Posts Tagged ‘ Groove Metal ’

Interview: Rockabul


When you think your band is going through difficult times, wait until you see the story of the Afghan metal band District Unknown. Their story, as chronicled in the documentary ‘Rockabul‘ by the Australian film maker Travis Beard, is simultaneously one of a band trying to find its sound and simply one of young people trying to survive and find their place in a politically unstable country. Prior to its screening at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, I was given the opportunity to sit down with Beard and talk about his involvement with this special project.

Beard’s involvement with District Unknown and the Afghan music scene is not just one of casual interest. He lived in Afghanistan from 2006 until 2014 and with his band White City, he was at the heart of what became known as the expat party scene. “In 2002, the Americans came in, the Taliban fled and there was relative peace until about 2006 or 2007“, Beard explains. “We refer to it as ‘the golden time’. It was a time when Kabul was safe, you could move around pretty easily and that is why the expat party scene flourished. After that, I guess things sort of started to decline, but it wasn’t until 2011, when the Americans and the NATO forces announced that they were handing over the keys to the city, that it got worse and worse every year. They gave the security back to the Afghan forces, which is the police and the military. That means they were manning the checkpoints. Because Afghanistan is full of corruption and because it’s a very troubled country, those checkpoints didn’t work and attacks escalated. I constantly keep an eye on the news and it’s just going from bad to worse, which is really sad.
There’s this kind of catch-22: you don’t want to have this occupying force, but at the same time, once they leave, the country goes into a bigger mess. This country’s been a crossroad for a lot of conquerors and people moving their empires through and therefore, it’s been troubled for a long time. It’s not just something the Americans caused or the Russians before them. It’s just been a troubled part of the world because of where it’s positioned. Unfortunately, Afghans have bore the brunt of that for thousands of years.
What drew you to Afghanistan in the first place?
We refer to it as the Afghan bug. It’s an itch you get from experiencing the country. A lot of people fall in love with it. I fell in love with it. And some people end up staying there for many years. I guess that’s what happened to me. I was exposed to it, I fell in love with it and then I just couldn’t get out of there until the shit really hit the fan and I had to leave.

Growth trajectory

Despite being featured in the film himself, the real protagonists of ‘Rockabul’ are District Unknown. In essence, their story is not much different than that of other bands. As the viewer, you can see them evolving from an enthusiastic, but also directionless group of youngsters to a group of guys that work on their dreams together. The discerning factor is, of course, their location, which creates a lot of difficulties that western bands never get to experience. “I had a studio where you could practice music. There weren’t many places to do that“, says Beard. “They walked into my studio and I just pressed record and I got that first day. And the second day, and the third day and so on. The fact of the matter is, I wasn’t a film maker. I was a photographer. So there was a dual kind of evolution or growth trajectory between us. They were learning how to make music and be a band. And I was learning how to make films. And we grew together. Almost at the same pace. You see us grow as a collaborative team and it all comes together when they go to India. That is kind of their pinnacle regarding their performance. And they really peaked.
They weren’t the most popular band in Afghanistan, but they were the most dynamic. When you saw them perform on stage, the other musicians thought: these guys aren’t that good, but the crowd is going mental! That was the energy. it was all about the energy. You don’t have to be the best musicians around, but if you give off enough energy, the audience will respond. And it worked for them. It was a great path to follow. I was very lucky that they walked into my house and that they allowed me the access they did.

A key scene in your registration of the concert in India was the friction between frontman Youssef and his predecessor Lemar about the representation of Afghanistan. Was there ever any disagreement between you and the band about that scene?
We had contracts signed with every member. I wouldn’t have gotten that access if they hadn’t allowed it in the first place. And when we got to the India situation, it would have been so easy to cut that as in: they finish the gig, the crowd’s screaming and we cut to a plane flight or them in bed and that’s the end of it. But there was something else. There was the tension of the two frontmen being on stage together for the first time. Lemar was the man who ran that band. He was very vocal and very passionate about his country, whereas Youssef is the classic kind of frontman who just wants to rock out. He wanted to have a good time and he wasn’t interested in politics. And they butted heads. That was an interesting thing to watch from a filmmaker’s perspective. I wanted to show the reality of what happened after the concert, because there was a lot of expectation at that concert and things boiled over. It’s not always sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Especially if you’re a band from a country like Afghanistan. It’s good to show that and not just have a clean cut of all the highs and not show the lows.
You have filmed the band and the scene for seven years. How do you decide what makes the cut?
There were members that didn’t make the cut, there were other recordings that didn’t make the cut, there’s another half a dozen concerts that didn’t make the cut, there was the in-band fighting about really silly stuff… It’s just not that interesting. Every band fights. we know that. It was more about the cultural exchange and the cultural challenge for them in the country. It’s hard to squeeze that into ninety minutes. There was talk at one point of doing a mini-series, which I kind of laughed at, but we definitely had enough content for that. It’s just one of those things, you’ve got ninety minutes, you make do with what you’ve got. And I hope that we’ve got as much of the story across in that.
Yesterday we had a press screening and Youssef was present. That was the first time anyone in the band was seeing the film. And I watched him more than I watched the film itself. He just had a smile on his face. He said he relived all those memories and saw the truth in what happened. That’s all I ever wanted. I wanted to try and relate the fact as close as possible. Obviously you’ve got a narrative and an audience that you want to entertain. You don’t want to lose them. But at the same time, the five most important audience members I have is the band. And after that, the second most important audience I have is the Afghan and expat community that were there along with the band. Before I even go to an international audience, that’s what I sort of had to tick off, to verify that this film is what it represents.

Intervention

With all of the political and religious tensions in the area, were some of the ideas you proposed to the band too reckless?
There is a fine line between brave and reckless. And I think the only way to succeed in such an environment is to serve that fine line. And I served it, whether it be with festivals or taking the show on the road. Or having musicians in my house every day, because I lived in a residential area. I didn’t lived in a compound protected by security and the normal kind of precautions that the western community did. I lived like Afghans did. With the Afghans. So that frequency in my house was also a risk, because it doesn’t take long for the neighbors to know what’s going on. The neighborhood talked. We got kicked out of houses, because we were playing music. And there were situations where Afghans would be pulled aside and they’d be questioned: what’s with the foreigner you work with?
So when you’re putting on concerts and doing these events outside of the so-called safety zone, or ‘the bubble’ as we referred to it in Kabul, you have to push that envelope. Otherwise you don’t get result. I always asked the boys: do you want to do this? Do you want to go on these adventures and so-called wacky ideas that the westerner is coming up with? They were never forced. Sometimes they’d say yes and other times some obviously said no. There’s a lot I didn’t put in, because a certain person didn’t want to be shown or it was just too much.
For me, the biggest issue or the biggest concern I ever had was a fatality at one of my events. At least I can say that didn’t happen, but I saw it happen after I left at the venue I worked at for many years. We didn’t want something like that to happen and ruin the whole legacy. There would be someone saying: oh yeah, that’s the guy who ran all those festivals and got twenty kids killed. We did it to create a platform for them to be able to express themselves with no limits. With no rules. They could just say what they want on stage. It was a peaceful project and I hope that’s how it will be remembered.

How do you maintain a certain degree of neutrality if you’re so close to the subject?
Politically, I’m very much outside the system in my lifestyle. I’m quite left of center, but because Afghanistan is such a complex situation, I was really adamant and quite focused on not giving my opinion on the situation. I’m an outside observer in a very complex situation with many players. And I wanted the Afghans to speak about their views and perspectives on the situation. Because it’s their country. Some of the band members weren’t interested in politics – particularly Pedram, the drummer – whereas other members were. You kind of just have to let it come out organically and therefore hope that the audience takes enough parts of information from the film to make their own assessment.
We know that the Americans intervened, but the fact of the matter is: their intervention had vertain influences on the country. Culturally, politically and economically. District Unknown would not have existed without that intervention. They would have been into metal, but they would never have had a platform. And that’s why the Americans sponsoring our concert was very important to highlight in the film. We took that money from the Americans. It was not a comfortable deal, but I knew what I was doing. At the same time, without those funds from the Americans and, in later years, other western embassies, we would never have had that platform. We analyzed this in the narration. I talked about myself being part of the war machine. And we kind of just pulled it back. If you represent the Obama perspective, the embassy perspective and the Afghan perspective, I think the audience is intelligent enough to come to their own conclusions.
Regarding to neutrality with the band: that’s impossible. As soon as you walk in with a camera, everything changes. That’s quintessential documentary making 101. There was no way around it. But the good thing is: because I was a musician and because I was running the scene with a couple of other collaborators, I was always kind of there. Because of that, it wasn’t as different as it could have been. I think that’s where I got a lot of the visceral and fly on the wall moments in the film from, because I was there every day and they were in my house every day. And so you get shit after a while, just because it’s there. It’s right in front of you.

The right film

The subject matter of the film draws comparisons to Viceland’s 2007 documentary ‘Heavy Metal In Baghdad’ about the Iraqi metal band Acrassicauda. Did that film influence you at all?
Absolutely! I saw that film when it came out and I’m not going to beat around the bush: I’m not a fan of Vice. I never was a fan of Vice. It was their first feature film, it got them their street cred, but it was a piece of shit. I mean… They’re clearly extreme tourists and that’s it. We lived in Afghanistan. We didn’t just nourish the scene, we were the scene. And when I saw the film, I was already mentoring District Unknown and I thought: I want to make the other film. The right film. The film which is what Vice kind of just flirted with and then turned into the typical mass news media sensation.
The funny thing is: it comes up in a lot of conversations. I’m not afraid to talk about it, because I believe our film is a lot stronger than that. And in a sense it did inspire me: it inspired me to make a better film. Or at least a truer representation.

How important was it to represent the expat scene in the film?
That was an important factor, because without the expat scene, you would never have had the music scene flourish. Because that was the safe zone where they could do it. And we slipped those Afghans in under the radar, to be become a part of that scene. And eventually, the Afghans wanted to perform to their own audience. And you see through the film the evolution of the scene and the fact that we have Afghans playing to Afghan audiences. That was obviously our ultimate goal. You want to be influencing your peers, not just a bunch of westerners that are ultimately going to leave the country. It was integral to show that part. As much as it was excessive. And a lot of the expat party scene is quite wrong in an ethical or moral sense when you’re an Islamic republic like Afghanistan. But that was the truth. That’s what they were doing every day or every weekend. So I tried to give a taste of the expat scene without going overboard, because the film is really about the Afghans rather than the expats.

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In Memoriam Warrel Dane 1961-2017


Less than an hour before writing this post, word had reached me that former Nevermore and Sanctuary singer Warrel Dane has died in the middle of the recordings for what was to be his second solo album. Since Dane was one of the biggest influences on how I used to sing – if not the biggest – this news came as a shock to me, despite his history of health issues and addictions. Ever since hearing his voice on Nevermore’s ‘Dead Heart In A Dead World’, I was grabbed by his sense of drama and the operatic nature of his voice. It was an inspirational experience.

Many acquaintances of mine claim that they would have liked Nevermore if they had a grunter instead of a clean vocalist, but Dane was a significant part of Nevermore’s charm for me. Without him, Nevermore would have been just another technical groove metal band with a remarkably good guitarist. Due to the voice of Dane, Nevermore became the band that brought traditional metal and more contemporary sounds together. I have lost track of how many times I have listened to ‘Dead Heart In A Dead World’ and ‘This Godless Endeavor’, but it is likely that it will be more than a thousand times each.

Originally, Dane was the type of singer that so many metal bands in the eighties had, only even higher. His rise to prominence was Sanctuary’s Dave Mustaine produced debut album ‘Refuge Denied’, on which he occasionally went so high that I suspected helium may have been involved. Despite his obvious skills, it was apparently too much for Dane as well, as he sings significantly lower on the album’s follow-up, the delightfully dark near-masterpiece ‘Into The Mirror Black’.

After Sanctuary folded the way many eighties metal bands did – a silent break-up after disagreements over musical direction after grunge took over the guitar landscape – Dane formed Nevermore with Sanctuary’s bassist Jim Sheppard and live guitarist Jeff Loomis. Nevermore was notably different. Slower, down-tuned and more technical. A dark, heavy band that outdid the grunge of their shared native of Seattle in terms of sheer cynicism and dreariness. With a highly skilled guitar player, an extremely passionate singer and bass drums that pounded like there was no tomorrow.

Nearly a decade ago, Dane released his first solo album ‘Praises To The War Machine’, which I at the time described as Nevermore light with a larger number of introspective moments. Though it lacked the consistency of Nevermore’s best works, I loved the album’s goth-ish feel – its cover of ‘Lucretia, My Reflection’ introduced me to the music of The Sisters Of Mercy – and personal themes. The ballads ‘Brother’ and ‘This Old Man’ still stand as the best ballads Dane has ever recorded for me, together with the title track of Nevermore’s ‘Dreaming Neon Black’.

Of course, criticism of Dane is justified. He didn’t always take proper care of his voice and his live performances varied wildly in quality. I have seen Nevermore live at least four times and he was only truly good at half of them. The last time I saw Dane perform was two and a half years ago when a reformed Sanctuary opened for OverKill in Zwolle, promoting their excellent comeback record ‘The Year The Sun Died’. There, he actually showed that he could work with his diminished range, resulting in a good, if somewhat restrained performance.

Ultimately, I will always remember Warrel Dane for how unashamedly emotional his vocal performance was in a time when tough guy posturing seemed to be the norm in contemporary metal. He left behind a legacy of excellent metal. I’m just sad that this is it.

Album of the Week 08-2014: Rise To Addiction – A New Shade Of Black For The Soul


Sometimes you stumble upon a fantastic opening act when you’ve come to see the headliner. Case in point: when I went to see Trouble with Eric Wagner singing seven years ago, Rise To Addiction was opening for them and they simply blew me away. Their heavy riffs, fantastic songwriting and Leigh Oates’ powerful, raw-edged vocals combined the best elements of contemporary Heavy Metal and nineties Rock music into an irresistible, catchy, groovy and – given the amount of melody – surprisingly heavy cocktail. It’s too bad the Brits haven’t been all that active lately, because I still listen to ‘A New Shade Of Black For The Soul’ with a great deal of delight.

Rise To Addiction was founded by guitarists Steve Wray and John Slater after they left former Iron Maiden singer Blaze Bayley’s first backing band.┬áThere’s definitely traces of the heavy modern Power Metal sound heard with Blaze in Rise To Addiction’s music, but the dark vibe and Oates’ vocals give the music a more than passing resemblance to Soundgarden and the way the songs are structured points towards Hardrock rather than Metal. The band chooses to label this Heavy Metal, but any fan of melodic, guitar-driven music with great vocals and a healthy dose of groove should be able to find something of their liking here.

Highlighting the album are generally the songs with the best choruses. ‘Falling As One’, for instance, has a passionate chorus with a brilliantly composed vocal harmony, but the way the song is built up and the melodic sensibilities heard throughout provide more than enough other reasons to love the song. ‘Everlasting Wave’ has a chorus with so many vocal layers that it’s easy to get lost among them. However, this band has made quite an effort to make it work. And it does.┬áThe songs amazing groove does the rest. ‘Low’ could have been a mid-nineties Hardrock classic and opening track ‘Cold Season’ has a couple of wicked riffs to accompany the brilliant chorus as well.

Critics could comment that the album doesn’t stray much from its chosen path style-wise, but the truth is that there’s quite a lot happening within the songs and that keeps ‘A New Shade Of Black For The Soul’ fresh throughout most of its playing time. It is remarkable however, that the band chose to close the album with the two most deviant tracks. Both ‘Fessonia’ and ‘The Hive’ are epic, somewhat progressive power ballads and the latter is vastly superior to the former, despite its interesting instrumental sections. ‘The Hive’ has a far more surprising and interesting structure. Those rhythms are amazing as well.

It’s a shame how bad luck in terms of record labels or other business decisions can keep a band from the recognition they deserve. Rise To Addiction certainly should have been much bigger than they were. This is one of those bands you can play any of your Rock and Metal minded friends. Most of them will like it. The Metalheads will go for the heavy riffing, the Rockers will probably be attracted to the songwriting and Oates’ amazing vocals. With their recent inactivity, it’s unlikely that another brilliant release will follow, but I can only urge everyone into good guitar driven music to check out ‘A New Shade Of Black For The Soul’. It’s very well worth your time.

Recommended tracks: ‘Falling As One’, ‘Cold Season’, ‘Everlasting Wave’, ‘The Hive’

Album of the Week 02-2013: Channel Zero – Black Fuel


While the commercial underperformance of ‘Black Fuel’ reportedly directly influenced Channel Zero’s split in the mid-nineties, it also shows the band at their most inspired and creative. Belgium’s biggest Metal band really is on fire here. ‘Black Fuel’ is a surprisingly varied, energetic batch of songs that emphasizes on all the strengths of the band: the incredible grooves courtesy of bassist Tino DeMartino and drummer Phil Baheux, the unconventional riffs of Xavier Carion and the powerful vocals of Franky de Smet van Damme. All are at the top of their game here.

Channel Zero was somewhat of an oddity in the post-Pantera world of Metal. Many of the nineties Groove Metal bands fully concentrated on the groove-part of the genre and though the Belgians did fit that description, they never fully let their Thrash roots behind them. De Smet van Damme’s vocals did go well with the tough machismo of the Hardcore-influenced Metal of the nineties, but it was an edge in his case; he had a much stronger melodic sensibility to it at times. And then there’s Carion, whose riffs were one of a kind. And his sound sets the band apart as well: the distortion on ‘Black Fuel’ appears to come from his amplifier rather than from a wide range of pedals, giving his guitar a surprisingly dynamic sound. But then again: producer Attie Bauw has yet to work on an album that doesn’t have a good sound.

But despite that all, the main reason why ‘Black Fuel’ is Channel Zero’s best album is because the songs are very strong. The opening title track became the band’s show opener and it’s not hard to see why: it’s built up incredibly powerfully, the riffs stomp aggressively and the rhythms really push the song. What follows covers every area of Channel Zero’s repertoire expertly. From the Hardcore-tinged Thrash of ‘Mastermind’, ‘Wasted’ and ‘Love/Hate Satellite’ to the almost Hardrock groove of ‘Fool’s Parade’ and from the midtempo anger of ‘Misery’ to the slow, atmospheric Black Sabbath references of ‘Call On Me’ and ‘Self Control’. My special mention would go out to the amazing ‘The Hill’, a dark, creeping monster of a track not unlike, but much better than what Loudness was doing at the time. The guitar work is nothing sort of magnificent, De Smet van Damme’s vocals grow with the increasing intensity of the song and its epic quality make this the single most underrated song in Channel Zero’s canon. It’s too bad no one made a song out of the great riffs in the outro.

About three years ago, Channel Zero reunited with Mikey Doling replacing the ear damaged Carion and released the more than decent ‘Feed ‘Em With A Brick’. Everyone who needs an introduction to the Belgian band in their prime, however, would find a great starting place in ‘Black Fuel’. Channel Zero was a glimmer of hope in a time when everybody trying to act like Pantera or Machine Head was making the scene a disgrace. ‘Black Fuel’ was the brightest glimmer.

Recommended tracks: ‘Black Fuel’, ‘The Hill’, ‘Self Control’, ‘Love/Hate Satellite’

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