Iravu on the Untold Story of Malaysian Black Metal and “A Fate Worse Than Home” (Interview)
One of the most famous quotes from Kentaro Muira’s “Berserk” is, like all aspects of the series, harrowing upon first glance. It reads, “There’s no paradise for you to escape to.” Buried inside it is hope; the push to embrace our lived conditions and persevere through them. This brutal testament is tantamount to Iravu’s debut album A Fate Worse Than Home, released January 6 via Vita Detestabilis Records and Fiadh Productions.
The one-man black metal act is based in Selangor, Malaysia, which has proven difficult for a number of confounding reasons. First, Iravu is a Tamil word, indicative of the act’s Indian heritage. Malaysia has a discriminatory history towards Tamil people, and they have not seen retribution in recent years. Additionally, black metal is not a booming scene in Malaysia. Iravu points out that the style is attached to the more popular screamo and punk scenes.
Both aspects isolated Iravu and prompted him to accept his identity. Accepting who we are and what that represents in a larger context is easier said than done, and it’s not a privilege that all identities share. It’s not a blanket observation that can be applied equally to all classes, genders, and races, but Iravu places it in the context that it’s the way forward. There’s no guarantee of a better world, so we have to make it for ourselves.
He pushes that belief through a sci-fi horror tale. Iravu concocts a worse-case scenario in which A Fate Worse Than Home’s protagonist leaves Earth to find a more habitable world only to be swallowed by cosmic entities. He draws just as much from progressive death metal acts as he does solo black metal projects that have risen to prominence over the past decade. Spacey interludes like “Reflection” sit between virtuosic guitars on “Fear and Lead” and the plodding, foreboding “The Creature.” Overall, A Fate Worse Than Home is as athletic as it is inquisitive. The latter notion is readily apparent through our conversation with Iravu where he covers Mass Effect’s influence on him, the Malaysian black metal scene, and more.
Your name “Iravu” is Tamil for night if I’m not mistaken. What’s the story behind it?
When I started this solo project, I didn’t want to use my name because I wanted to keep it anonymous. Plus, my name is lame. I asked myself, since I’m a Malaysian Tamil, why not use a Tamil word? Why not pick a cool Tamil word that would fit the black metal vibe? There are not a lot of metal bands from this part of the world originally. It’s a good way to empower myself and my identity as a Malaysian Tamil who faces discrimination and racism here. In reality, there’s no direct meaning behind the word itself. It means “night,” but I think it moreso fits the music.
You make a good point about the black metal-friendly term and putting it through a Tamil lens, since Malaysia is more about screamo and punk than metal. I wanted to know what the black metal scene is like in Selangor.
People like to distinguish between Selangor and Kuala Lumpur, but I consider them one and the same. The scenes cross over much of the time. There is a scene, a metal scene, but it’s much smaller than the hardcore punk scene. What you end up seeing is metal bands playing punk shows because it’s tough to get a pure metal gig unless you get a foreign band coming, like from Indonesia, for instance.
Other than that, if you go to the show, you might see one or two metal bands playing at a primarily punk show. This part of the scene I’m talking about is progressive, though not 100% communist utopia progressive. My friend told me that our metal scene is almost as bad as the Polish scene regarding sketchiness. So a lot of bands who don’t want to delve into that—because fuck that—end up isolated and go to the punk side. I won’t mention any names, but some of the big Malaysian black metal bands who started the scene here, I wouldn’t call them Nazis, but they’re as close as you can get.
Why do you think some Malaysian artists fall down that hole?
Our history, politics, and government. Malaysia was part of the British empire, and we all know how they ran things. Divide and conquer was the name of the game; dividing based on race was how it was done here. The Malays were sectioned off into the rural areas where the Chinese were. That was the tin mines, then later into the city centers. Meanwhile, the Indians, my ancestors, were segregated into the rubber plantations.
When independence came, the Brits didn’t favor the mass popular movements that existed at the time to rule the country. For obvious reasons, they favored the Malay aristocracy. Our first prime minister was someone with close ties to the Malay royal family. From then on, these racist and pro-Malay ideals rose and it’s even written in our constitution. For instance, the Malays in our country are given special privileges over other races through the constitution. That carries over into our culture and music so I think in black metal, when it’s such a fringe genre, it attracts even more fringe, nationalistic, and racist people. It has to do with our history and bleeding into our pop culture.
On the other hand, it’s cool speaking to other antifascist black metal bands. I need to thank the antifascist black metal network for starting that. I hear of projects in Greece or all the way in the U.S., and you can see the similarities. It’s the same struggle everywhere; as much as the materials and context changes, at the bottom level, we all deal with the same bullshit. I find that fascinating, and it’s comforting to know there are others with the same problems.
It’s a universal struggle. Seeing as how you promote your music as anti-fascist, I wanted to ask how that plays into your sci-fi interests?
First of all, I’m a nerd. I just love sci-fi, but I’m also an anti-fascist. I didn’t have an idea of a story when I wrote the album. I wrote the music first, but I had a theme in mind. At the time, I wondered if I should leave this country behind to look for a better future elsewhere. I think Malaysians in general were going through that struggle. And people are leaving, especially minorities in this country, whether ethnic, sexual, gender, or what have you. They're trying to escape because this country is so oppressive.
I was thinking about it because only some have the privilege to do that. I certainly don’t. Also, your identity is not something you can run away from. There's no utopian country that is beautiful, and everyone can live in happily. There’s nowhere like that. Everyone is facing issues. This is a global issue—the oppression of people based on their identity.
The grass is not always greener. So the album talks about running away from home and how sometimes that may not be the best thing. Sometimes staying home, fighting, and accepting the consequences is important. That’s where the title came from; no matter what you do, no matter where you run, your fate may be worse than what you’re facing at your home.
If you go somewhere outside home, you don't know if you’re going somewhere less restrictive for your identity. For example, Kuala Lumpur to Singapore is not that far. I’ve met people who’ve made that move. From the outside, Singapore looks utopian, but there are still plenty of practices in place that prevent citizens from protesting.
Exactly, it’s illegal to protest there. You have to receive government approval. We don’t have to get into the plight of LGBT Singaporeans, but it’s not good there. The death penalty is massive there too. But the point is, the grass isn't always greener. Malaysians sometimes have this idea that the west is a post-racial utopia, but that’s not true.
Anyways, when I was writing the album, I wanted to touch on accepting identity and dealing with the consequences. It’s not going to be fun when you accept your identity. The sci-fi part came in because I’m not great at writing lyrics. I needed a story to tie everything, together so I said, “Fuck it, I’m going to write a sci-fi story.”
What was the sci-fi you took in during writing that shaped the record?
I love everything from 2001, A Space Odyssey to Alien to Dune to Ursula K. Le Guin. Her stories and her short stories have a huge influence on this album. Her stuff has a lot to do with identity in terms of dealing with and exploring it. That influenced how the album’s story came about.
One of my favorite video games of all time is Mass Effect. I love all of them, though I didn’t like “Andromeda.” I know people shit on Mass Effect 3’s ending, but for me, it’s the journey, not the endpoint. The whole game is great! It’s just the last five minutes that suck.
Anyways, I love that identity is an important part of that game. I love how AI is important to it, and I’ve always loved space. As a kid, I used to read books about space and look up to the sky and wonder what was up there. So I’ve always been attracted to the aesthetic, and really, there’s nothing deeper to it. I love the aesthetic.
I was worried at first because so many sci-fi metal bands are around, so I thought I’d be a cliche, but I said fuck it; I love this stuff.
Mass Effect 2’s plot concerns Shephard being rebuilt after death and asking if he’s the same person. It’s all about what it means to be human.
There’s so much about identity. Look at the Asari and how they work or even the Geth. They strive to live a normal life with dignity, but they’re demonized. The whole first game tells you to shoot them on sight, but the second game onward starts questioning you. They ask, “These things can talk; are you going to shoot it? What are you going to do?” I love the choices you make in the game and how it affects the universe.
That’s the thing about sci-fi; you can mold it to whatever you want it to do. Any message you want to give, a sci-fi story can give it. For as many overdone sci-fi tropes as there are, at the end of the day, I find it magical.
You’re right. To link Mass Effect to your music again, the game is all about the choices you make, and your album is all about the choice to leave home. But, are those choices better for one’s identity? For many people, they’re put in situations where their choice isn’t better so much as it would put them in a position lateral to where they are now.
You cannot escape your identity. We don’t live in a world where gay or trans people can express themselves however they want to. Anywhere you go, there will be consequences, and you will be punished for your identity. It’s about accepting that and saying “fuck it.”
I grew up in a country that demonizes Indian and Tamil people, especially. In my teenage years, I refused to speak Tamil. It was pick-me behavior, thinking I was appearing special for “not” speaking Tamil. Over the years, I realized it’s something I can’t run away from. This is how I look. So, I asked myself why I’m trying to run away from my identity, and A Place far From Home had to do with my self-acceptance.
Is that what A Fate Worse Than Home is? You’re talking about home as the self-acceptance of your identity?
Yeah, if this is who you are, accept it. I know a lot of Indians in Malaysia like this. They try to run away from their heritage because it’s so inconvenient for them. And it is. Indians are some of the poorest people in this country. We’re the victims of racial stereotyping and police brutality every day. Dude, I can’t even walk past a car without hearing the locks. People lock their cars around me. Deaths in custody are primarily Indian in this country. So this is it; I cannot run away from it. I’m gonna be here and be myself. I’m gonna fight for my rights.
It’s the same with trans people and gay people. Others try to hide those people’s identities. Recently, a certain someone, I won’t say who, told some foreign diplomats that Malaysia didn’t have any gay people. That’s just not true. I think people try to cover that side of Malaysia via oppression. But it’s there. These people are brave enough to be open and visible. We hear about U.S. politicians being caught with their pants down, and it’s always the most homophobic guy. I just wish these people would accept that this is who they are. They don't have to self-hate.
You are who you are for your whole life. You’ll never be anyone other than you. That being said, you make a good point that although you may accept yourself; the world may not. They will enforce rules on you, but you can’t push yourself away.
We run away from who we are. But, just accept it. And this isn’t an excuse for fascists to say, “This is who I am!” I have to make that clear ‘cuz someone may assume the worst. It’s more to do with marginalized groups.
Was the main identity you were expressing on A Fate Worse than Home your Tamil identity?
Yes, because we have a huge racism problem in Malaysia. I was mainly thinking of that. In my teenage years, trying to run away from being an Indian person, you know?
I’m interested in how black metal became a comfort zone for you.
Yeah, I always liked death metal. I grew up listening to thrash and then discovered death metal, but black metal was never something I dipped my toes in, mainly because of the right wing, fascist problem that exists there. I never found anything that interested me. Once in a while, I’d listen to Darkthone, but that was it. I never went further than that because you’re getting into something fucked up.
I never went further than that until 2018 or 2019, until I discovered Panopticon, and I think it shows in my music. I’m a bit of a blatant rip-off. My first single was called “For the Bodies and Trees that Bleed.” That title is hardcore biting Panopticon.
I hear the Panopticon interest, but I definitely wouldn’t label you as a rip-off.
Oh, that’s good to hear. I loved Panopticon and what he said. Eventually, I discovered Spectral Lore, Mare Cognitum, and all these other bands. That’s where my interest in black metal came about, hearing this stuff that’s fucking good and also not fucked up outside of the music.
You were spoiled for your first black metal bands.
It’s very, very, very good music. With those three bands, no one else can do that. Only they can do that. Also, it’s what led me to start Iravu because I couldn’t play with my band during the pandemic. If those guys can start their own thing, it means it’s possible. It means I can do it. I always wanted to get into music production and everything behind the scenes, so that was basically the incentive.
Also, the difference between your music and other sci-fi bands is that you don’t draw as much from hypertechnical acts as much as you do Death and Opeth. You can hear those progressive Human traces in your music.
I like technical aspects, but it is a tad overdone. I love Death and Opeth; they’re my favorite bands and I have their vinyls. I’m always striving for atmosphere in my music, and sci-fi has that sound I chase after. But, I love the raw sound on a Death album—their riffs, solos, everything. I strive for that balance, and it’s so difficult.
A Fate Worse than Home is available now on Bandcamp.