No War for Heavy Metal!
Most people in Baghdad don't leave their houses at night. They don't rent movies. They don't go to bars. Mostly, they sit huddled in dingy shacks and wait and watch and hope that the occupying army will lift its curfew.
Photo by Gideon Yago
Most people in Baghdad don't leave their houses at night. They don't rent movies. They don't go to bars. Mostly, they sit huddled in dingy shacks and wait and watch and hope that the occupying army will lift its curfew and everything will become safe enough for them to go outside one day. Fat chance.
It'd be nice to nip out without the fear of being blown to bits, but it's just not possible. Thinking of meeting up with chums for a movie and a pizza to briefly lift the ever-present fear of sudden death? Forget it, buddy. Nightlife in Baghdad fucking sucks just as much as it did before Shock and Awe. The only people on the streets after dark are Glock-toting maniacs out to rape, rob, and kill whatever they can. Get that? EVERYBODY on the streets at night, including the old-age pensioners, is packing heat and looking to unload clips into your face. Like, "You got a fresh bottle of water in your pocket, bitch? Blam! Blam! Blam!" "How about that dog pissing in the alleyway? Blam! Blam! It's suppertime!" They are shooting and killing and eating the dogs made homeless by the bombings.
Because everybody's being woken up at 3:30 a.m. by the cracking sound of gunfire and sobbing American soldiers attempting to hang themselves from every available broken lamppost, there's an inescapable feeling of terror and doom everywhere. It makes the end battle scene of the last Lord of the Rings look like a rehearsal of the original line-up of the Bee Gees.
No wonder then, there's an emerging group of young Iraqis who're expressing their pain, hatred, and sorrow by playing in an underground Baghdad metal scene that nobody thought existed until now.
Bands like A.Crassicauda (scientifico for black scorpion), pictured here, are one of a small number of hate-fueled groups influenced by Western devil-worshippers like Slayer, Dimmu Borgir, and Mayhem (three of the most popular groups in the Iraqi metal world).
Before Saddam was toppled courtesy of The Red, White, and Blue, most young people had their music brutally censored by the murderous pedophile Uday Hussein, who banned just about all genres of punk and metal (death, gore, speed, black metal, and power electronics were particularly frowned upon).
The airwaves were filled with traditional Islamic wailing songs as well as Dannii Minogue and Shania Twain. That sort of shit sounds great if you're getting fellated by five teenage girls at your father's palace in a bathtub full of calf's milk, but if you're poor and young and scared of wearing a Metallica shirt for fear of being beaten by the military police, it just sounds scary.
If you want to hear A.Crassicauda or any of their ilk, don't bother going on the internet or pestering the guy at your local record store. You have to slip down Kerada Street in eastern Baghdad at sunset to their shabby practice room that smells like if a kebab shop owner shat in your face.
The double-bass-drumming, cymbal crashes, and chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga-waaahing of four Iraqi kids raised on bootleg cassette tapes and glitchy MP3s of the last 30 years of heavy metal sound so different from the everyday Baghdad musical diet of prayer calls and Arab techno that, mixed together, they're like your worst-ever ketamine overdose at a fetish party you shouldn't have been at anyway.
Made up of four intelligent kids who work as journalists and translators, A.Crassicauda sing about pain, death, and destruction—occasionally getting political, but never enough to have risked intrusion from Ba'athist political police. To define their sound, they plugged traditional Iraqi instruments into distortion pedals and used broken-down TVs as pre-amps for some songs. You guessed it. It sounds like hell. Just like proper metal should, right?
No one in the band flinched when the first U.S. bomb dropped on Baghdad, but staying alive took precedence over band practice. This meant their plans to get signed to a big Western record label and tour with the Ozzfest (yes, that's their goal) were put on hold for a few days while they figured out whether or not the band had "broken up" due to death or mutilation. It was of great relief to the Baghdad metal scene that everybody in the group was okay, and after a few weeks, A.Crassicauda were back to their old routine of screaming and soloing and wearing tight black jeans and white Reebok basketball shoes with the laces pulled too tight.
"The war made it difficult, but we got back to practicing as soon as we could," says singer Waleed "Blood Master" Rabiaa. "We needed the music, because if we didn't play it we'd all go insane." Drummer Marwan agrees. "We would hear boom boom outside, and it just got to be so much that we wanted to make that noise back," he says, thumping the bass drum emphatically.
Waleed smiles. "Now we are," he says.
When I visited A.Crassicauda at practice they were bickering like any other band—huge egos in bloom in a tiny glass front shop with eggshell foam taped to the walls to (ineffectively) muffle the sound. The air was so thick with dust and smoke that I could hardly breathe. Graffiti was scratched on the walls and a solitary flyer for a prewar metal show was the only evidence in the whole city that a metal scene even existed.
Because the music they played me was so completely fucking bananas and deafeningly loud, it was easy to forget the frightening instability of the broken city outside and briefly imagine that I was in somebody's basement back at home in the States. That feeling didn't last long, though. Once I was back on the streets, I was so scared of everything around me I almost wet my pants.
Daily life in Baghdad is no longer about dodging Saddam's flunkies. At least they kept a kind of jackbooted order. These days it's about dodging myriad unknowns. Failing water, failing power, tangled traffic, huge gas lines, unchecked crime, unemployment, and old grudges have sprung open a trapdoor of terror and chaos and confusion and misery that nobody, least of all the fucking kids in the underground metal scene, knows how to control.
The disgusting, lawless human behavior all around has had the same effect on A.Crassicauda that it did on almost everyone else in Iraq. It sucked out the hope of their hearts and forced them to accept the fact that they could face death at any second.
The result? The band's music became even more hate-filled and intense and fucked than ever before.
Waleed says the moment he lost faith in his country was when he saw a drunk Iraqi mow down his own sister with an assault rifle in broad daylight. No one who watched the scene flinched. "When I saw that happen, I just thought to myself, ‘Damn, we're in a jungle.'"
In the last eight months, despite the curfew, the four members of A.Crassicauda have kept on going to practice every night. This is why they are all more "metal" than anyone you will ever know. And not in the "Blackie Lawless is the World's Fifth Biggest Badass" VH-1 documentary way, you idiot. In a real, sustained, HOLLEEE SHIITTT METAL way. The music they played me was so ugly and doomed it made all those face-painted Norwegian black-metal fags who burn down old ladies' churches seem scary as warm chocolate milk.
While most Western metal bands lose sleep over hair loss, shelling out for new speaker cones and wondering how to pay for Viagra, these kids have had to make real sacrifices for their band––like going to practice with a hand gun stuffed down the front of their pants. This isn't just because good amps and equipment are a choice find for Baghdadi looters, it's because Marwan's job as a U.S. Army translator has put him on a Fedayeen "guys we're gonna kill" list.
Now he totes a 9mm Tareq with him everywhere he goes. When I tell him that the only other guy I know who does that is the Nuge and ask if he thinks practicing in a blind alley is really a good idea, he doesn't seem to care. "When they start booking bands again we really want to put on a show and we can't suck, so we have to be ready," he tells me.
"I'm not really worried about anyone trying to kill us while we're at practice," Waleed adds, in between drags off foul-smelling, beetle-dung Iraqi cigarettes. "What better way to go out than playing fucking music, man?"
Presently, A.Crassicauda are pooling their money to record demos and figuring out a plan to escape Baghdad and tour the world. Order has to come back to Iraq first, though. Then, and only then, can they start courting A&R guys.
"Metal is worldwide, man," Waleed says with wicked smile on his face. "Just look at these guys." He's waving a Dimmu Borgir CD in my face. "I'd really love to tour and play our music for audiences and see how they'd react. What do you think our chances are?"
I smile and give him the same bullshit answer that I've learned to give any talented young band starting out—some tongue-twister pabulum about the need to work hard and keep trying. I don't want to let even an ounce of doubt come out of my mouth. But Waleed doesn't care. He's got to get back to practice and he doesn't want to head home too late after dark tonight.