India’s young metal scene is furiously raging against a corrupt government
We speak to members of the underground subculture making anti-capitalist music fuelled by discontent.
Extreme Nation director Roy Dipankar and the band Plague Throat in Sohra, India
It’s not easy being a metalhead in India. Though eclectic, the scene is small, gigs are rare and the subculture is disparaged by the majority of the general public. This year has been particularly tough as the limited gigs that were due to take place have been cancelled due to COVID-19. But in spite of all this, the faith is strong.
“In India people know this subculture as a certain class. You belong to the underbelly of society, the freaks,” Abhay Singh, a lifelong metal fan and exec producer of the captivating and award-winning new documentary Extreme Nation, tells i-D. The film explores the metal and extreme music scenes of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh; examining what it means to be part of such a unique underground subculture in the volatile Indian subcontinent. “I’m glad that people in Europe and other parts of the world are digging this shit,” he says. “They can relate to people that are distant from themselves geographically, but share the same sentiment.”
The scene in India can be traced back to Bangalore in 1988 with the formation of the country’s first metal band Millennium. Originally started as an Iron Maiden covers band, they took to doing originals and had success right through the 90s, even supporting Deep Purple and Megadeth when they played in India. But at the time, heavy music from the West was hard to come by. “We’d go on cassette hunting sprees and they were difficult to find, man,” Abhay reminisces. “They’re not cassettes you’d find through the major labels because they don’t sell well. And if they don’t sell well in a country like India, they just won’t print them. So we had our own bootleg collections. The music would go to Hong Kong or China, get ripped, get sent through all of Asia, end up in Nepal and eventually come across the border to India, to the part of the country where I was living.”
By the end of the 90s, more home-grown bands like death metallers Dying Embrace (also from Bangalore) and black metal band Fate from Mumbai had roared into existence. As the country stepped into the 21st century, bands such as Kryptos and Demonic Resurrection took things to the next level by touring India and playing areas that no metal band had gone before. With these two and others like them carrying the torches, thrash, prog, doom, grindcore, noise, death and black metal groups began popping up all over the country. By the 2010s, platforms like Bandcamp and YouTube had become paramount for bands getting their music heard and cultivating the growth of the scene. This has led to emerging bands like Bloodywood (like Bollywood, get it?) from New Delhi getting booked for gigs and festivals across the world off the back of their international following online.
Another exciting new act are Mumbai thrashers Sabotage, who just released their first EP, The Order of Genocide, which is packed with Bay Area influences and political lyrics. “I had to vent my anger and my rage into something, so I thought, why not through music?” says the band’s 25-year-old guitarist Cyril Thomas over Zoom. But what’s he so angry about? “Everything that’s happening in my country: from the political issues to how we treat women, every single thing,” he continues. “Women are not safe on the streets, education is fucked up, the economy is going down. Even at this sad time, during the pandemic, our prime minister will not tell us what’s happening in our country. All of these things make me angry.”
This rage is echoed by BR, the vocalist for Aempyrean, a death/black metal quintet from Bangalore. “Our music and lyrics are fuelled by utter hate and spite,” he says. “There's never a shortage of reasons to be angry when you live in a world full of weak-minded sheep and hypocrites.” He goes on to identify “war, death, the occult, time, futility and contempt of life” as other key topics he sings about with the band.
According to the Royal Bank of India, 22% of the Indian population currently live below the poverty line; while in rural states, such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, the poverty rate is as high as 45%. India might be known as the ‘world’s largest democracy’, with a population of 1.35 billion, but corruption in the country is still a big issue. The anti-corruption promises made by prime minister Narendra Modi during his election campaigns in 2014 and 2019 are yet to materialise, and public discontent is simmering.
“The state of our country has been deteriorating with each day,” 22-year-old Sanskriti Mathur tells me. “Our leaders know how to manipulate the country based on caste, colour and religion, and they have succeeded so far.” Sanskriti plays keyboard for DemigoD, a metalcore band from Jaipur. She continues: “All I can say is that if we don't take accountability for our actions now, nobody can save us.”
The majority of young Indian metal musicians we speak to appear to share this anti-government, anti-capitalist outlook. “We write songs that clearly stand against the government,” says Amir Hazarika, vocalist for Eyes of the Martyr, a progressive metal band from Guwahati. “We believe that most of the things executed by them are somehow more for their personal interests and less in favour of the common people. They are eating up the country like pure parasites,” the 29-year-old continues. “It's depressing, cruel, oppressive and the leaders sitting above and controlling are big time scumbags.”
Countries elsewhere in Asia also have unique and burgeoning metal scenes, along with their own fair share of difficulties. Malaysia, for example, has a history of the government targeting metalheads and of moral panic surrounding the genre’s supposed links with Satanism. Carcass and Lamb of God are both on a government list of acts banned from performing there. Similarly, a crack-down on punk rock in Indonesia led to an incident in 2011 where 64 young punks in Banda Aceh were detained at a concert and had their hair forcibly shaved off. A local police chief was quoted as saying: "We're not torturing anyone. We're not violating human rights. We're just trying to put them back on the right moral path."
Metal has had a long and volatile relationship with conservatism and religion, especially Christianity. Bands like Slayer, Cradle of Filth, Rotting Christ and pretty much the entirety of the Norwegian black metal scene have made careers out of blasphemous lyrics and religious dissent -- rejecting the dominance that Christianity has in the countries they hail from. India is undoubtedly a religious country, with 79.8% of the population identifying as Hindu, and the rest mostly Muslim, Christian, Sikh and Buddhist. Does that mean that Indian metal bands get onstage and lambaste Krishna, Shiva and the Hindu way of life?
“We are anti-religion. The first song we ever wrote is called “Rewind Religion” and it’s against all religion,” Cyril explains austerely. “It’s even against Buddhism. People use religion to make business, first of all, which creates hate. The government here wants to make this country a Hindu nation. They say we are a republic country and we can do whatever we want, but trust me, we can’t.”
Film producer Abhay was born into a Hindu family and attended an Irish Catholic school in Jamshedpur, Indian’s very own ‘Steel City’. When he was seven years old he experienced a family loss and that’s when his faith began to wane. “I asked my parents, why would God do this? And they went quiet. I didn’t get the answer but the seeds had been sown. The doubt.” In his teenage years he even took to wearing an inverted cross as jewellery, much to the consternation of his parents. “They were fucking freaking out. They were like, why are you disrespecting Christianity?! I was listening to a lot of Deicide at the time. I was in high school and I was really angsty, you know?”
These days Abhay works as an IT architect and lives in Zurich with a family of his own. His love for metal is stronger than ever and his involvement in the Extreme Nation doc is testament to that. “It gives you goosebumps, that’s what metal does to people,” Abhay explains passionately. “I was listening to Mayhem’s Grand Declaration of War today on my morning jog, and the way that album starts with the marching drums and then Maniac coming in with his vocals… that’s like “The Ride of the Valkyries” by Wagner for me.”
BR comes from a conservative religious background too, but renounced it in his late teens. “I abhor all forms of organised religion. I'm far more interested in exploring alternate beliefs from various cultures,” he says, going on to unflinchingly describe his band Aempyrean as “the most savage unholy black/death/thrash metal band this country has ever seen.” Their disdain for organised religion -- specifically Christianity -- is evident in their choice to cover Morbid Angel’s 1989 song “Chapel of Ghouls”, on which BR screams the lyrics: “Dead! Your God is Dead! / Fools! Your God is Dead! / Useless Prayers of Lies / Behold Satan’s Rise!”
Though most of the rockers I chat to are atheists, not all are militant and anti-religion. “I'm good with any religion as long as it is not imposed on me,” Sanskriti explains. “Live and let live is my policy. That's the only way I function.” So for the heretics that decide to take the plunge, buy the black band t-shirt and join the “freaks” in the mosh pit -- what are the local gigs like? “Our community is pretty compact, so the crowd is very enthusiastic and dedicated,” Sanskriti says of performing in Jaipur. “They’re fun. We get to experience a sense of brotherhood and oneness.”
According to BR, the frequency of gigs in Bangalore has dwindled over the last few years, due to “law and cops”. On top of that, everyone we speak to highlights the lack of labels, venues, promoters and distributors specialising in the genre as major hurdles for metal bands in India. But there are a hardworking few, grafting away behind the scenes. Labels such as Cyclopian Eye and Transcending Obscurity, along with festivals like Bangalore Open Air and Bohemian Live, and collectives Blackblood India all help to support home-grown talent and bring international bands over too. Recent gigs that welcomed bands like Sri Lanka’s Genocide Shrines and Nile from the US were, in BR’s own words, “absolute barn burners!”
Like the majority of alternative bands and artists in the world, the musicians interviewed here all work day jobs and dedicate evenings and weekends to their passion. For many, this compulsion is rooted in fun and catharsis, rather than a career plan to ‘make it big’. “We’re not expecting anything out of it,” Cyril says. “We don’t want to try and make it a profession because we know we won’t be accepted in India, but this our hobby and our passion.” When Sanskriti isn’t rocking with DemigoD, for example, she works for a digital marketing company. “The whole idea of creating metal music is to be able to express your truest self without giving a damn about anything in the world,” she says. “It gives you the freedom to do that without restraints.”
Some people, however, do have dreams of pushing things beyond the underground. Amir believes that Indian tenacity will eventually take the scene to new frontiers. “Aside from a few, none of the Indian metal bands are making good money out of it,” the Eyes of the Martyr frontman says. “But we still have that hope in our heart and mind that one day we will rise. We are tough stones to break. If we work together for the future of metal music in India, then it’s definitely going to work.”
In many ways, metalheads are metalheads wherever you go -- whether they’re getting drunk at shows with like-minded moshers, expressing their truest selves through fashion and fandom, or screaming vitriol against gods and governments down microphones.
The scene in India is yet to reach the level of others elsewhere in the world, but that doesn’t matter to the devotees I speak to. The underground bands continue to thunder on regardless.
Watch Extreme Nation, Roy Dipankar’s documentary on metal in the Indian Subcontinent, here. It’s very good.