A merry metal Christmas

 

 

After events last week, I definitely needed cheering up by the time the weekend arrived.  Happily, I was duly cheered up by the holding of Colombo Open Air 2019.  This was a heavy metal concert featuring mainly Sri Lankan bands held on December 14th at the premises of the quaintly named Otter Aquatic Club – actually a private club with swimming and other sports facilities – just off Bauddhaloka Mawatha in Colombo 7.

 

This was the first time I’d been to this venue and I much prefered it to Shalika Hall on Park Road in Colombo 5, which had hosted most of the previous live music concerts I’d attended in the city.  (The hall doesn’t have sidewalls, creating weird acoustics because much of the sound escapes out into the night, and causing discomfort because a lot of mosquitos get in.)  The Otter Aquatic Club provided a pleasant open courtyard with a covered stage for the bands and some other roofed-over spaces, including a makeshift bar, where the audience could shelter if it started to rain.  Fortunately, despite Sri Lanka being gripped at the moment by a protracted and seemingly interminable rainy season, the only rain that fell tonight did so during an interval between two of the sets.  Meanwhile, the Club evidently makes efforts to keep its premises mosquito-free because I didn’t see (or feel) one of the bity wee bastards all night.

 

The concert kicked off in the late afternoon with a competition whereby some less established / up-and-coming bands competed for the prize of a place in the line-up at the Indian heavy metal festival Bangalore Open Air.  Due to other commitments, however, I was only able to get there at seven o’clock, with the first in a series of established bands due to take the stage at 7.20.  It was here that I experienced the only bum-note of the night, because it transpired that the schedule advertised on Facebook differed from the schedule actually being followed, and the first of those established bands, Mass Damnation, had already performed their set and left the stage.  (At least I’ve seen Mass Damnation before, at Shalika Hall.)  What, things not following the official schedule?  That’s never happened before in Sri Lanka…

 

Oh well.  I still had three Sri Lankan bands to see, plus the concert’s headliners, Kryptos, a band from Bangalore, which seems to be the happening place for heavy metal in India these days.  (According to this Guardian article, Bangalore has Iron Maiden to thank for that.)  First on after my arrival were Paranoid Earthling, described by their Wikipedia entry as a ‘grunge, experimental, psychedelic, stoner rock, heavy metal’ band from Kandy.  One of their assets is their vocalist Mirshad Buckman, who always struck me as looking a little like the late, great Ronnie James Dio and sounding a little like the late, great Bon Scott; and who, with his between-song tirades about the state of things, is surely the grumpiest man in Sri Lankan heavy metal.  I was just glad that tonight when Buckman was railing against the media and the low standards of his country’s journalists that he didn’t glance behind him – otherwise, he’d have seen a screen at the back of the stage, which was advertising the concert’s sponsors, flashing the logo of Ceylon Today.

 

Next up were comparative old-timers – founded in 1995 – Whirlwind, who provide a denser and more mannered sound.  Due to ongoing scheduling issues, they hadn’t had time to do a proper soundcheck beforehand and were forced to give ongoing instructions to the audio engineer between songs.  I have to say I didn’t think this affected the quality of their music, which I found intense, immersive and even hypnotic at times.

 

 

After Whirlwind, by way of contrast, came death / black metal outfit Genocide Shrines.  Clad in ski-masks and gimp-masks, the Shrines present a thunderous assault of noise that, according to the Metal Archives website, is inspired by themes of ‘tantra / spiritual warfare’, ‘death’ and ‘arrack’.  So at that point, to get trantrically attuned to them, I bought a big glass of arrack at the bar.

 

The evening’s final hour was given over to Indian guests Kryptos.  It doesn’t surprise me that their Wikipedia entry says they are greatly influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  (They’ve even supported Iron Maiden, which must have been a dream come true for them.)  This is because while they struck their opening chords, I immediately thought: “Judas Priest!”  And every song that started up thereafter sounded like it was about to turn into Breaking the Law.  I say that in an absolutely complimentary way, incidentally.

 

At the end of the night, with a smile restored to my face, and with my body filled again with good cheer appropriate to the season, I took my leave of Colombo Open Air 2019.  Thank you, Paranoid Earthling, Whirlwind, Genocide Shrines and all the other great guys (and ladies) of the Sri Lankan heavy metal scene.  And a Merry Christmas to you all.

 

 

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.