Heavy metal is getting far too safe. Long gone are the days of Dee Snider answering to the PMRC in Senate hearings, black metal church-burnings à la Lords of Chaos making headlines, and Marilyn Manson shows being shut down by religious groups. In fact, the last time I can think of hard rock bands causing red-top readerships’ blood to boil was way back in 2008, when the Daily Mail‘s ‘War on Emo’ reached its nadir. Today, we’re much more likely to see heavy metal stars propping up the status quo than threatening ideological and cultural subversion.
Metal is now the most popular music genre in the UK. Despite its conventional opposition to God and His followers, heavy metal is now a bigger religion in this country than Druidism and Scientology. Even the BBC has decided that this loud, aggressive music is actually good for us, rather than a corrupting influence on the youth.
Heavy music’s adoption by mainstream Western culture has coincided with its artists, once dedicated to challenging authority and conventional thought, aligning themselves with the political establishment. In the last week, legendary metal musicians like Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy and Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick used social media to voice their support for the popular political consensus that face masks should be worn in public. Here in the UK, politicians affiliated with both of the main parties have enjoyed endorsements from the genre’s stars. In November 2013, the Evening Standard reported that ‘Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson […] joined Speaker Bercow for the Commons terrace party’; an event organised by Conservative MP and self-confessed metal fan Mike Weatherley. Back in Iron Maiden’s heyday under the Iron Lady, I reckon a Tory metalhead would have been the ultimate oxymoron. Across the Commons floor, hardcore/ death metal outfit Venom Prison aired their support for the Labour Party and its candidate Richard Burgon just before last December’s general election. Their social media post even parroted then-leader Jeremy Corbyn’s mantra, ‘For the many, not the few.’ And speaking of Corbyn, let’s not forget that he got himself on the cover of Kerrang! magazine in June 2017. Heavy metal is now so safe that the political establishment, rather than fearing it, actively seek and embrace support from its artists and community.
This really bothers me. Ironically, buying into the genre’s ideology at an impressionable age made me intensely critical of anything popular. I was deeply disappointed to read about Bruce Dickinson, the hero of my early teens, rubbing shoulders with the sycophants we let rule. And I find it unsettling to see one of my new favourite bands, Venom Prison, endorse a party which was then embroiled in an anti-Semitism scandal. But more importantly, I think that heavy metal’s challenging of mainstream thought was one of the most valuable things it offered.
When Metallica sang about the futility of war on tracks like ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and ‘Disposable Heroes’, when Anthrax highlighted the plight of Native Americans with ‘Indians’, and when Slayer’s ‘Haunting the Chapel’ toyed with the hypocrisies of the Church, they weren’t expressing popular opinions. But that didn’t matter, they were opinions they held to be right and they wanted to share in the hope they might make things better. Where is that righteous voice of dissent in 21st Century heavy metal?
As I have often argued, looking to the future of real, innovative heavy metal means looking East. But this time I’m not talking about India. Surprisingly, the band which can save the soul of metal music hails from Saudi Arabia.
Music is a divisive issue in Saudi Arabia. While officially a Kingdom, even the Saudi King must strictly adhere to Islamic Sharia law. The religious authorities there don’t seem particularly keen on music, and that’s before we get to the heavy stuff. Writing in the Gulf Times in 2007, Shaykh Sala al Budair, Imam of the Grand Masjid in Madinah and Judge of the High Court of Madinah, described ‘listening to music and musical instruments’ as an ‘evil deed’.
But many Saudis don’t seem to share this view. When live concerts returned to Jeddah in 2017 after a seven-year ban, 8,000 men ‘sang along’ to a performance by the Kingdom’s own Mohammed Abdo (women were barred from attending the concert). Sultan al-Bazie of the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts reported that conservative backlash following his offering of music lessons in fact caused a surge in registrations. And in January last year, a royal decree allowed restaurants to play music, with a special license, as part of the Kingdom’s bid to attract international tourists.
This complex cultural landscape hardly seems like fertile ground for boundary-pushing, antagonistic heavy metal. And this makes Al-Namrood‘s very existence a triumph.
Al-Namrood play low-fi black n’ roll, shades of Venom and Bathory with Middle Eastern flourishes. Like the Western bands they were clearly inspired by, they wear their disdain for religion on their sleeves: the group’s name literally translates as ‘non-believer’. But being a non-believer in Saudi Arabia is punishable by death. Speaking to Vice in 2015, guitarist and bassist ‘Mephisto’ (understandably, the trio conceal their identities) highlighted the significance of making anti-theistic music in a country immersed in religion.
“You can criticize the church under freedom of speech in European countries, but you can’t do that in Middle Eastern countries. The system doesn’t allow it. […] We know that, 400 years ago, brutality occurred in the name of the church, but the same is happening right now in this age with Islam.”
So this is the real deal. Unlike bands attacking the big, easy target of the dwindling European Churches, this group are challenging the authority in their homeland. And this isn’t just being controversial for the sake of it, or to sell more T-shirts. Mephisto believes his band are challenging the very root of his homeland’s problems.
“Everything is chosen for an individual from birth until death. A child is born and raised to become Muslim and never given a choice to look at other religions. Education is highly biased and focused upon the Islamic world. There is no chance of considering multiple points of views. The only view that can be adopted is the view of the acknowledged tradition and approved religious practice. Freedom of expression is a crime, justified by the fact that “it can disturb the peace.” Even in marriage you cannot choose your partner. Rather, the elders choose for you. This social approach mixed with religious control is normally practiced in our country with no objection.”
In contrast to Western bands’ sucking up to state broadcasters and political elites, Al-Namrood have reclaimed the rebellious spirit of heavy metal. Through a musical education cobbled together with smuggled CDs, these three brave individuals have crafted a way to amplify their voice of dissent. One band won’t topple the regime Mephisto so loathes, but it just might start conversations at home and abroad. Heavy metal is the most invigorating and energising art ever created, and with bands like Al-Namrood we get a sense, a glimmer of hope, of what this emphatic, defiantly iconoclastic music might achieve.
Hail true metal! Hail Al-Namrood!
Al-Namrood‘s eighth(!) album, Wala’at, is available to buy and stream now.
Buy Al-Namrood merch here.
Cover image: Brazilian heavy metal guitarist Gisele Marie. I selected this image as the niqab she wears is considered an important aspect of Saudi culture. Image source: alarabiya.net