Inside the dimly lit live-music pub Quadrangle, hidden away down a dark residential street on the outskirts of Beirut, a blues band is jamming on stage, practising a stubborn riff. Facing them, alone at a table, is a girl dressed all in black, with rings through her lower lip and a spike through the top of her right ear. I hazard a guess that she is one of the women I'm here to meet.
Slave to Sirens is one of the first all-female metal band in the Middle East and Shery Bechara is their lead guitarist. Along with drummer Tatyana Boughaba, bassist Alma Doumani, vocalist Maya Khairallah and rhythm guitarist Lilas Mayassi, she has shaken up Lebanon's nascent metal scene by proving that women are perfectly capable of taking on the male-dominated genre.
Fresh from the release of their first EP, Terminal Leeches, Bechara, Khairallah and Mayassi spend the first few minutes of our interview fussing over the newest member of their band – a beautiful 2-month-old husky dog called Skadi whose lead keeps getting tangled around Khairallah's legs. The music inside is too loud for us to talk comfortably, so they suggest we move outside, where we sit on a flight of concrete steps in the dark, Skadi tied to a tree beside us.
Click to listen to a teaser from their EP:
Metal, they are quick to point out, is not just a genre of music but a way of life. “We all started when we were young,” says Bechara. “When you’re young, you experience a lot of music, and metal is not easy to consume, but each of us fell in love with it. It’s a culture as well. It’s a way of living – the rebellious spirit.”
Slave to Sirens formed in late 2015 after Bechara and Mayassi met at a protest in Beirut. The five women – who are all in their early-20s – met through mutual friends and discovered a shared love of thrash and death metal. They are clearly good friends, frequently interrupting one another, finishing each other’s sentences and laughing as we talk.
“I used to have other bands with boys, but it didn’t work out. Boys – so lazy,” says Mayassi, triggering a burst of laughter. “They don’t practise. I don’t want that.”
Twice-weekly practice sessions have resulted in original compositions and a tight, polished sound. The first time they performed live, says Mayassi, the audience was shocked. “They saw us on stage and they didn’t expect that we would produce this kind of sound. They were like, ‘OK, this is a bunch of girls, now let’s see what they can play. Maybe a love song’,” she says, adding deadpan: “It wasn’t a love song.”
They laugh again, a good-natured acknowledgement that they have something to prove. “After that we had the respect of our friends here, the ones who listen to metal – basically the men… They didn’t expect this kind of composition and writing skills from a bunch of girls,” says Mayassi.
There are still problems that come with playing metal music in Lebanon, however. We're speaking a week after the wedding of two metal fans who wore black and served a cake with skulls on top triggered an angry backlash. When I mention it, the three women all groan and nod, accustomed to these misconceptions.
"I study music education and I feel like I'm the outcast, because everyone is into Oriental music and I'm the only metalhead,'" says Mayassi.
“I think it’s also tied to the fact that if someone is a metalhead it’s a lifestyle,” says Khairallah. “The way they think is different than other people and they’re going to do what they want to do and they’re going to express themselves the way they want to express themselves… It’s basically like a message that you send to the masses, and they don’t want this message to be sent.”
Slave to Sirens’ message is primarily one of female empowerment. “It talks to all the girls who live in a religious, conservative society,” says Mayassi. “It’s like they’re living in their own shell and they don’t have enough guts to do what they want or face society or their parents, so we’re telling everyone – but girls, mainly – ‘Go, do what you want. Follow your dreams and don’t let anyone send you away. If we can do it, you can do it’.”
Of course, challenging social norms is easier for some than others. All five of the band members are university educated – three are still studying – and have support from friends and family. But they still face challenges due to their gender.
“It’s hard for girls here to have a band and go out, especially at night,” says Mayassi. “Our parents are still conservative or protective. Because it’s a male-dominated country, you still have these conservative ideas.”
Terminal Leeches includes four full-length songs, recorded in Beirut and mixed and mastered in Italy. Each track features full-throttle, fast-paced thrash metal beats and howling guitar, topped with Khairallah's raw vocals, half-shouted in the rasping style known as growling.
“A lot of times people see me and they’re like, ‘I can’t believe that voice comes out of you’. But I think they all love it,” says the singer, who taught herself the technique. “When I went for the audition I was really scared, because I really wanted to be in a thrash band and I didn’t know what I could do with my voice… It was the first time I actually growled from my heart.”
Although the genre is imported, the band’s lyrics and themes are local, exploring the darker side of humanity in the context of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. “Mutant species, Endless diseases / We feed on war, Terminal leeches,” runs the refrain of the title track.
Mayassi, who writes the lyrics, says she takes her inspiration from “society and the cruelty of human nature”, adding that people often mistakenly assume that metal is all about death. “Most metal bands talk about history, they talk about love,” she says. “They talk about any topic, but with distortion and guitars.”
In the eponymous track Slave to Sirens, they delve into the mythology of the creatures whose voices were so powerfully seductive that Odysseus had to be lashed to the mast of his ship to resist their songs. Poetic yet dark, their lyrics call to their listeners, promising to lure them into their cave, "where the sea hits the rocks," to "become a slave to sirens".
“Basically, we’re the sirens and their voices are our music,” says Khairallah.
“Everyone is a slave to something,” says Mayassi. “We are slaves to money, slaves to power.”
The band is now working on its first full-length album and preparing for a competition at the Beirut club Yukunkun on April 27, in which the winners will have a chance to play in Germany. Given the limitations of the local scene, they’re keen to start performing internationally.
“You don’t really get a lot of support, because if you reach out to someone in the music industry here, they look at you like, ‘This is noise. It’s not music’,” says Khairallah. “Even if you want to mix or produce an album here, it’s hard because they don’t have the right equipment for metal.”
Mayassi, with her cloud of dark curly hair, sums it up nicely by saying: "Bands don't make lots of money so no one takes it seriously. 'Why are you wasting your time? You won't have a future.' But it's a passion. It's something we live for."