UAE death metal group Nervecell take their dark fury to the world

The UAE metal group Nervecell’s guitarist, Barney Ribeiro, talks to The National about their new album, channelling the sounds of conflict and being an ambassador for the music scene

UAE death metal group Nervecell return with new album Past, Present...Torture.
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Barney Ribeiro is used to stereotypes and misconceptions when it comes to his band. They were called anti-social, highschool drop-outs with no job prospects.

It all seems laughable now considering the group is one of the region’s most acclaimed metal outfits. But when Nervecell started out nearly 20 years ago in Dubai, mainstream rock‘n’roll releases were hard to find in music stores, let alone records by death-metal bands. But the three-piece summoned the patience and perseverance that is key to any pioneering feat.

From performing in college rock festivals, Nervecell went on to not only become one of the first bands from the Gulf to release a death-metal album, 2008's Preaching Venom, but to also makes waves internationally with tours across the Middle East, South-East Asia, Europe and, most recently, Brazil. Most impressive of all, Nervecell became part of a legion of bands – including Saudi Arabia's Creative Waste, Bahrain's Smouldering in Forgotten and Egypt's Scarab – who not only educated their respective home nations about heavy metal music, but became global ambassadors for a tight-knit and evolving regional death-metal scene.

Ribeiro, an Indian and Portuguese national, born and raised in Dubai, says he is not surprised the Middle East is spawning a growing number of innovative bands. He explains that the turmoil gripping the region directly inspires the anger and catharsis so central to death-metal.

“It’s the soundtrack of the Middle East, if you ask me” he says. “If you look around and see what is going on, there are a lot of hardships that people are experiencing, due to no fault of their own. Bombs are going off outside homes, families are being ripped apart by war and floods. As a human being there is only so much you can take and death-metal speaks about those feelings.”

Nervecell channels that desperation into their new release, Past, Present … Torture. Released last week, the band's third album deals with humans' capacity to self-destruct through conflict.

“In a nutshell, we talk about the concept of how history often repeats itself and how it is now time to take note” says Ribeiro. “If you take a look at the album cover [a jagged N with a dystopian city skyline in the background] it features our emblem but it is styled in a way that is more alerting.”

If that doesn’t stir the senses, then the 13 songs on offer surely will. Over 50 minutes, the tracks are a dizzying array of thunderous riffs courtesy of Ribeiro and Jordanian guitarist Rami Mustafa. Then there are the ghoulish vocals by Dubai-based Syrian-Lebanese singer and bassist James Khazaal.

For the uninitiated, the album's extreme sonic aggression is the stuff of nightmares. But for those familiar with the genre, Past, Present … Torture is a rather dynamic collection of songs set to gain a bigger legion of fans. "That's the goal for this record," Ribeiro says. "We have been doing a lot of shows already, but with this new album we really want to show ourselves to the world. The album is harder and more brutal."

The album's sharp and punchy production – displayed in the brutal blast of Proxy War and DNA – is a result of hiring the best in the business.

Past, Present … Torture is an international effort in which the songs were recorded in Dubai, Doha and the French city of Lyon (where session drummer Kevin Foley laid down his tracks), before being mixed and mastered in Poland.

With the UAE still lacking the music infrastructure to produce a world-class metal album, Ribeiro says the band needed to seek out talent abroad.

“That’s the only way we know how to do it,” he says.

“When it comes to metal music, there is no producer here who has the intellect and experience to bring out the sound we want. They can attempt it, but they don’t have the catalogue to convince us that they can actually achieve it. As a band we try our best to keep things organic and home-grown but that too has its limitations sometimes.”

With Nervecell’s touring commitments increasing by the year, Ribeiro says band members have already ditched their full-time jobs for life on the road.

A Middle Eastern tour is in the works which will see the band performing a Dubai gig before the end of the year. It will be another chance to slay any remaining stereotypes regarding the group in their home city, one of which is that the guys are equally as fierce off-stage.

“Some people come up to us in the gigs and ask us for a picture really politely and we say of course and we pull them in the picture with us,” says Ribiero. “I love how we change perceptions of us with each show. I mean, people think our singer James will eat them up for dessert. But in reality he is the best hug-giver and the most emotional dude. He is a teddy bear.”

Past, Present … Torture by Nervecell is out now on Metal East Records


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