Turkey's Death Metal Scene Thrives Despite Government Repression
With an authoritarian strongman in office and music venues scarce, brutal bands like Engulfed and Hellsodomy are still keeping the faith in Ankara and Istanbul.
Photo courtesy of Asli Ece Kahraman Photography
It's never been easy to be a metalhead in Turkey, where they're forced to exist under the ominous glare of a conservative culture and a state riddled with authoritarian tendencies. A lack of venues has plagued the country's DIY music scenes even in its biggest cities, and the few that do open their doors to metal music often have terrible sound systems. But these setbacks haven't stopped a vibrant underground metal scene from flourishing in Turkey, where a handful of active groups are playing killer black and death metal.
Turkey is firmly under the control of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose AK Parti party has led the country for a decade and a half, dominating the political arena; they've become known for their violent repression of the country's Kurdish population, and lack of hesitation to jail dissidents on the flimsiest of charges (including actual elected members of parliament). Now, a critical election is approaching, one that Erdoğan called over a year early. If elected again, he will preside over a newly-installed presidential system designed to grant him even more power, and the suffocating chokehold he has over the country will remain for years to come. Add all that to a Turkish lira that has been plummeting rapidly this year, and you get an atmosphere that feels mildly apocalyptic—something that has bled into its underground metal scene.
Despite its authoritarian government, Turkey is no Turkmenistan or North Korea, and there is still just enough freedom and space for underground scenes to thrive. The vitality of the underground metal scene was no more evident than at a recent festival in Ankara that brought 14 bands to the stage over the course of two days. Hundreds of metalheads came out, many traveling from cultural capital Istanbul. Showcased were among some of the country's best active metal units, who delivered passionate and thunderous performances in a basement rock bar where the stage was buttressed with a row of barrels that seemed to encourage stage-diving and crowd surfing. Not every band featured below appeared at the festival that weekend, but all are among the most important and exciting of their kind active today.
Though opportunities to play are indeed few and far between, this hasn't thwarted Turkey's underground metal groups from cultivating a rich scene. They rage on.
Perhaps the most brutal performance of the weekend came from Engulfed, an Istanbul death metal quartet that formed in 2010. Hot off 2017's debut LP, Engulfed in Obscurity, the band ripped through an airtight set and sounded like a pack of speed-addled rhinos pounding down a dusty road. Vocalist/bassist Serkan elaborately described the band's sound as, “the noise you hear while being dragged inside a dark tunnel, when everything positive in the universe is annihilated within eternal darkness, while taking pleasure in suffering and when everything sacred is being mercilessly destroyed.”
The band's usually frenetic pace is punctuated by slow, grim breakdowns laced with demonically appealing leads. Serkan cites visa problems as being one of the major inhibitors of the scene, preventing Turkish band from showcasing their sound abroad (Turks have to apply for Schengen visas to visit Europe; the application fees are expensive and arbitrary rejections are common.) Nevertheless, he appreciates the close-knit ties that bind the scene together and keep them motivated. “The numbers are small, but we have a metal scene composed of friends that are totally connected and look out for one another,” Serkan says.
Another powerfully talented Istanbul death metal outdit, Diabolizer, shares two members with Engulfed but opts to take more of a gratuitous, exuberant approach that doesn't lack in brutality. Their most recent effort is 2016's bruiser Apokalypse EP. Defiant, cackling melodic guitar parts dance effortlessly around a bottomless pit of doom. Headbangers in Ankara and Istanbul have been fortunate enough to catch the dazzling Diabolizer on stage at recent shows this year.
Perhaps the most eagerly-awaited band of the festival was Burial Invocation, which was formed in 2008 with roots in both Istanbul and Ankara. The four-piece's hotly anticipated debut full-length, Abiogenesis, is slated to come out later this year and blends savage vocals with manic drum work and impressive guitar trickery slathered in alternating dollops of brutality and melodic brilliance. European metalheads will be fortunate to catch the band across a number of countries on their tour of the continent in September and October of this year. “In my opinion, being a metalhead in Turkey is great; there are a number of great albums that will be released soon and some fantastic shows coming up,” says guitarist Cihan. “There are both new and old bands, the attendance at shows is good, and they are more soulful and fun than the underground shows I've seen in Europe."
Laying down a raw, sharp blend of death metal that blends power and precision, Hellsodomy (which also shares members with Engulfed and toured Europe together last year) is yet another mainstay of Turkey's underground metal scene. Their 2016 eight-song full length, Chaostorm, is a barrage of throat-shredding vocals, skull-pounding drums, and razor-sharp solos. “There has been an increase in the attendance of shows, at every show there are people we haven't seen before. Though in a city of 15 million, the number of people coming out to a show is around 150. In a country with 81 provinces, we can only play in five,” guitarist Yunus says. On the positive side, “we've created this fantastic world within our own realm and are working to take things to the next level."
Described by vocalist Çağatay as “twisted, malignant metal” that will appeal to fans of black, death and thrash metal, Persecutory formed in Istanbul in 2014. After a year and a half hiatus, they roared back to the stage with an intense, memorable performance at the Ankara festival. Their debut LP, Towards an Ultimate Extinction, wastes no time descending into pure chaos and mayhem, laying the foundation for an absolutely catastrophic sound formed around Çagatay's anguished, searing vocals. “Being a metalhead is not a hobby for me, it's an identity,” Çağatay says, adding that many people in the scene end up losing interest entirely and then chastise active metalheads for their ongoing commitment. “Apart from three or four small bars that we've played at, venue owners don't take metal shows seriously and do not want to host them,” he adds.
Sarinvomit's sound is as vile and dark as its name implies. Sharing vocalists with Persecutory, this Istanbul unit is hot off the release of their debut, Malignant Thermonuclear Supremacy, a throttling, crackbrained blend of extreme metal. Here, bloodthirsty vocals, battleaxe guitars, and blastbeats that make even the listener's wrists feel sore converge in a truly punishing fashion.
Long-running scene stalwarts Decaying Purity have been at it since 2005, enduring a number of lineup changes while amassing several releases and appearing at various festivals across Europe. The band, which describes its sound as “sickeningly brutal death metal punishment,” most recently released Malignant Resurrection of the Fallen Souls, a raging beast of an affair with filthy, venomous vocals and the impressive riff-repertoire of co-founder Mustafa, who also plays in Engulfed and Diabolizer. A new recording is reportedly in the works.
Paul Benjamin Osterlund is a writer based in Istanbul; follow him on Twitter.