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.
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.
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.