A map documenting metal bands around the world circa 2007. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Editor’s note: Out of respect for our source’s desire to remain anonymous, and for the sake of consistency, last names have been omitted in some instances.
Written by Jennifer Smith
When artist and motion graphics designer Mike Hill endeavored to hand-draw a timeline and map charting every metal band in the world, he did so because of a love of paper, graphite, and metal, but also partially out of curiosity.
“The project was done to educate myself more about heavy metal and also to educate other people that had no idea what heavy metal was or had a specific idea what heavy metal was and maybe the wrong idea,” Hill says.
His ambitious work, which involved some heavy reading of the Encyclopaedia Metallum at www.metal-archives.com, was completed in 2007-2008. Though Hill was forced by sheer numbers to abandon the concept of charting every metal band in existence, the drawings remain as evidence of that goal.
The project included a timeline study, a map of metal bands around the world, a sub-genre popularity index, and a Flash piece titled Subgenre Interactive. The three large-scale drawings were artfully created out of mixed media materials such as graphite, paper, and gouache.
“The reason that I hand draw them is because, first of all, I get a lot of pleasure out of just sitting and drawing lines,” Hill says. “It’s partially for me to enjoy the process of creating, and I also like the mistakes that go along with it. You get ghosts from erased lines, colors that kind of bleed together with watercolors … So there’s this sort of preciousness to the drawings that you get when you’re up close with them, and that also relates to how I feel about the subject. It’s very close to my heart, and I want people to feel like I have a lot invested in the drawings.”
The map drawing ultimately revealed several countries that had no metal bands at all and others that had strikingly few. Specifically, most of Africa logged little to no metal bands on Encyclopaedia Metallum, and the Middle East also fell on the low end of that spectrum with only a handful of metal bands in some countries.
Since Mike Hill’s map project, however, the social, political, and racial climates affecting the distribution of metal around the world have changed. Notably, Syria has forged its own metal scene despite the fact that metal was once strictly forbidden.
In 2005, an official blacklist was announced in Syria, making it illegal to sell metal CDs in stores. Today, Encyclopaedia Metallum logs eight active metal bands in Syria; however, these bands still face considerable challenges in the production and promotion of their music. There are no festivals, magazines, or labels that support metal music within Syria, owing to lingering social stigmas. These stigmas are so harsh that metal shows in Syria have been pushed mostly underground, taking place in secret for fear of investigation, harassment, or worse. Still, Syrian metal bands have been able to promote their music on the internet via social media channels such as Facebook, where there’s always the possibility of getting the attention of an international label.
The international outfit consists of Herman on bass, Julia on female vocals, Luke on guitars and Sam, the composer and creative force behind the band, on vocals and keyboards.
Sam founded the band in 2010 and is currently living in Damascus, Syria.
“The main idea behind Ecliptic Dawn is I write the music on Guitar Pro and then I send files to them to record,” Sam says. “Each one records his own or her own part. I met them actually through forums like Metal Archives. Since I write everything, still it’s a Syrian band. I know without the rest of the guys no songs would come to life, but still the music … it’s kind of my music.”
The history of metal in Syria is somewhat shrouded, but Sam recalls an interest in the music generating around the mid-nineties. In 2004, Syrian heavy metal group The Hourglass released their debut album To the Land of the Free and earned international acclaim. Since then, metal bands have come and gone but metal fans in Syria have remained loyal to all manner of genres from black metal groups such as Abidetherein to post doom groups such as Eulen, which also incorporates elements of black and acoustic metal.
Despite a growing fan base, both within Syria and abroad, Syrian society as a whole is not yet willing to accept metal as other Middle Eastern countries have.
“Not exactly political and not exactly religious. I guess it’s about society,” Sam says. “Society can’t accept metal right now because of old traditions maybe. Maybe it’s because of religious things, but the whole metal scene isn’t accepted by traditional people.”
Due to the lack of support and copyright protections, Syrian metal bands have found it difficult, if not impossible, to make money with their music.
“Music itself, releasing CDs and selling them, isn’t exactly the perfect way to get money here since we have no copyright laws,” Sam says. “I don’t think it’s a profession to make money here. It’s just a passion.”
Much like the early days of metal in the United States, metal-heads in Syria are often stigmatized as Satanists even today.
“A few days ago, I was walking down the street and some dude walked past me,” says Gilbert, the vocalist of Syrian death metal band, Netherion. “He freaked out. Just because I have long hair, long beard. What’s the problem with that?”
Due to this attitude towards metal, in order to play music in Syria, many bands resort to underground gigs; however, these secret shows can be difficult and dangerous if they peak the interest of investigators.
“We could do an underground gig, but it’s really, really hard to do an underground gig unnoticed,” Gilbert says. “Many people got punished before … got arrested and all.”
Netherion is also based in Damascus, Syria. The name Netherion refers to what Gilbert describes as “the Ion of the Nether World.” According to the band’s Facebook page, the name speaks to the “state of decay that we feel the world is drowning in.”
“Well, we decided to talk about the people’s suffering. Why people suffer, what’s our problems, and how we can solve it,” Gilbert says. “ Of course, the economy, not being able to say what you really mean, free speech … all those matters — you can’t do anything without checking with the government.”
Like Ecliptic Dawn, Netherion makes their music available on the Internet for free. Because of social media outlets like Facebook and YouTube, Netherion has been able to build an international fan base by word of mouth. Through the spread of their music, Netherion hopes to gain acceptance in Syria by combating the negative stereotypes that keep their music underground.
“For metal to be more accepted, I think we need to do a little bit more work. Just letting people know who we are, what we really do, what we mean,” Gilbert says. “People just need to be educated more about metal.”
Until then, Syrian metal bands occupy a unique space on the metal map, a place where their very existence is a subtle act of rebellion and a place where a few bands continue to push forward despite numerous challenges.
“Here it’s more strictly forbidden,” Gilbert says of Syrian metal compared to metal in other Middle Eastern countries. “Here people started listening to it before other Middle Eastern countries and here, people loved it more.”
For more information about Netherion, including the status of their new album, visit the band’s Facebook fan page.
To hear an audio version of this story, including extended interview footage, check out today’s episode of Third Eye Weekly, BTR’s brand new current events podcast.