India’s Heavy Metal Scene: From Underground to Mainstream

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    India's Heavy Metal Scene: From Underground to Mainstream -

    “I knew a lot of friends who were using brown sugar back then,” Vehrnon Ibrahim recalls in a warm, Anglo-Indian accent, referring to uncut heroin. For the lead singer of Millennium and his band, metal meant touring tiny venues at regional engineering colleges in small towns in South India. “It meant the students would pack the place, high on cocaine, heroin, marijuana – metal was an underground movement back then,” he says.

    Much has changed since the late ’80s and early ’90s when the band once fronted by Mr. Ibrahim introduced an intoxicating spectacle of live heavy metal and illegal pyrotechnics, including fireworks and flaming pentagrams to Indian audiences. Today, Mr. Ibrahim works in Delhi as a radio programmer, promoting primarily Bollywood music. “Now I’m just another slave to the system,” he jokes.

    But a newer generation has taken up his mantle of cultural rebellion, and done so with tactical business sense and sobriety that Mr. Ibrahim might never have imagined. “Heavy metal [in India] is over ground now,” he says.

    Courtesy of Vehrnon Ibrahim
    An advertisement for the concert “The Spirit of Iron Maiden” by “Millennium,” held in 1989.
    The American metal band Metallica’s 2011 performance in Millennium’s home city of Bangalore, which purportedly drew an audience of more than 40,000 metalheads, helped reinforce the notion that metal is indeed “over ground.” But the nation’s courtship with metal came into fruition in 1986 under much more humble circumstances, when Mr. Ibrahim joined forces with local musicians from competing bands to host a concert called “The Eternal Spirit of Iron Maiden.”

    “We [got together] and covered the entire Iron Maiden live album ‘Live After Death’,” Mr. Ibrahim says. Most of the bands playing at that time were interested in the classic rock (still popular) and Mr. Ibrahim said he underestimated the amount of young people who were with a love of bands like Megadeth and Iron Maiden. “I was shocked at just how many [fans] there were,” he says. “That concert was the first of its kind here.”

    A quarter of a century after Millennium disbanded, Sahil Mahkija of Demonic Resurrection is not as surprised by metal’s popularity. Stout, and bespectacled, Mr. Makhija, who turns 30 this June, has a pensive demeanor when he’s off-stage, more reminiscent of a kindly librarian than some snarling death metal vocalist. But his band is one India’s most accomplished musical exports, having won Metal Hammer magazine’s Golden God award for global metal in 2010, and having forged a deal with Candlelight Records, a U.K. based label which now distributes the band’s records across America and England. As well as being a songwriter and musician, Mr. Makhija is also the founder of Demonstealer Records, one of India’s most prominent independent record labels. It’s a label he runs virtually by hand.

    A Tragedy Befallen by Demonic Resurrection

    “My one dream is not having to do all of the PR, the consultancy work [for other musicians], the pressing [of music], and the mailings myself,” he says. “One day, I just want to play metal as my only job.”

    Mr. Makhija, who lives and works in Juhu, is not as heavy a party guy as the metalheads from Mr. Ibrahim’s era. He’s more interested in pushing metal into newer, faster and heavier directions than he is in booze or drugs. And that’s not the only difference between Demonic Resurrection and their musical forebears. For one thing, Mr. Makhija came of age in the Internet era, which opened him up to more extreme subgenres like black and death metal as a teenager; music that was not otherwise available on the subcontinent. Downloading music in India during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s using a computer dial-up connection, however, was not easy. “It took me five hours for only two MB of music,” he recalls. “I remember downloading a track [from a chat room] by [U.K. black metal band] Cradle of Filth called “Queen of Winter, Throned.” It was almost 10 mbs [megabytes per second], so it took over 24 hours, he recalls. “But I never heard anything like that before, those tempo changes.”

    Mumbai-based heavy metal band Demonic Resurrection at the Brutal Assault festival 2010 in Czech Republic. From left, keyboard player Mephisto, bass player Husain Bandukwala, vocalist and rythm guitarist Sahil “The Demonstealer” Makhija, lead guitarist Daniel Rego and drummer Virendra Kaith
    Mr. Makhija’s self-releasing strategy was a reaction not only to an unwillingness on the part of record labels to take a chance on Indian heavy metal bands, but also local listeners’ lack of familiarity with the kind of savage sounding, structurally complex death metal he liked to play. The early Demonic Resurrection albums were therefore borne not so much out of meeting a demand, but the desire to create one.

    Nikita Shah played keyboards and provided backing vocals in Demonic Resurrection’s first, self-titled release, which was pressed by hand onto 40 rupee Kodak Gold CDs. She later left the band, as many young Indian musicians do, in order to complete her studies, and today she’s a post-graduate student in psychiatry, living in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. “I think all [of the people in my circle] went through a metal phase because we all had these very set rules as to what we were supposed to be, and what we were supposed to be become,” she says. “So, we used to listen to [bands like] Pantera for the aggression. Living in a city like Bombay – sometimes you just feel [angry].”

    The Unrelenting Surge of Vengeance by Demonic Resurrection

    Mr. Makhija agrees. “It’s a rebellion against the family life and religious obsessions [which are] built into Indian culture,” he says. “And there’s a brotherhood within that rebellion. You see someone on the street in a metal shirt and you give devil horns to each other.” For his part, Mr. Makhija dropped out of Jai Hind College only to become more deeply involved in his art. “I received a zero [out of 50] in my first two electronics classes,” he laughs. “Metal [was] the only thing I [could] really do properly.”

    But, whereas in America heavy metal has distinctly working class connotations, in India the music is accessible only to the privileged few.

    Chloe Coventry is a doctoral candidate in the field of ethnomusicology at University of California, Los Angeles and is writing her dissertation on rock music performance in India’s globalized post-liberalization culture. She sees the music as a kind of rite of passage for many of India’s educated youth. “While a few of the older metal musicians I met critiqued the consumer culture [they believed] India was becoming, the younger kids were planning on becoming the engineers and doctors,” Ms. Coventry says. “Rock is still an upper middle-class pursuit here.”

    As for Mr. Makhija, he’s not likely to change career paths anytime soon. Demonic Resurrection is currently at work on their fourth studio album, and will be performing at what will be their most high profile gig to date this summer at England’s Bloodstock. The bill also includes rock icon Alice Cooper, and one of Makhija’s favorite black metal bands, Norway’s Dimmu Borgir. The global recognition puts Demonic Resurrection on a tier by itself in Indian metal. It’s an achievement that for obvious reasons means a lot to Makhija.

    But for Vehrnon Ibrahim of Millennium, Mr. Makhija’s sober, meticulous pursuit of success fails to capture the spirit of India’s metal roots. “When we were doing it – it was angry teenagers looking to piss people off. Now, you have Metallica being flown here on private jets. I’m sorry but that’s just not my thing.”

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