Bands in Dubai complain – with some justification – that they find it hard to get gigs here. Things have improved hugely over the last couple of years, of course, but between conservative venues and a labyrinthine licensing process, the going remains hard for many.
Still, that’s nothing compared to what bands like Arsames have to put up with. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which saw the country change from an increasingly moderate monarchy to a fundamentalist Islamic state, all rock and metal music was banned (an action that later inspired The Clash’s ‘Rock the Casbah’). Although ’80s president Mohammad Khatami relaxed the rules enough to allow rock bands to play again, albeit with government restrictions, metal music is still forbidden in the country.
That’s bad news for Arsames, the Iranian death metal band who will play at Metal Asylum this weekend. ‘Many Muslim countries have the same problem with this kind of music,’ says frontman Ali Madarshahi. ‘Their governments think that metal is Satanic music and that it’s going to destroy their beliefs. But I don’t believe in Satan and he has nothing to do with our music.’
Indeed, while the band have managed to play the occasional underground gig for fans in their home country, the danger of prosecution means that advertised gigs are out. Ali couldn’t even do a phone interview with us for fear of the government catching on.
It’s a shame, because even in our emailed correspondence he is clearly bursting with enthusiasm for the band and – even more so – for the music itself. ‘We play sounds of metal, friendship, brotherhood and respect,’ he says. ‘It’s the sound of humanity and freedom, not killing and brutality. By combining the heavenly melodies of old Arabian music with death metal, we have created “ancient death metal”, a whole new genre to explore.’
That genre will, the boys hope, be embraced by the wider world. Indeed, they see themselves as ambassadors not just for Iranian metal but for the country itself, and the long and storied history that trails behind it.
‘A lot of people in the wider world don’t understand our country,’ says Ali, ‘but we’re trying to educate them through the international language of music. Our lyrics are all about Iran’s legendary history and the stories of Persian culture. One song, ‘Cyrus the Great’, is about a Persian emperor and the first instructor of human rights in the world. We have spoken to people who have later gone and researched this man’s life after they heard us playing the track.’
And, true to patriotic form, the band have no plans to repatriate to another country any time soon, no matter how much the political wind blows against them. ‘We love our country and we don’t want to leave it, but we hope to find a sponsor to do a world tour. It would be great for metalheads around the world to see this kind of Iranian metal. The future is ours – we just have to break through this wall of restrictions first.’
The Middle East is packed with metal fans and bands – even if some of them are deep underground. Here are our recommendations
This Iraqi thrash metal band faced death threats and hatred in their home country – as seen in the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad – and have since relocated to the US. Debut EP Only the Dead See the End of the War is available to buy online.
This Jordanian doom metal band – now partially located in Dubai – incorporate Arabic melodies into their sound to create what they call ‘dark oriental metal’. Like other bands in the Middle East, they have faced persecution from the authorities. But they’ve stuck together and released their debut album, Sudden Death Syndrome, in 2008.
This Dubai-based thrash and death metal band have done extremely well in the last couple of years, releasing debut album Preaching Venom in 2008 and being signed to German metal label Lifeforce Records in 2009. They’re currently touring clubs in Europe.