THE unearthly scream that suddenly fills my darkened car like an unleashed banshee almost causes me to jump out of my skin. Okay, so maybe trying out The Kill Room Journal album in an almost empty carpark late at night isn’t one of my most well thought-out ideas. “Music. it’s just music,” I murmur comfortingly to myself.
The grinding music, discordant guitar riffs and the otherworldly voice belonging to Madec, the lead singer of Iron Moth, emerging from my CD player come as a shock to my system. I briefly wonder if my mother would reach out for her Bible and rosary to exorcise me if she ever discovered that my music taste from good old vanilla Whitney has been replaced with that of guttural rants growling “Long to see you burningggggggggggggg. long to see you screamingggggggggg.”
It’s a lot to get used to. Metal music can definitely appear forbidding to the outsider because it frequently feels deliberately unintelligible and hostile; as if it’s trying to ward off anyone who doesn’t display sufficient commitment. The dark lyrics, angry dissonant music riffs, illegible and mostly ominous-looking band logos, coupled with the baffling array of microcosmic sub-genres are more than enough to drive the average mainstream music fan away.
Don’t worry about trying to understand the genre. There are just too many to figure out. Are you a fan of technical brutal death metal or blackened sludge metal? Do you eschew grindcore metal in favour of speed metal? Did you just understand all of that? No? Listened to any of it? Probably not. “A lot of underground metal is quite hard to listen to from a beginner’s perspective. If you’re listening to it cold for the first time, it can translate to just noise,” remarks 44-year-old Madec.
Just an hour before, I was looking despairingly at the amused members of metal band Iron Moth as they tried to initiate me into the world of underground metal — the stuff that exists and thrives in another dimension to the stadium-filling, multi-platinum-selling world of Metallica, KISS and AC/DC.
“There are many genres to metal. From hard rock, heavy metal, speed metal, death metal, black metal, thrash metal. Do you have a piece of paper? I can write it for you!” explains guitarist Aizat with a grin. Every genre has a hinterland but none quite like heavy metal’s vast, vibrant labyrinth that finds room for everything. Literally anything. From stuff so extreme it counts as avant-garde experimental music, to artistes painstakingly recreating the sound of long-gone bands no one outside underground metal has heard of in the first place, metal music has spread its dark wings so wide that it appears to have spawned a proliferation of sub-genres.
“What’s your type of music?” I ask finally. “Blackened Sludge Metal!” replies Aizat earnestly. What?
My perplexed face elicits laughter around the table. The band (minus their drummer Tajul), comprising Madec, Khian, Man and Aizat, sit around the table looking unremarkably normal. Where are the tattoos, crazy hair and piercings? I wonder aloud.
“It’s all about the music,” explains soft-spoken full-time musician Khian. “Besides, we’re all working!” chips in bassist Man wryly. Lead vocalist Madec then spends a few minutes explaining his double life to me. By day, he works at an IT company. By night however, he is Madec, the charismatic frontman of Iron Moth, singing The Kill Room Journal, part of the oeuvre that also includes The Hastie Fire (Peter Dinsdale) and The Burial Chamber. The Kill Room Journal album, Khian tells me, has just been released early this month on Jan 6.
The musicians are reluctant to disclose their actual names, preferring to use the monikers of their public personas. It’s the sort of self-preservation that’s unsurprising owing to the fact that this cultural phenomenon continues to be a thorn to the sides of both fundamentalists and nervous authoritarians, while at the same time being largely ignored by most of the mainstream media.
“We’re a misunderstood bunch,” admits 52-year-old Man. There’s a certain allusion to metal music lovers or metalheads as they’re known, that’s hard to shake off.
Satanism and “devil worshipping” are often (and not rightly) associated with this genre. For non-metalheads, the world of heavy metal can seem like a portal to the ominous netherworld filled with animal sacrifices, violence, drugs and illicit sex.
The discordant music is often subjugated as a corrupting force on youth due to the lyrical content and aesthetics of the genre. For those unfamiliar with heavy metal, it’s easy to make this assumption because of the darker and often taboo themes present throughout the music.
“But you don’t look like devil worshippers,” I blurt out. “That’s because we’re not!” says Man vehemently, adding: “We’re as normal as everybody else. I send my children to sekolah agama (religious school). How can I be a devil-worshipping musician then?”
His expression earnest, Khian adds: “It’s both a tired and lazy convention that metalheads are perceived as violent, satan-worshipping villains. It doesn’t reflect the reality that metal appeals to an intelligent and diverse range of people. I know of accountants, doctors and truck drivers who enjoy “head-banging” to heavy music in their spare time!” Nodding, Madec chips in: “It’s an art, really, and what you see on stage is a persona, not reality.”
“Do you like horror movies?” asks Man suddenly and I nod enthusiastically. “Well then, just as movies have so many genres, music too has its own. You can consider metal to be the “horror” genre in music!” he explains with a grin, adding with a gleeful flourish: “And just like the horror genre has its own sub-genres, there are many genres to the type of horror-fic music in the metal world!”
So what sort of horror are you inferring to in your music? “Classic B-grade 1970s Italian horror films!” replies Aizat, grinning mischievously.
It seems that heavy metal and horror cinema are cut from the same unholy, blackened cloth. According to a report in The Guardian, metal as it is today wouldn’t have existed had the likes of the iconic Hammer Films and 1960s European horror not been there to provide the vital thematic and aesthetic inspiration. The dimly lit castles, satanic allusions and ludicrous camp all fed into the look and feel of the genre’s early champions.
“It has all the campiness and feel of the 1970s horror flick,” says Khian, the band’s lyricist, alluding to Silence Of The Lambs as the inspiration behind his writing. It’s hard to associate the dark brooding lyrics to the placid bookish-looking man sitting opposite me. The 47-year-old is hardly the slasher type, and as he succinctly puts it: “It’s an art form... not a way of life. It’s all about creating a story, an atmosphere and a mystique.”
THE GENESIS OF METALHEADS
Metal, born from the British blues scene and the darker side of psychedelia, arrived in the late 1960s a heady mix of influences and not yet clearly defined. Although by no means the only exponents of the genre, many credit English bands Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin as being one of the first metal bands to bring their genre of guitar-shredding music to a new crop of listeners.
By the mid-1980s metal had spawned an increasing number of sub-genres as artistes began experimenting with sounds and beats.
These included glam metal, typified by LA’s Motley Crue; trash metal, made popular by bands like Slayer; groove metal, popularised by Pantera, while Opeth slayed the death metal subgenre.
“Slayer’s one of my influences,” says Man, before sharing that in the 1980s, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan were the first few countries to have a thriving metal scene. The Malaysian underground music scene was alive and well back then with the emergence of Trash/Death metal and punk bands, including Rator, Blackfire, Punisher, Nemesis, Mallaria and Hijrah.
However, the wide misconceptions about the entire cauldron of underground metal has led to increasingly “angsty” authorities clamping down on what they deem to be “subversive” music that they fear would corrupt the morals of our youths. But as far as the band is concerned, the underground metal scene is relatively free from the scourge of alcoholism or drugs. “You don’t find that kind of issues at our events,” declares Madec. Music, believes the band, doesn’t corrupt. It unites.
“It’s a much misunderstood art. In fact, it brings people together. It provides a kind of fraternity to which you can belong. You’re not going to be the loner kid if you’re into metal because you’ve got this global fraternity of an incredibly kind and loyal brotherhood,” says Man, adding simply: “I play with friends, for friends.”
Nevertheless, the cultural phenomenon continues to give everyone from fundamentalist preachers to middle-aged bassists like Man a reason to get up in the morning. It shows no signs of extinction.
In fact, as life starts to get louder, faster and increasingly crowded, so too does the world of heavy metal. As Aizat sagely concludes: “There’s room in here for everyone. You won’t find any sort of rivalry between bands. The scene motto is ‘cooperation not competition’.”
I reach out to crank up the volume on my CD player. Soon the car is filled with otherworldly growling against a sea of discordant music. Man and his band of metal musicians would be happy to know that I listen to it all the way home. Twice. Perhaps there IS a metalhead in me after all.