It’s a hot, steamy Friday night at Gilly’s Redefined, a club in downtown Bengaluru (Bangalore), and Escher’s Knot have come to the end of their set. As a crowd of around 500 roars, readying for the night’s headline act, Kerala thrash-metallers The Down Troddence, Escher’s Knot vocalist Abijith Rao approaches the mic. “I want to thank you guys for coming out,” he says, breathlessly, squinting into the crowd. “Because, you know, it’s really hard being a metal band in India.” It was a sentiment I was to hear again and again on my trip to India in February to learn more about the country’s thriving metal scene. Just about every band I met had stories of the difficulties they’d faced, including Kryptos, a thrash-metal band from Bengaluru. With their melodic, riff-based tracks like The Mask of Anubis, their sound harks back to the new wave of British heavy metal of the early 1980s, but success hasn’t been without its challenges, says Nolan Lewis, who recalls the band’s first gig shortly after they formed in 1998.
“Some guy said he was going to recreate Woodstock in Mysore,” he says, referring to the cult New York music festival of 1969. “So we get to Mysore and standing on the train station we didn’t know where to go. We didn’t have a location, we have no idea who to call. So we just randomly follow a guy with long hair.”
Who Ganesh Krishnaswamy (bass), Nolan Lewis (vocals, guitar) and Rohit Chaturvedi (guitar).
What Formed in 1998, one of India’s longest standing heavy metal bands draws from 1980s thrash and classic metal. They became the first band in India to tour Europe after a coveted Iron Maiden support slot at the 2009 edition of Rock ‘N India in Bengaluru.
They say “Evoking the true spirit of metal the way it was always meant to be,” says Lewis.
Listen to Full Throttle from album Burn Up the Night. To quote the band: “It makes you want to break out the denim and leather, grab a crate of beer and headbang with your mates.”
Bass player Ganesh Krishnaswamy picks up the story: “We ended up at a cow farm. There was cow dung everywhere. There was a place where the dung was cleared – that was the stage.”
“Then we get on stage,” says Lewis. “There were 10 guys watching. We start. Then the cops came and busted the show and took all the beer.”
Still, despite the challenges, the scene looks far healthier in the second weekend of February 2019. Now in its eighth year, Bangalore Open Air sees bands from across South Asia descend on India’s hard rock capital for the country’s biggest metal festival. The line-up: Hyderabad band Godless, Mass Damnation from Sri Lanka and Train Wreck from Bangladesh open for two international headliners, Norwegian black-metal band Abbath and New York foursome Suffocation. I arrive, late afternoon, at the festival’s site, around an hour by tuk-tuk outside of town. Now, for anyone accustomed to metal shows in Europe or the US, the Bangalore event, on the face of it, might seem odd. At first, all the things you could reasonably expect from fests in London or New York are present and correct: extreme volume; vocalists who appear to be singing “Wrrooooogh!” or “Yeeeesurrrg!”; exhortations for the crowd to go – insert expletive – crazy.
Who Karan Katiyar (guitar), Jayant Bhadula (vocals), Raoul Kerr (vocals), Sarthak Pahwa (percussion), Vishesh Singh (drums) and Roshan Roy (bass). What Formed in 2015, the band started with heavy-metal covers of Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar tracks. Now, they’re carving out their own niche with original songs conveying the sunnier side of metal to their 100k-plus YouTube followers: a mix of classic metal, traditional Indian instruments and bilingual, Punjabi-English vocals.
They say “Metal can be fun, you don’t have to be angry all of the time,” says Jayant Bhadula.
Listen to Huge, breakout hit Ari Ari or new tune Endurant about bullying and its consequences. Positively hardcore.
But other things are different. There’s an air of politeness about it all: even as a circle pit forms for The Down Troddence show, all the moshers take extreme care not to so much as brush against the bouncer who stands at the front of the stage laughing at the silliness of it all. Even as the headliners appear, flying plastic containers of non-specific liquid are notable by their absence. And, sure, while the festival attracts its fair share of longhairs in sleeveless battlejackets, they’re so clean, you get the feeling these are denims that get but one outing a year. I got a similar impression the night before at Gilly’s Redefined: almost everyone looked like they’d come straight from their job in one of Bangalore’s tech start-ups – all crisp polo shirts and sensible haircuts.
And, sure, who cares? Well, on the face of it, no one. Until you speak to bands here who say that the crowd’s relative primness speaks to a profound divide within the country’s metalscape. “Metal in India is a strictly middle-class thing,” says Nolan Lewis of Kryptos. “Most people here don’t care about this stuff.” That’s not, he stresses, because they’re inherently ignorant. Or, he thinks, that metal – a challenging, marginal genre even in the most progressive music markets – is perceived as weird. But if your main concern is where your next meal is coming from, you’re hardly likely to be tracing a lineage between, say, the heavy-metal sound of early 1990s California to those of your local thrash outfit. It’s a far greater challenge than cow pat-studded fields or India’s small to non-existent gig circuit.
“So when people say metal is an ‘underground’ thing in India, I’m like, ‘No man [it isn’t].’”
The singer of Millennium, founded in 1987 and India’s first metal band, agrees. Considered the godfather of India metal, Vehrnon Ibrahim thinks the genre’s inability to connect to a homegrown audience has put a stranglehold on its reach – both here and abroad. “Metal should be working-class musicians making music for working-class people,” he says. His particular bugbear? Almost all of India’s metal bands sing in English which, he claims, marks them out as from privilege. It also means there’s nothing distinctly Indian about them. Meanwhile, homegrown hip-hop is exploding, he says, precisely because it does adopt local dialect.
“Metal in India is a strictly middle-class thing”
“Bands have to sing in local languages; that’s the only way they’re going to cut across to a much larger audience,” he says.
Who Kaushal LS (vocals), Ravi Nidamarthy (guitar), Moiz Mustafa (guitar), Aniketh Yadav (drums) and Abbas Razvi (bass).
What Formed in 2015, this fast-rising Hyderabad quartet do what they describe as “intense yet empowering” back-to-basics death metal and had a big moment in 2018 as one of the first Indian metal bands to play huge heavy metal fest Wacken Open Air in Germany, to mark the release of EP Swarm with its themes of “zombification, cosmic horror [and] reanimation of death”.
They say “We don’t want our music to be restricted to any city or country. We want to go international.”
Listen to Infected by the Black from new EP Swarm.
“At the moment, music festivals are looking at maybe 4,000 people for a one- or two-day [event], so that’s catering to the tip of the tip of the pinprick, the diamond on top of the triangle that is 1.4 billion people. I’m campaigning for it to go five per cent lower. That’s all I’m saying. Talk to 200 million people. English-speaking is seen as for an educated and hence more affluent person. And that doesn’t lend itself to a raw message.”
Others think that’s unfair and say there are groups whose local culture feeds into their music. One is The Down Troddence. In among the band’s grinding guitars are modal elements and rhythms from Keralan folk music.
We were all diehard fans of this art form called Theyyam and its philosophies,” says bassist Nezer Ahemed, referring to a pre-Hindu tradition from Kolathunadu.
Who After several line-up changes over their 18 years: Sahil “Demonstealer” Makhija (vocals, guitar) and Virendra “Viru” Kaith playing drums.
What The veteran “blackened” death metal band with 13 ex-members have released five studio albums since forming in 2000 including 2014’s The Demon King released in the US and Europe. Their most recent album Dashavatar weds thudding metal to sitar. On the side, Makhija ran his own record label for several years, then set up the appropriately named Headbanger’s Kitchen, a YouTube cooking show of low-carb keto recipes.
They say “I knew the moment I started Demonic Resurrection my one goal in life was to make music with this band forever,” says Sahil Makhija.
Listen to Matsya the Fish from their newest album Dashavatar.
“So we started infusing elements of that into our songwriting and it worked out great, not forced or awkward. The aesthetics of metal and Theyyam sort of goes hand in hand. Both are crushing and brutal, so to speak. But there are underlying stories of eternal wisdom and social equality in Theyyam and that’s what attracted me personally.”
Other bands have gone further and, in part, proved Vehrnon’s conviction that metal with Indian characteristics can be successful. Last summer, New Delhi “street metal” trio Bloodywood had the biggest hit in India’s metal history with the song Ari Ari. Based on the Punjabi folk song Baari Barsi, the track chalked up more than 10m views on social media and attracted the attention of major record labels. It’s a remarkable record: a combination of rapping in English, churning guitars, a Punjabi chorus and a percussion and flute that means it could have come from nowhere but India. Crucial to the success was the track’s video in which the band didn’t stand on a stage in front of a head-banging crowd but cavorted through the streets of New Delhi, with guitarists on the backs of camels, street dancers throwing shapes and real life happening around them.
“My parents would say [about headbanging]: ‘Why are these guys moving their heads like that?’ We wanted to show a different side of metal,” says Bloodywood’s vocalist Jayant Bhadula, who co-wrote the song. Still, the band’s success has meant the arrival of yet more factionalism in an already divided genre: on the one hand, the old guard, who believe the music should be melodic; and the younger bands, who embrace the more brutal style of music that draws influences from death metal, black metal and grindcore.
Who The first metal band on the cover of Rolling Stone India, and the first Indian act to be nominated for an MTV Europe Music Award. Srinivas Sunderrajan formed the band along with Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy, guitarists Prashant Shan and Akshay Rajpurohit; drummer Virendra Kaith joined in 2009.
What Their fans are almost as raucous as they are: gigs include stage invasions, inflatable crowd surfing and poetry recitals. Next up? A new album, their fourth, is expected this year. They say ”An incorrigibly complex mosaic of ferocity, frivolity and fastidiousness, wedged between an unrelenting maniacal rant and a sappy soliloquy.”
Listen to Unabashedly heavy Cops Cops from the band’s third album Hail Mogambo.
“The crowd gets split into these stupid old school and new school buckets because people can’t graduate from their own little bubbles,” says Nezer of The Down Troddence. “I personally feel people should be more open minded when gigs happen and support it regardless of what style is being played. Only then will the scene grow into a unified metal brotherhood.”
Even so, having one band achieve huge success with a part-Punjabi-language hit now means the future identity of Indian metal is up for grabs. Jayant of Bloodywood knows where he believes the future lies: “We can’t sing in languages we speak but others do not.” For metal to succeed, he says, “we have to make a connection”.