The power chords and the passion

Few of the UAE's heavy metal groups have managed to hit the big time yet - even in their own backyard - but they remain loudly and proudly devoted to their genre.

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"I was born here," says Barney Ribeiro, the gleaming-eyed and black-maned guitarist in the death-metal band Nervecell. "I've seen it become from, like, a taboo kind of thing to a very open, acceptable genre of music. And for us to be part of this rise is just overwhelming." Last year, Ribeiro's group, which formed in Dubai in 2000, signed to the German metal label Lifeforce Records. Their first album, Preaching Venom, got a European release in late October and has been picking up admiring reviews ever since. They're doing well. Next year, Nervecell are going on an international tour with the venerable American metallists Suffocation, who pioneered such techniques as the "death growl" and "blast beat", manna for fans but a big part of why most people can't stand modern metal at any price. The phlegmy roar, the Gatling-gun drum breaks, the guitar solos that sound like a cat in a centrifuge - these are, it must be admitted, acquired tastes.

Yet acquire them people do, in Dubai as much as Donnington or Drammen. It's strange: for an aesthetic that marries turn-of-the-last-century industrial fantasies to a distinctly northern European witchiness - all those chains and runes and umlauts - metal does seem to travel rather well. Even in places where it's hard to come by, fans find a way. "I used to get it illegally," recalls Ribeiro. "I would get friends who went abroad to come and buy it for me. We used to make serious arrangements to get music here." That doggedness, that fixity of purpose, are the signatures of the UAE metalhead. There are a surprising number of them out there: Nervecell are just the ones who managed to break through. And Nervecell's vocalist, James Khazaal, can't believe their luck.

"For us to be an extreme metal band and to do that, and to be the first band in the Middle East to sign to a major European label, is surreal," he says. "I just didn't think it would take a heavy metal band to do that." Khazaal is the rare metalhead who might be expected to work through the implications of breaking different markets. It's hard to imagine anyone who could look more at home unleashing sonic destruction - he has a sorcerer's beard and the build of a pro wrestler - but he came to Dubai to study commerce at the American University. He went on to complete a master's in the same subject and was, at the time of our conversation, considering a PhD. "I'd have three degrees in the same major," he noted. If nothing else, it gives him a knowing perspective on the workings of the music industry and leads him to say things like: "The foreigners have already seen the growth and maturity of this market... Things like Desert Rock, it educated and opened the eyes of these investors."

Despite the board-meeting jargon, it's hard to doubt Nervecell's sincerity, not when Khazaal is rhapsodising about the band Cannibal Corpse or when Ribeiro explains how the scales fell from his eyes when he first saw Sepultura on MTV. "Right away when you watch a metal video you can see the complete difference in connection and expression," he says. "Just the performance was like, wow, almost haunting ... Compared to the Michael Jackson I was listening to, or the country music going on back at the house? I just wanted to know more." As his band makes its name on the international metal circuit, he's certainly getting to do that.

The same, alas, can't be said for the Lebanese vocalist Serge Lutfi, whose long years of obscurity are more typical of the UAE metaller's experience. His band's career forms an odd parallel to that of Nervecell. Abhorred formed in late 1999 out of the remains of two groups, Eskimo Disco, which specialised in the triumphant, anthemic sub-genre known as power metal, and Spyne, which played thrash. "We decided to just form one band, one death-metal band, because we were all getting more into that," Lutfi says. "There were no death-metal bands in Dubai before that."

Abhorred were serious. They recruited a decent bass player, Rami Lakkis, latterly of the pop-funk outfit Abri ("he gave us quite a special sound with his jazz bass licks," Lutfi remembers). They recorded demos and promo CDs, even moving to England to seek their fortune. But it wasn't to be, and Lutfi returned to the city where he grew up. The drummer is still in the UK, working as a session player, and Lutfi has a day job as the head of audio at a sound-system and lighting company. It prevents him from working on Abhorred material as much as he'd like. "Because I have to work weekends at times," he says, "it doesn't really leave extra time to go and sit down and write a few riffs."

Still, there's life in the project yet. Lakkis may have moved on to mellower pastures (Lutfi plausibly cites "musical differences"), but the singer and Abhorred's guitarist are still exchanging ideas. "We've already written, like, three tunes in the last year," Lutfi says. It takes passion to stick at one's art through the lean times. But Lutfi certainly has that. "Ninety-five per cent of my day is metal. I would not listen to anything else," he says. "It's a good thing that my girlfriend likes metal as well."

I ask him what caused his devotion. "It came at the right time," he says. "Obviously, parents getting divorced and things like that, at a young age, it does make a difference, I guess, to a growing mind." His older sister introduced him to it when he was 12, bringing home a Danzig cassette. "I didn't know what was going on," he recalls. "It was something I'd never heard - something that intense, that extreme." He progressed to harder stuff: Cradle of Filth, Cannibal Corpse, Meshuggah. "Now it's just everything," he says, "especially technical death metal, which I think is the ultimate for me."

Oddly, he seems to regard Dubai's burgeoning metal circuit with disdain. "I personally do not dabble in the UAE music scene," he says. "Ten years ago it was completely different from what it is right now." Lutfi estimates that there were perhaps 200 metal fans in the UAE when Abhorred started out. "Nowadays you'd see thousands. Go out anywhere and you'll see a few metalheads walking round." He attributes the increase in popularity to the Desert Rock festival, but doesn't seem impressed by it. "I don't see a lot of mingling between the older and the younger metalheads," he says morosely. "But I support the scene because I think every country should have a metal scene." And as long as Lutfi sticks around, Dubai's is safe. "Abhorred will never die," he says. "It will be a project for life because it's the music that we love that we're trying to create."

Metal isn't just for diehards: it's for purists, too, and the minute distinctions between its micro-genres can elude the casual listener. Khazaal says earnestly that his band's sound combined elements of death and thrash metal. That doesn't sound terribly diverse until you consider that death and thrash are themselves subdivided into dozens of further categories, each with their own adherents, rituals and legends. But one young band in Sharjah approaches the territory in a much more eclectic spirit.

"To tell you the truth, we're not your average metalheads," says Ahmed Garoon, the bass player, drum programmer and lyricist in Capricious Alchemy. He's also a flight attendant, and the band has to fit around his minutely fragmented schedule. No wonder they have a song called A Momentary Bliss (hear it at their MySpace page). And to prove that they're no average metalheads, the song interrupts the threshing-machine guitars and guttural vocals for a synth-led progressive jazz interlude in 7/8.

Their recent material, says Garoon, includes "more hip-hop beats ... More of the hip-hop reggae thing going on." As the band's guitarist, Sami al Ghouri (an electrical engineer by day), explains, Capricious Alchemy make a virtue of their haphazard songwriting process. "One of us writes a riff and sends it to the other," he says. "It just all gets added up and you end up with something that, from music theory, all matches because it's all within the same scale or progression, but then it covers a whole different spectrum of genres."

That intuitive approach is typical of the group. Its nucleus was formed when Garoon ("Dubai born and raised" but of Somalian descent) met al Ghouri on the basketball court. "He came from Syria with all these weird moves and he was a lefty and stuff, so we were trying to adapt to his game," Garoon recalls. The pair found they shared a love for extreme music and formed a series of bedroom bands. One of these, Mausoleum, picked up a measure of recognition when they put a demo online.

"We knew the crowd was going to be on the internet," says Garoon. "And we had a couple of forums, a couple of websites where we tried to push our stuff. And we'd get mixed reactions, but at the end of the day people were really surprised that, wow, you're from the Middle East?" Mausoleum traded in doom metal, which means funereal tempos and sludgy, rumbling guitars. Garoon and al Ghouri quickly tired of the style ("It's so slow!" exclaims al Ghouri), and moved on to an assortment of other projects - Excoriate, Spectator, FaceToChainsaw. Capricious Alchemy was, in both name and nature, what they ended up with: an unstable mix of genres and a fluctuating cast of supporting players. Al Ghouri's brother Abdulrazzak el Samsam plays keyboards and they have a second guitarist, Vin Mohandas. Vocalists step in as required and the band seem vaguely embarrassed by their recourse to a drum machine. Alas, the percussion lines that Garoon programmed appear to be too demanding for a human drummer to replicate. They played their first-ever gig last June at the Ramada hotel in Deira, synchronising as best they could with a beat they couldn't hear.

"We got the videos back from the show, and when we were onstage we were just concentrating on our music," al Ghouri recalls. "And due to the flashlights and the strobes and everything we barely saw the first line. But then when we were looking at the videos we were like, wow, people liked us. There was some pretty good crowd interaction there." For Capricious Alchemy, the UAE's metal crowd is good in general. The multi-band line-up at Deira was apparently a model of co-operation. "People from the hip-hop scene will try to overtake each other, like: 'I'm better, you suck,'" says Garoon. "What we realised is that this is kind of different. Everyone helps everyone else. For some reason, people realise that this is not an individual effort."

"You could call it brotherhood," says al Ghouri. All the same, the UAE seems not to be a hugely hospitable place for metallers. Capricious Alchemy reel off a list of the bands they've known over the years who have subsequently faded from view - Paragon, Mankind, Gosho. "Nephelium, who are big in Canada now," says al Ghouri. "Some punk bands. Some black metal bands who weren't that good, but the image ruled. They would come upstage with all the corpse paint and everything." The transitory nature of expat life might have something to do with it.

"We had a lot of this wave of people coming up with bands, playing one show and disbanding," says al Ghouri. "And its members all leave the country," adds Garoon. Why not? It's what Abhorred tried to do. Nephelium may indeed be big in Canada. And not even Nervecell are above the idea. "It's where we started. We're never going to forget about Dubai," says Khazaal ominously when I ask him if the band had considered relocating. "I don't think we'd have a problem with it as long as it made sense," says Ribeiro. "If we have support, we have to do it.

"At the end of the day this is what we're basing our lives on." In Nervecell, the UAE may have given birth to a monster. It remains to be seen whether it can raise it, too.