It’s the summer of 2009, some time in June or May. I should be studying for a university admission test. Instead I am headbanging to this local metal band, Communal Grave at a small gig in Royal Rodale Karachi. I distinctly remember the band performing a sick cover of Lamb of God’s Faded Line that night with everyone in the audience moshing to the core. There was a strong sense of kinship among both the audience and the band at that time. You could see a part of yourself in the band performing, rather than idolizing the performer that’s usually the case when watching mainstream pop stars.
That’s pretty much what metal music in Pakistan was about. A camaraderie of sorts. It was like an extended group of friends fucking around and having fun.
It was during late 2000s that metal began to gain momentum locally. A handful of metal bands like Dusk (consisting of Babar Sheikh and guitar virtuoso Faraz Anwer, Seth , Messiah) had been around way before that and had even toured the Czech Republic. But by the turn of the millenium you had a bigger list of local bands to listen to and, with the help of internet, it was easier for artists to distribute their music.
Things took a turn in the positive direction when a newly formed independent record label called Gas Mask Holocaust released a compilation album Underground Chaos in 2008. The album consisted of both old and new metal bands from across the country. Seeing actual physical copies of an album with names of local bands created a sense of optimism in the nascent metal scene. In some ways, it was kinda like how the Deep Six compilation released in the mid 1980s showcased the Seattle grunge sound. The GmH initiative was lead by journalist and rock enthusiast Sheryar Popalzai.
In Karachi you had bands like Communal Grave among many others that had started to develop a cult following. The band formed in 2006, consisting of Nabeel and Faraz on guitars, Jamail on bass, Asas on drums and Moiz on vocals. It started off with doing covers of Western metal bands primarily Lamb Of God but, with time, they worked on original material, releasing singles including Blinded By Deceit, Black Harvest and Anomaly.
As both Jamail and Faraz recalled that at a point there was a pinch of optimism of ‘actually making it’. Especially after some of their songs even managed to receive some radio airplay in both India and the United States . “We had an offer to perform at this festival in Dubai”, said Jamail. The only problem was that the band had to pay for all of that themselves. “We were just students then. How do you expect us to afford that?” he asked.
Financial concerns weren’t the only thing standing in their way. A major problem with the metal scene in Karachi was lack of gigs due to the political environment of the city. There were hardly any concerts for mainstream pop acts let alone any metal ones. Compared to Karachi, Lahore had a pretty vibrant scene when it came to metal. One band perhaps stood out the most for me personally was progressive metal band Odyssey. The band, formed in 2008, has two albums under its name one of which was released under the GmH labels.
Raja Nabeel the front man and keyboardist said that seeing physical copies of the band’s albums being distributed was an experience of its own. With the help of friends and colleagues the band managed to send out copies of its first album Ghosts of Yesterday to England. And much like Communal Grave had gained decent traction in other countries. “To this day I receive message from people in places like Bolivia and Japan asking me for physical copies of the band’s album.
A major problem with the metal scene in Karachi was lack of gigs due to the political environment of the city.
As cliched as it may sound, all good things must come to an end.
Despite both Communal Grave and Odyssey receiving a warm response from audiences in both Pakistan and abroad the dream – if there was one to begin with – ended. Odyssey went on an indefinite hiatus with members going off to different countries, and Communal Grave also disbanded. ‘There was always this reality check even when we were young” said Faraz who works as a civil engineer at a reputable firm. The socio-economic aspect is always there to keep you grounded.
All of them agree that from the start music wasn’t something they looked to as a livelihood. “I still play the guitar and I still love to jam with other musicians but I have responsibilities, not just to myself but my family” he adds. Jamail who works in the internal audit department of a reputable bank has found the perfect balance between his day job and passion for metal. He single handedly produced and composed Communal Grave’s one and only full length album back in 2015. In his own words, the album was the product of nostalgia in many ways. Right now he is focusing on his new project called Witchspawn.
Raja Nabeel exclaims that in Pakistan even mainstream pop acts you see on Television apart from a handful of people have day jobs. ” I used to leave my house 6:30 AM in the morning to record vocals for Odyssey and be in class by 8:00 AM back in the day. But if you ask me to do the same now, I’ll pass.”
That’s not to say that metal in Pakistan has died out completely though. Just a few weeks ago progressive djent metal band Takatak headlined Lahore Music Meet festival to a packed Hall 1, and closed to a standing ovation. Other artists like Nasir Siddiqui are keeping the flame alive with their own distinct style of progressive guitar work. What became clear from Takatak’s preformance at LMM, and my own experience headbanging to Communal Grave at a small gig in Karachi 10 years ago, is that metal really needs to be experienced live. You need to engage in that communal experience. And although the opportunities for gigging may have dwindled, there’s nonetheless the faint glimmer of hope that there’s still life in metal music, it just needs to find a home.
Ather Ahmed is just ok in playing some instruments. He enjoys writing and listening to music.