Lanka metal

   

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Back in 2014 when I moved to Sri Lanka, I accepted there’d be certain things I’d gain from the move and certain things I’d lose from it. Among the gains would be the following: sunshine, warmth, delicious spicy food, lots of interesting Buddhist and Hindu temples to explore, access to some gorgeous beaches, access to the equally gorgeous Hill Country of the island’s interior, and a chance to see an occasional elephant.  Among the losses…  Well, I assumed one thing absent from my new life in Sri Lanka would be the opportunity to hear my favourite musical genre played live.  No, I definitely didn’t expect to attend any heavy metal gigs there

   

Indeed, I imagined the only live music I’d come across would be some traditional Sri Lankan music – absolutely nothing wrong with that, I should add – and plenty of lame middle-of-the-road cover bands playing insipid versions of Eagles, Bryan Adams and Lionel Ritchie songs to crowds of sweaty Western tourists and moneyed local would-be hipsters in the big hotels at the country’s holiday resorts – absolutely everything wrong with that.

     

But one of the pleasantest surprises of my past four years in Sri Lanka has been my discovery that there’s actually a thriving heavy metal scene in the country.  Lanka metal is really a thing.  So here’s a quick round-up of my favourite local headbangers.   

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A good place to start is Stigmata, on the go since 1998 (when the founding members were still schoolboys) and responsible for an impressive sound that, to me at least, combines the best of Iron Maiden and Sepultura.  Recently, they’ve played a few small-scale gigs at the Floor by O bar next to the Colombo Cricket Club and I decided to attend one of these.  (My previous experience of the band had been when  they performed a set at the 2017 Lanka Comic Con.)  I arrived early, when the band had barely begun to assemble their equipment, and before long none other than Stigmata’s vocalist and co-founder Suresh De Silva had wandered over to have a chat. 

   

After we’d had a blether about the new Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, we got onto discussing great heavy metal gigs I’d attended in the past.  The fact that I’d seen Megadeth supported by Korn in Chicago all the way back in 1995 must have made me seem ancient to De Silva.  But then when I went on to reminisce about seeing Nazareth play a gig in Aberdeen in 1983, he probably wondered if I’d wandered in from Jurassic Park

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Later, Stigmata gave a thunderous live performance.  Unfortunately, by then, I was parked at one end of the Floor by O bar-counter and they were playing in a corner at the other end of it, and the photos I took of them – blurry and with lots of bar paraphernalia getting in the way – hardly did them justice.

 

   

I’m also a fan of Paranoid Earthling, whose Wikipedia entry describes them as a ‘grunge, experimental, psychedelic, stoner rock, heavy metal’ band from Kandy.  They’re of a slightly-younger vintage than Stigmata, having been formed in 2001.  Among their assets is their spandex-wrapped vocalist Mirshad Buckman, who has the enviable double-advantage of looking a bit like the late, great Ronnie James Dio and sounding a bit like the equally late, great Bon Scott.  Their best songs include Open up the Gates with its twiddly, thumping guitar sound; the punky, foot-tapping Rock n’ Roll is my Anarchy; and Deaf Blind Dumb, which borrows its stompy bits from Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People but is still a blast played live.

    

For a heavier sound – death and black metal – check out the Genocide Shrines, whose ‘lyrical themes’ according to the Metal Archives website include ‘tantra / spiritual warfare’, ‘death’ and, er, ‘arrack’.  Well,after you’ve spent all day waging tantra and spiritual warfare to the death, I suppose you need to relax with a glass of arrack.  Aside from their juggernaut sound, their most memorable feature is their fondness for wearing scary masks onstage, Slipknot-style.  Though I have to say I was a bit disappointed when I saw them live one time and at their set’s end they ‘rewarded’ their fans by taking their masks off and revealing themselves to be ordinary-looking blokes.  That spoiled their mystique somewhat.

   

   

Other Lanka metal bands I’ve seen include old-timers – established in 1995 –Whirlwind.  I have a copy of their 2003 album Pain in my possession and I have to say its opening song Break Away sounds unexpectedly and weirdly like Counting Crows’ Mr Jones. I’ve also see Neurocracy, Mass Damnation and Abyss, plus a couple of young up-and-coming bands who’ve equally impressed and amused me with their boundless Sri Lankan politeness and their boundless gratitude to the audience for turning up to see them.  In between their songs they kept saying, “Thank you, thank you very much, thank you for coming, thank you so very much…” and then a half-minute later they were emitting blood-curdling throaty black / death metal gurgles and screaming “F**K!  F**K! F**K!”

    

Much of the Lanka metal I’ve seen live has been at the Shalika Hall on Park Road in Colombo 5, which I have to say isn’t my favourite venue. For one thing, it doesn’t really have sidewalls.  Both sides of the auditorium open onto small outside compounds with dilapidated toilets – well, the male toilets are dilapidated – at their ends.  This means the acoustics aren’t great because a lot of the sound seeps out into the night.  Conversely, and especially if you turn up at the wrong part of the evening, a great many mosquitoes get in. There are also surreal moments when big bats flap in from one side, cross above the heads of the audience and flap out of the other side – sights that’d be more appropriate at a goth concert than a heavy metal one.   

   

   

Rockin’ in the Sri world

 

 

After three years of moaning about how rubbish the live-music scene in Colombo seemed to be, about how in the evenings I’d go along to a fancy hotel bar-lounge that was advertising a live ‘rock’ band and find myself sitting amid a gaggle of immaculately-dressed wealthy Sri Lankans and various sweaty, overweight foreign tourists listening to some blokes in their late-middle-age wibbling their way through a jazz-funk rendition of Lionel Richie’s Hello, I finally resolved the other weekend to get off my lazy, wrinkly arse and head out into the city’s meaner streets and track down some proper live music.

 

I found some too in a venue called the Keg Pub.  (The street it was on, T.B. Jaya Mawatha near Lake Beira, wasn’t even that mean, although the joint across the road where I stopped off for some rice and curry looked a bit rough).  The Keg was hosting something called Rock n’ Roll 2017 (ii), an evening of Sri Lankan acoustic performers and rock bands, the latter sporting such names as Island Mafia, The Soul and Paranoid Earthling.  Its Facebook page exhorted me to bring my ‘best buds’, ‘drinking buds’ and ‘chickas’, which when I consulted the online Urban Dictionary I discovered meant a ‘sexy Latin lady friend’.  Unfortunately, the person who trebles as my best buddy, drinking buddy and sexy chicka, i.e. Mrs Blood and Porridge, was unable to come along and I attended alone.

 

The event certainly felt like the real deal when I arrived and paid my money at the door and received a stamp on my arm and a paper bracelet to wear around my wrist – possibly the last time I was stamped and braceleted like that was when I saw Megadeth and Korn in Chicago back in 1995.  Also promising were the sights that assailed me when I walked through the door: semi-darkness, lots of people dressed in black and a sizeable island-bar at which I could slump whilst viewing the stage.   Oh, and the oldest person already there looked about 20 years younger than me, which also boded well for me not having to endure an arthritic jazz-funk workout of Hello.

 

That said, no matter how rock-and-roll the atmosphere, I couldn’t escape the fact that I was still in a Sri Lankan pub.  Because there was a TV screen, on the wall, showing bloody cricket for the entire evening.

 

 

Much of the night’s music consisted of cover versions rather than original material, which I suppose had its upside and its downside.  The upside was that because the performers were playing world-famous songs by world-famous bands, I was at least getting some quality stuff.  The downside was that I’d heard some of those songs a million times already and become sick of them.  Plus, it didn’t grant me much insight into what’s really happening in the rock-music scene in this country at the moment.

 

Still, there might be conclusions to be drawn about the Sri Lankan musical temperament from the fact that nobody blinked when one band went straight from a Nirvana song to Survivor’s Sylvester Stallone-empowering Eye of the Tiger – not something you could do among die-hard Nirvana fans in many Western countries and expect to live.  Or that a duo who’d been treating us to blues versions of AC/DC numbers then treated us to a Bon Jovi one without ruffling any feathers, even though in my book that’s the equivalent of a Robert De Niro retrospective that partners Raging Bull (1980) with Dirty Grandpa (2016).

 

 

Significantly, later bands introduced some reggae music into the evening’s mix.  Even a rendition of the Dylan / Hendrix favourite All Along the Watchtower had a reggae-ish interlude added to it.  Maybe that’s a consequence of living on such a hot, sultry island.  A rock-and-roll gathering can’t be loud and fast and bolshy for too long.  No, the heat soon encourages everyone to chill and go a bit Bob Marley.

 

One thing I have to say.  Paranoid Earthling, whose Wikipedia entry tells me are a ‘grunge, experimental, psychedelic, stoner rock, heavy metal’ band from Kandy, came onstage late in the evening with a welcoming cry of “How ya motherfuckas doin’ tonight?” and proved to be epic.  They played their own stuff and played it with blistering aplomb.  Showing particular panache was their spandex-wrapped vocalist Mirshad Buckman, who has the enviable double-advantage of looking a bit like the late, great Ronnie James Dio and sounding a bit like the equally late, great Bon Scott.  They performed a big beast of a song called Open up the Gates whose guitar sound managed to be both twiddly and thumping.  They gave their closing number Rock n’ Roll is my Anarchy a splendid, punky, foot-tapping tunefulness.   And during a song called Feel My Ritual they admirably kept focused even as a front-of-stage lighting rig toppled over into the audience – mind you, said rig was really only two light-bulbs at the end of a pole.  Best of all, though, was their song Deaf Blind Dumb, which borrowed its stompy bits from Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People but which was still a blast played live.