a decade old. Unlike the punks and the rappers, the Yangon metal heads haven't yet had the time for familiarity to breed full-scale contempt, though disagreements are bound to flare from time to time. For the most par, everyone's too busy searching for people who know that Metallica isn't a fashion brand.
There are still only a couple of venues in Yangon to hold gigs, one of which being the punk and metal head hangout Pirate Bar on 47th Street, while outside Yangon, metal doesn't really exist yet. However, at least one traveling festival, Voice of Youth, put on by international non-profit Turning Tables (with Darko C. serving as Country Coordinator), is trying to change that, with a mandate to give punks, rappers, electronic artists, and metal heads equal billing on a stage from which they can at long last say whatever the fuck they want.
Outside Myanmar, Burmese metal is still something of an unknown quantity. I sat down with Aung and guitarist Yel Myat Bhome of raw black metal band Jeksetra over a meal of BBQ skewers and fried crickets on 19th Street in Chinatown, where they gave me a crash course in the Yangon metal scene—starting with their own bands.
There's a style of death metal that owes a heavy debt to American bands like Disgorge and Gorgasm—not highly technical but instead focused on that repetitive brutal chug. Senanga Privuta and a host of other bands from around the broad Southeast Asia region have locked onto this sound and replicated it to perfection.
What is it about this part of the world that lends itself so well to the promulgation of brutal death metal? The incessant heat and humidity? Political climates rife with oppression and the ever present threat of state sanctioned violence? Natural disasters—typhoons, volcanic eruptions, floods, tsunamis—that could, and do, rear up at any moment? Any and all of these call for art that reflects the unforgiving and unrepentant nature of life—the fact that we are all insignificant specks flitting across an astral timeline, hurling headlong into oblivion. Senanga Privuta have found the sound of that inevitable doom, and are among the first wave of bands sewing its seeds in the fertile soil of their homeland. Putting a local cultural spin on an old genre, the band's lyrical themes focus on the Pretas, beings in Buddhist mythology who must suffer intensely for their past misdeeds.
Black metal surfacing beyond the frozen confines of the far north is nothing new, but within sweltering, conservative Myanmar, it's about as pioneering as it gets. Yangon black metal band Jekstra have a raw, primitive take on Scandinavia's prime musical export, with their sound, members say, currently shifting more towards the depressive end of the blackened spectrum. Currently, Jeksetra' core membership are looking to round out the lineup—no easy task in a scene where metalcore rules, and black metal is, as it was in its earliest days, looked upon as a dark oddity best left to the brooding, insular outsiders.
Last Days of Beethoven
In a country where metalcore reigns supreme, Last Days of Beethoven have made their mark on the genre that, outside the borders of their country, has long grown stagnant. Taking influences from the deathcore side of the -core movement in metal, LDOB have become one of the most popular acts in the Yangon scene, racking up a Myanmar Music Award for Best Metal Song in 2014, and playing to impassioned crowds at Voice of Youth at last year's edition and in 2017.
At times the band's music flirts with technical time signature shifts and rapid-fire djent accents, but unlike in some nascent scenes where bands are still figuring out how to meld disparate styles, these guys seem to put it all together in a way that comes off naturally. If the country ever were to have its breakout band, Last Days of Beethoven could be it.
Taking a more straightforward approach to metalcore than their compatriots in Last Days of Beethoven, Nightmare go for a melding of the heavy and the accessible. Clean vocals, then the growls. Clear tone before the distorted one. You know the drill. A track dating back to 2014, “Phyit Pyat Khae The," sounds like a soft homage to Killswitch Engage. Other material, like "Parasite," however, skips the saccharine altogether, going for something decidedly more brutal. For Myanmar scene kids, it's all about the breakdown anyway; so as long as there's space for karate kicks and floor punching, it's all good.
Blood of Century
Another member of the Myanmar metalcore cartel, Blood of Century go the route of early-aughts American purveyors like All That Remains or Shadows Falls, with little bit of pretension toward the technical tweaks of Between the Buried and Me. The four piece has a three-song EP up on YouTube, and in mid-2017 began the months-long task of tracking for a full length release at a studio in Yangon, laying down bass, guitar, drums and vocals in between festival and club gigs. If crowd size and response is any indication of success, live videos of the band to date seem to indicate Blood of Century are a fan favourite at home, playing everywhere from the darkened interiors of cramped dives to the underside of freeway flyovers.
Maze of Mara
Synth-driven metalcore in the vein of Lacuna Coil and The Agonist, Maze of Mara build on an accessible hard rock base to mimic a sound that sees their European counterparts flirt with chart success. Songs like “Stay Strong Beautiful” remind of the acoustic-led ballads of Avenged Sevenfold, and leave the growls out altogether, showing the band's radio-friendly side. Singer Zee exhibits a solid range and a flare for style, and she cuts a commanding figure on stages large and small.
With all that metalcore floating around Yangon, there was bound to be some blowback, and it came to the slamming brutal sounds of Self Butchered. Guided by producer/band manager Eric Lin (one of the OGs of the burgeoning Yangon death metal scene), this primitive slam crew embraces the pig squeals and bass-heavy drum programming of Asian counterparts like Gorepot and Myocardial Infarction set to variations on Devourment's scene-spawning earworm, “Babykiller.” Self Butchered aren't out to do anything innovative, and that's OK: sometimes, all a metalhead wants is a healthy dose of slam. Like many of Myanmar's metal bands, Self Butchered is holding it down solo for their chosen style.
Joe Henley is still at large on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.