Hair Is for Headbanging

Heavy metal in Iran

We leave his mother half-watching Russian TV in a crocheted cardigan and head into the next room. Kahtmayan’s drummer puts on Dream Theater’s latest CD as we inspect the satanic iconography on the walls. He spins tales of oblivion at Dream Theater’s last Istanbul concert and offers us more tea. A strangely easy coexistence of the macabre and the mundane met us at every juncture as we peered into the Islamic Republic’s metal scene.

Kahtmayan have a concert in one month in Semnan, a city south-east of Tehran. Esfahan and Mashad have hosted the only metal concerts to date outside the capital and even within the mega-metropolis of Tehran they are a rare phenomenon. “We’re the first metal band they’ve seen,” explains Ardavan, the group’s bassist. “It’s going to be sick.” Kahtmayan have been playing together for two years and are one of Iran’s best known outfits. The concept of metal is alien to Iranians of an older generation but it has a huge following of youth who manage to paralyze home phone lines for days downloading tracks. A book of Metallica lyrics is on its eighth print run and hundreds of bands are registered on Tehran Avenue’s (one of Iran’s most active cultural websites) Underground Music Competition (UMC). Recording in bedrooms and broom closets, bands from all over the country enter songs and online voters pick the winners. A gothic metal track by the young group Amertad won last year’s second prize.

Kahtmayan’s sound is heading slowly away from thrash towards progressive, almost funk metal. In their new track, “Irreversible,” keyboards break into an incessant baroque horror of the fairground, before giving way to the increasingly intricate insistence of the lead guitar, underlined by a fast funky bass. But their fans aren’t happy with their new direction. “At our concert last year bodyguards had to pull back kids shouting for harder, faster songs,” complains Homayoon, the group’s guitarist and driving force, as he ties back the mane of hair he let loose for the session. Homayoon, who heard Iron Maiden for the first time at age twelve, has been working on a solo album, deftly piecing together Arab and Marakeshi rhythms with old Iranian melodies, layered on the foundations of western metal. “Sony liked it but I can’t release it. There’s no market here for experimental metal,” he says with a dry smile.

Kahtmayan are not alone in seeking new waters. Pod, a band who made their name playing Dream Theater covers have started weaving their own fierce but complex sound, labelling themselves “progressive” without hesitation. Every Sunday they gather in a Fifties bungalow in a gated leafy enclave near Karaj, Tehran’s industrial annex, where an elderly gentleman in silk paisley pyjamas welcomes us. They believe there is a market for their music: “Joe Satriani (a US progressive metal legend) plays to five hundred people in the States. If he came here, he could fill the National Stadium.” I balance my teacup on the Marshall amp and ask if that’s because Iranian kids understand his music better. “I guess they’re just hungry for anything,” Arash Mogaddam, the band’s drummer says rethinking.

Both Kahtmayan and Pod have encyclopedic knowledge of western metal, rock, pop and Iranian classical and modern music, which fold into their subtle constructions without artifice. The results are inspiring. Pod has also had two concerts in Tehran, but the process nearly broke them. “Running up and down Ershad steps (the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance) was exhausting,” explains Ardavan, their lead guitarist. “The permission only came through days before the concert. Every Iranian band has had more cancellations than concerts. They wait until the last minute. And they never say no. They just trail you along until you get cold and give up.”

Mogaddam, a prodigiously talented drummer who lived in the States for years, pictures Iranian metal in a painful never-land. “When this was all totally underground, totally unacceptable, we found our own way outside the system. Now bands are bending themselves, morphing to play by the rules and losing themselves in the process.“ Amertad, now firmly on Iran’s metal map since their success at Tehran Avenue’s UMC, produces two versions for every song: the Ershad version and the music they want to play. Their website has attracted a fan base from Norway to Japan, but they’ve never performed live. Their mix of gothic metal and Iranian traditional sounds, translated from the setar and the santur onto the violin, reverberates no further than the egg cartons lining the walls of their bedroom/practice room. Fans have to make do with blurry pictures of the drummer, stripped to the waist, nestled between teddy bears and computers. Since this summer’s elections returned radical conservatives to government, metal music has taken a battering: Iranian state television recently declared Metallica “against Islam.” Jazz and classical concerts are now routinely cancelled and it will be a while before any of these groups get back on stage.

Sipping tea in leather loafers in the smooth white space of his recording studio, Farshid Arabi is the success story of Iranian heavy metal. Last year he released the only officially sanctioned metal CD in Iran, an unlikely combination of Mowlana (a canonical Iranian poet) and the soaring guitars of old school heavy metal. He spent three years trailing after permits and finally gave up. He turned to the music mafia, four or five producers with a strangle hold on the business who print CDs, conjure up permission and bankroll concerts. They produced his CD for free in return for the profits. Their world is the soft pop bubblegum of Tehran traffic jams, but they were prepared to take a chance, and sales have been good. For him the underground is definitely over. “Fifteen years ago, when we started, if they found you with a guitar, they’d smash it over your head. Now everything’s on offer.” The last eight years of eased social regulations under President Mohammad Khatami have brought electric guitars, mixing desks, amps, and drum kits to Iran’s musicians. But though they now have the means, the cold war is on for a platform.

Bands remain that can’t and won’t work with the system, that still rage into a sweaty mike at the world around them. Squeezing past a Mercedes Benz in a North Tehran garage, we head downstairs, following drumbeats. Crammed into a sauna, guitar cases resting on the jacuzzi cover are Scourge, angry “motherf***ers,” who despite only five months together, pump out convincing Judas Priest, Carcass and Megadeath covers, interwoven with their own “brutal” songs. Their growling screams spread fury and destruction and their hair is magnificent: two guitarists have thick locks to the waist, which soar and crash as they hammer out thunder. The bassist looks like a Safavid monarch and though his hair is shorter, he leans sideways and thrashes till sweat drips from the roots. “Death Metal is the only music I listen to,” explains Reza, the vocalist. “It’s the only music that speaks to my soul.“ His studded leather wristbands are only slightly undermined by the stick-on tattoo on his bicep. Arvin who brought us here compares the session with a brief history of Napalm Death (a Birmingham band). Blood drips from skulls on his Death t-shirt, but he looks surprisingly clean-cut. “I’ve had to shape up for eight months of military service,” he explains. But he can’t help himself and plays air guitar with the conviction of a true metal-head.

But apart from the friends who shuffle for sauna space on Friday afternoons, no one has, or will, hear the Scourge sound. They have carved out a private world where they are free to play and do what they want. And to date Scourge have styled themselves into carbon copies of the Children of Bodom and Megadeath posters on the walls, from the hair cuts to the chord changes.

Others who are willing to negotiate the system have been forced to adapt and reinvent. And while they feel and resent the squeeze, bands like Pod and Kahtmayan are creating truly original and arresting tracks. For these bands metal can’t be “a way of life.” It’s just about the music. Image has yielded place to intense, intricate and original sounds in a third space beyond metal’s western roots or its Iranian home. Kahtmayan’s album Virtual Existence is a hymn to the isolated but dynamic world sustained by global computer networks that are Iran’s music scene.