‘The stream on the website isn’t working? Ah. Our IT guy isn’t here at the moment. I think someone’s leaked the album on to the web – you can just download a torrent if you want.’ We’ve had some unusual requests in our time, but the lead guitarist of Nervecell – the Middle East’s most prominent death metal band – instructing us to steal their new album prior to our interview is certainly up there. We watch the progress bar on our screen anxiously, aware that Psychogenocide – the Dubai-based group’s second full-length album – will have little in common with the chart-friendly pop music and commercial house tunes we’re used to dealing with. Forty-four and a half minutes of intense riffs and throat-shredding choruses later, we call back. We might have been shaking a little.
Wow. That was pretty intense. How much work was involved in putting the new album together?
Barney Ribeiro (guitar): We felt like we had enough experience in us, so decided to produce it ourselves. It wasn’t an effort to cut costs or anything, we just wanted to take control of it. The compositions have become more mature and a lot of the songs have been written with live scenarios in mind. It sounds... massive. It’s huge.
We noticed some Arabic vocals...
James Khazaal (vocals/bass): I’m originally from Lebanon, and, although English is my first language, I’ve always wanted to do something different. The track ‘Shunq’ started off with the Arabic lyrics, then I decided I wanted to make it into a kind of story, so I added the English lyrics as well. It’s not half Arabic or half English, it’s Arabic and English simultaneously. It’s an introduction in Arabic, the body is in English and Arabic and then the conclusion in English. And nothing was better than sharing my dream of this song with Karl Sanders [chief axeman of death metal band Nile, who features on the track], coming with the knowledge he has, he was the best choice. The only choice, actually.
How long does it take to learn the death metal growl? Does it have adverse effects on your throat?
James: I love this album to my heart, because it really showed me my limits of what I can do, vocally. I work song by song, meaning I don’t do all the growls on the whole album in one go. Concept wise, I did push my limits, but physically I didn’t. Nervecell has always been a live band, so whatever happens within the studio I also have to imagine myself doing on stage. We opened some doors with Psychogenocide. And it’s amazing. It’s amazing.
How much resistance did you face when you were first trying to make a name for yourselves?
Barney: We started out back in 2001. The first gig we ever played was actually in Abu Dhabi, at the international school. We used to play there a lot in battle of the bands-type shows. Heavy metal music wasn’t really available to the public at that point. It was a very underground scene – there was no such thing as promoters, or festivals, labels and agents. It was just like a bunch of musicians putting a stage together, renting a bar room in a hotel and then having the show. It was very DIY. You’d play to the people you went to school with, and your friends would be in another band. It was punk, heavy metal, grunge, death metal, black metal, thrash metal. Regardless of genres everyone would come together.
Ever had a really strange reaction from an audience who were just completely unprepared for your extreme sound?
Barney: Not yet! Any promoter who books Nervecell knows what they’re getting themselves into, really. They know what they’re up against – it’s a niche. I don’t think we’ve ever had any awkward gigs like that. Except when we first started, when we were doing battle of the bands type stuff.
Which country do you think has the craziest fans?
Barney: Germany is the place. The heavy metal attitude is pretty much in their culture. The UK, too. We got told that in the UK if they didn’t like you, you can expect anything. But we were pretty confident and just went out and did what we do. They went berserk! There’s a lot of anticipation on people’s faces because they don’t expect death metal to come from the UAE, but it’s great that they’re so supportive.
James: Abu Dhabi fans cannot be ignored, either. You guys are INSANE. Whenever we have a show, there’s always a dedicated bunch from Abu Dhabi. The city’s very close to us – we’re representing the UAE so we’ve got to love our capital city.
Psychogenocide is in stores now, and will be available to buy from iTunes from April 29.