Piercing the Veil #7: Crescent Traces Egypt’s History and Inscribes Its Death Metal Future
Metal’s unsung prestige is its international yield. There’s a wealth of powerhouse nations beyond the Anglosphere. Consider how Scandinavian black metal refers more to a time period than it does one specific location. Sweden -- Gothenburg in particular -- defined melodic death metal. Japan outpaced everyone’s theatrics and speed with visual-kei, and its noise scene ruptures eardrums unlike anywhere else. Germany shrieked to the heavens with power metal, and Southeast Asian countries like Singapore and Thailand host some of the hungriest grindcore and screamo acts today.
Perhaps the most slept-on region is the Middle East, renowned more for its iconography than its homegrown talent. If I said Egypt, you’d say Powerslave. If I repeated myself, you’d say Nile. Neither of these answers are Egyptian in the vein of how, for example, Orphaned Land are emblematically Middle Eastern.
To find a better representation, let’s go back to the 31st century to study the Narmer Palette, an ancient Egyptian relic. The tablet details the first Egyptian king’s reign over a newly unified nation.
Blackened death metallers Crescent took this tablet as inspiration for their latest album Carving the Fires of Akhet, released this past July. The album, as much as any of their other records, finds them recalling the past to traverse the unsure future.
Band members Ismaeel Attallah and Youssef Saleh are ambiguous about details during our email conversation. Like oracles, their answers usually come with trepidation. Most of the time they beget interpretation about the future. One conviction they’re certain about is Crescent’s place in metal. "There is technically no Extreme Metal band in our scene that sounds like us, or really in the global death/black [metal] scene."
The originally-Cairo-based group formed in the late 1990s, but didn’t release their own music until 2009’s The Redemption EP. However, their output over the past half a decade eclipses their academic interest in Egyptian mythology, Death, and Dissection by employing Eastern musical scales, modes, and haunting spoken word summonings. There are as many scarabs scuttering about a Crescent track as there are diabolic machinations, gruff textures, and mummified exhalations.
That being said, Crescent tampered down the overt Eastern touches on Carving the Fires of Akhet from their earlier albums. This wasn’t a conscious deviation as much as it was a natural expression. Egyptian mythology still permeates Crescent, to the point that it’s their compositional ground zero. "The theme/story/belief/topic or whatever it is comes first; afterwards Ismaeel composes based on how he sees the topic in terms of sound. Without exaggeration, each riff or melody tells a story or plays a certain role in the narrative," they say.
References to archeological engravings stand alongside invocations of the Egyptian gods as a means to anthropological analysis. Yet, that’s not what distinguishes Crescent. Mythology is everywhere in metal. There are subgenres whose defining features are their folklore flirtations more than their sonic distinctions. What separates the Egyptian myths Crescent interprets from, say, North mythology, are, in the band’s words, the "character, tone, historical outcomes and social dynamics of the cultures and times." These myths are more than interesting aesthetics. Crescent translate them by treading the common thematic ground between Ancient Egypt and personal reflections. As they put it, "It has to do with divinity, royalty, expansion, evil in the historical/traditional/religious sense, unknown threats, and our inevitable and ultimate demise."
If you read that and think that Crescent uses Egyptian iconography as a means to explore modern Egyptian society, the band agrees. "The parallels are inescapable!” Carving the Fires of Akhet’s artwork is a representation of one’s "...struggle to shape the future of one’s self and, consequently, of everything around them.” These reshaping efforts assume new meanings in the context of modern-day Egypt.
Crescent weren’t bragging when they said they were the only band in the world that sounded like them. Metal is highly suppressed by the Egyptian government; the Musicians Syndicate controls the country’s music medium. It provides its members guaranteed employment and education so long as the musicians do not disrespect the Syndicate. This has led to the Syndicate suffocating Egypt’s organically-grown popular music scene. The Syndicate’s regulations state, "no person is to work in the musical arts unless they are a working member of the Syndicate."
In 2016, the then-Syndicate head Hani Shaker canceled two heavy metal concerts to prevent "Satanic" performances. This isn’t the first time metal has been associated with Satanism in Egypt either. An early 90s state newspaper article drummed up Satanic accusations towards teenagers who wore black and listened to metal, sparking concert shutdowns and government arrests. The stigma against metal came to a head in 1997 when 100 metal fans were arrested and charged with promoting Satanism. There was no evidence any of the teens were advocating for the devil, by the way.
Also of note is Egypt’s shaky political footing following a 2013 coup. Mass disappearances and other forms of state violence continue to deter political dissonance, like supporting the toppled President Mohamed Morsi. This follows the deadliest usage of state violence in Egypt, wherein 817 protestors were slain by state officers in August 2013 during the Rabaa massacres.
In the band’s eyes, these factors recontextualize Egyptian mythology and heritage. "Egyptians have a habit of reconciling the present with the past, and we are people who reminisce about the past and all its glories… We went through massive changes as a people and we do not know until when and to what extent this will continue. Egyptian mythology deals a lot with the unknown, so you can imagine the connection between the philosophies, principles, and real-life unfolding itself along the parallels of the past."
It’s then vital that Crescent are so proud. By their own words, death metal has to exist by shattering mundanity and conformity. "[Extreme] metal conveyed more strong and radical feelings and ideas." If they want to forge a future they have to be radical.
Their Egyptian myth and burly blackened death metal alloy teeters towards an unknown future, but it is always evolving. It’s why when asked about the definition of "akhet" (meaning "horizon" or "the place in the sky where the sun rises," according to Wikipedia) they replied: "Our expression of it goes far beyond that, it has a lot to do with the divine will, and the human will to reach certain heights within and without that divine framework." Tellingly, the most important aspect of Egypt to them is "divine justice."
Carving the Fires of Akhet released July 30th, 2021 via Listenable Records.