Heavy metal has a proud history of defiance in the Middle East. Its reputation for excess and wild behaviour places it in direct confrontation with conservative elements and oppressive governments. Heavy metal bands in the region have therefore often been wrongly dismissed as sacrilegious, an association that allows the authorities – and more recently, extremist organisations – to try to shut them up.
The list of examples is depressingly long. In 1997, 100 heavy metal fans were arrested and imprisoned in Egypt. In 1998 and then again in 2002, Bassem Deaibess, the lead singer of Lebanese thrash metal band Blaakyum, was detained by authorities. There are countless other stories of heavy metal bands from across the region being forced to flee their countries in the wake of threats from extremists.
“Metal is a good scapegoat because it has all the elements that scare society,” Deaibess explained last year at an event in London titled “Art as Defiance in the Middle East”. “Politicians and religious institutions rule by striking fear. You need something that will scare people, and what’s better than people who look strange, with long hair and earrings and head-banging and moshing?”
But here’s the thing: these ongoing attempts to neuter the heavy metal scene in the Middle East will never work. Why? Because heavy metal bands don’t like being told what to do.
Few bands embody this ferocious spirt of defiance more than Dark Phantom. Since its inception in 2007, this five-piece Iraqi band has overcome any number of obstacles – threats from terrorists; an absence of venues in their hometown of Kirkuk; a shortage of instruments – to make the kind of pulverising music that demands your attention.
Tracks such as Nation of Dogs, from their 2016 debut album, and the recent release Atmosphere, are full-throttle attacks on the senses. A relentless barrage of clattering drums and thrashing guitars provide the platform for lead singer Mir Cyaxares' gravelly delivery of robust lyrics about the Iraq war and political corruption. It is heady stuff, inspired by bands such as Metallica and Slayer.
“There are a few other rock and metal bands in Iraq but they are on the softer side,” says lead guitarist Murad Jaymz. “As for the extreme side of things, Dark Phantom is standing alone.”
Now, in a remarkable act of solidarity, the band is planning a tour to neighbouring Syria, a country devastated by the ongoing civil war. The idea was conceived in February when Dark Phantom published an open letter asking for donations to help fund the tour, which according to the letter, aims to “spread the word and the music here in the Middle East”.
The US$2,000 (Dh7,345) needed for travel expenses was quickly raised. “The reaction has been outstanding,” says Jaymz. “We are so thankful to all the lovely people who donated to our campaign. [This tour] has also been warmly welcomed by the metal scene in Syria.”
As long as the band members are granted the requisite visas, Dark Phantom are due to arrive in Syria on August 9. The band, whose members all hold down full-time jobs in Iraq, will play shows in Damascus, Latakia and Homs.
“The metal scene in Syria is growing and it’s very promising,” Jaymz says. “We wanted to be a part of this great movement. We hope that this tour can give rise to similar events in the future and help the Iraqi and Syrian metal scene cross borders without limitations. Let’s show that metal here is growing and getting serious.”
To prove this point, Dark Phantom will be supported by Syrian heavy metal bands Maysaloon and RockNa. "Even through all the terrible events – all the atrocities – that have happened in Syria, these bands never lost hope," Jaymz says. "They are still working hard to support their passion and getting stronger every day. We are more than proud to be playing alongside them. Now is the best time [to tour Syria] because ISIS is perishing in both countries and we are starting to regain our freedom."
Jaymz says, however, that for all the progress in the past couple of years, Dark Phantom would still never play a show in Iraq without armed guards present. “It’s still not safe being a metal head and especially if you’re part of a metal band,” he says. “The extreme religious ideology [that opposes our music] is hard-wired into the culture. It will take more time and different kinds of battles to change that.”
But if any band is ready to fight those battles, it is Dark Phantom. “Metal music is one of the most liberating genres of music and we feel it’s the best way to get our message across,” Jaymz says. “It has been damned and cursed by the old-fashioned in our societies, but metal is war – and we’re fighting for our freedom.”