Editor’s Choice March 2016
Last month, I challenged myself to complete a full Editor’s Choice with bands from outside Western Europe and English-speaking countries, pursuant to this article in the Wall Street Journal by Neil Shah.
The task proved more difficult than expected. I would not have found these bands without the aid of some readers. Special thanks go to Paul Jenky, who provided a pages-long list of artists from Eastern Asia, many of which were covered in our exhaustive history of metal in South Korea from last year.
There’s no obvious reason why this task should have presented such a challenge. The genre remains largely unmoored from one specific racial or cultural tradition. Extreme metal deals with universal themes: violence, mortality, hatred. The Western world has no monopoly on these things. In fact we’ve managed to outsource most of our violence to other nations. This may explain why some countries produce brutal death metal in mass quantities. For example, Indonesia hosts more than 200 active brutal death metal bands according to Metal Archives, roughly one band per million citizens. By comparison The United States hosts 425 active brutal death metal bands, or roughly one brutal death metal band per 700,000 people. Yes, the US has Indonesia beat in sheer numbers, but while the US has a history of free speech, Indonesia has a violent history of conservative culture and an authoritarian central government. It’s not difficult to imagine that the country’s violent near-past has informed its musical climate.
Paradoxically, metal doesn’t really need lyrics to deal with these themes. That extreme vocals are unintelligible by and large, and that many band logos resemble scribbled gibberish, renders the music nationless. If even English speakers can’t understand or read it, then those people are as equally confounded by the band as someone from a pacific island nation.
The core ethos of extreme metal is global. Venom and Possessed wrote blasphemous songs that opposed religion, and religion knows no national boundaries, regardless of its point of origin.
So if metal as a global phenomenon is expanding, why is finding bands from outside of America, Scandinavia and our other usual haunts so difficult? My best guess returns to a quote by author William Gibson: “The future is here—it’s just not evenly distributed.”
As technocratic societies, America and Western Europe have the advantage of wide access to digital technology and extremely literate artists and audiences. A one-man black metal band in New York City has an easier time recording a demo, putting it online, and getting it into the hands of a press agent or label than that same person might in Colombia.
At the same time, my guess is that these bands have trouble getting the attention of wider audiences from outside their immediate vicinity due to filter bubbles—the effect by which social media limits a web user’s exposure to data by feeding that user information that it thinks that user would already like (this is why everyone you know except your annoying family members seem to love Bernie Sanders—the people who don’t aren’t appearing on your social media feed).
The future is more advanced, and also less open to surprise, but surprises keep music interesting. Leave some recommendations of other non-Western metal bands in the comment threads below. Surprise me.
So, let’s start off somewhat familiar. Invisible Oranges was one of the first American websites to support Mongolian folk metal band Tengger Cavalry. The group is now based in New York City, and has gathered a head of steam—they played Carnegie Hall on Christmas Eve, albeit as an acoustic unit, and are playing on this year’s Shadow Woods festival. While it’s no successor to Ancient Call, the band did release a new EP, Mountain Side on April 1, and while it’s mostly rehashes—an older Tengger Cavalry song, even a club remix of the title track—the new song still has the swagger that makes Tengger Cavalry a unique prospect.
Tengger Cavalry just announced their first US tour:
5/14 – Naugatuck, CT @ Cooks Cafe
5/15 – Philadelphia, PA @ Kung Fu Necktie
5/17 – Indianapolis, IN @ 5th Quarter
5/18 – Chicago, IL @ Subterranean
5/20 – Kansas City, MO @ Riot Room
5/22 – Denver, CO @ 3 Kings
5/24 – Seattle, WA @ Highline
5/25 – Portland, OR @ Ash St. Saloon
5/26 – San Francisco, CA @ Elbo Room
5/27 – San Diego, CA @ Brick By Brick
5/28 – Los Angeles, CA @ Viper Room
5/29 – Phoenix, AZ @ Pub Rock
5/31 – Austin, TX @ Dirty Dog
6/1 – New Orleans, LA @ Siberia
6/2 – Asheville, NC @ Mothlight
6/4 – New York, NY @ Webster Hall
Speaking of Nature Ganganbaigal, the creative force behind Tengger Cavalry sent me a few suggestions for Chinese metal bands to be considered for this edition, and while I feel that he’s eclipsed most of his inspirations, Spring and Autumn deserve a mention. Guitarist Kaiser Kuo was once a member of Tang Dynasty, arguably the first heavy metal band from the People’s Republic of China. The guitar solos are the takeaway here, often reminding me of Alex Lifeson’s work in Rush.
Botswana’s metal scene made headlines in 2011 thanks to a photo spread in Vice Magazine. While the Botswanans look like a badass warrior race whose only religious iconography is the cover photo of Ace of Spades, I have not come across much mention of their music. The most popular metal band from Botswana seems to be Skinflint, and the spirit of the NWOBHM is strong with them, albeit in a much more Iron Maiden-ish direction. Hear the phantom of “Phantom of the Opera” in the ending guitar figures of “Okove,” the lead single from their most recent album, Nyemba. Giuseppe Sbrana is no Bruce Dickinson, but his workmanlike grunts suit the music just as well as Tribulation’s dry growls suit them, and either way vocals are not the point—these are painfully true basslines.
The ethnic folk-inflected black metal market is crowded, see Drudkh and Negura Bunget for pertinent examples. This style makes it easy for a band to display easily marketed, because black metal easily falls into the background allowing the more ethnic elements to come to the fore. Cynically one could call it “world metal.” Ugh. Still, the style does produce its gems, and I like Kyrgistan’s Darkestrah. Manas is not the newest release by the band—they just released a split with Saudi Arabia’s AlNamrood—but it is the last release featuring their original singer, Kriegtalith. I should share something from their upcoming new album Turan, which we will stream in its entirety in a few weeks, but currently all I can find is a trailer.
Enough mellow feelings. Brazil’s Monster Coyote offer more adrenaline. The loud drums and power chord chugs of their new album Neckbreaker speak plainly: get in the pit, pound your fists, the time for contemplation is later. What more can you expect with a mastering job by Brad Boatright? Brazil is more famous for thrash and black metal bands such as Sepultura or Sarcofago, but Monster Coyote sound more like Beastwars. Like that band they hail from an arid clime—Brazil is much more than beaches and the Amazon. For example Sepultura come from Belo Horizonte where my family is from, nestled in a mountain range. Monster Coyote, though, hail from Mossoró in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, where I’ve never been. Judging by the music, it sounds like if I ever visit, I should bring my western boots and some brass knuckles.
Singapore’s Rudra are virtually unknown in the United States even though they formed in 1992, which is a shame because I wager their sound would go over well on these shores. When they’re in full-on metal assault mode they remind me of Goatwhore. Even blackened these riffs pack punch. Their melodic and atmospheric segments remind my ignorant ears of Melechesh, even though they focus on Hindu mythology as a theme. Their last album, Rta dropped three years ago, following a concept album trilogy, which means they’re probably overdue for new music. In the meantime, here's “Death,” a fitting song considering they’ve covered Death (the band) before.
Sri Lanka’s Funeral in Heaven exist far away from my normal touchstones of reference, even though you can obtain some of their releases through Nuclear War Now. Sri Lanka has a contentious relationship with the nearby Indian subcontinent, and an entirely different indigenous culture that struggles to display itself even locally. This is alien music to me. For example their song “Transmigrations Into Eternal Submission” bears more similarity to Dead Can Dance than anything this side of Sunn 0))). But metal is an attitude, and it’s one that Funeral in Heaven display proudly. The only person I know who ever lived in Sri Lanka is science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke—holy cultural ignorance, Batman—who lived in Colombo, where Funeral in Heaven also reside. Listening to their music reminds me of his most indelible image, the apes from 2001 A Space Odyssey, staring at a black monolith, losing their minds at its sheer impenetrability, perhaps unaware of how it is rewiring their synapses.
Last but not least, and to bring us back to China, I wanted to include a song by the PRC’s Enemite, considered by some to be the inspiration to the contentious (and racist) Ghost Bath project. However, the band's mainman Li Chao has been spending more time recently as the vocalist in Evilthorn, who have a new album Restart to the Evil Walking, which I cannot for the life of me find in streaming form. As recompense, here’s his blackened electronica solo project, Zaliva-D. Metal aesthetics and mood are beginning to show up more in electronica projects such as Perturbator, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more bands like Zaliva-D begin showing up closer to home.
Email me streaming links for Editor’s Choice consideration at: firstname.lastname@example.org