photo courtesy of VBS.TV/VICE Films
by Chris Estey
Faisal, vocalist for Acrassicauda, the world’s first (and as far as I know, only) Iraqi heavy metal band, makes it heart-stompingly clear pretty early on in the often chilling documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad when he confesses of dreaming about touring with Metallica, “like any young man who has a dream for his future.” And a few scenes later when SCUD missiles are seen to blow the holy hell out of their rehearsal space and most of their gear (and you know how metal boys love their instruments) how this dream is probably going to wither on the vine.
This documentary, made by the transgressive-with-a-conscience pop artists who bring you VICE Magazine and assorted media, does several things at once, but the best of them showing how oddly universal a language metal is (dude, these guys in their early twenties are your normal, real metal dudes, in the regular black band t-shirts and jeans and goatees and speaking the roguish torqued surfer vernacular, even when they had to write a fist-clenched anthem to keep Saddam Hussein happy, a bow to authority that actually rather rocks as good as most classic hardcore) and how personally war sucks HARD. “You got a civil war outside,” Faisal continues, “and you got to take care of your family.” He says he is doing his best to try to get out of his country.
The good news is he does, but then he is one of the well over two million refugees in an understandably beleaguered Syria, the whole band sharing a room and a few beers to get through the loneliness they feel about their families back home. A visit to a tiny, makeshift recording studio to record three tracks (all they could get down considering the circumstances) near the end of their story here is enough to bring one to tears.
But before that happens, in perennially war-screwed Iraq, before they leave, band members disappear, get shot, are separated from each other for months on end, can never get any sort of scene started after the great concert lovingly chronicled at the beginning of the film, and really and perhaps most importantly start to question what democracy is doing for their beloved Baghdad.
“We get shot at all the time,” Faisal says. He recalls recording that song for Hussein, but at that time they were really hopeful that things would change under a new regime. “The song says, ‘Fight the evil forces, yeah!'” he slyly suggests. “Just as the Arabic saying goes, ‘To stay away from the devil, sing for him.'” That era wasn’t very romantic either, when the government would take you to jail for banging your head at a show — because it looked like a form of Israeli prayer. And they got endless trauma over things like shaving their beards into the James Hetfield-style goat. When they finally had that big show, the paper got cut off. But a beautiful, amazing moment of rock and roll it had been; imagine that rebellious feeling you had finding a voice in it of your own exponentially increased by the danger of possibly dying for it at the hands of the State.
By then, things changed so that they got used to seeing dead people everywhere. It had been a bummer before, not being able to have long hair, any sort of musical gathering cut off at 7 PM, they craved the freedom of the West. But that one Acrassicauda (“Black Scorpions” in Latin, BTW) gig VICE was lucky enough to film was a respite between domestic-spawned religious-nationalist tyranny, and, oh well, I might as well say it, imperialist religious-nationalist tyranny.
“I thought everything would be better without Saddam,” Faisal admits, “but everything is worse. They have a saying” — Iraqis have great sayings, don’t they? — “‘They took Ali Baba and left the 40 thieves.'” So Firas (bass), Tony (lead guitar), Marwan (drums) and Faisal endured with the kind of stoicism metal fans need to suffer through redneck fundamentalist parents in Kentucky and indie rock hipster culture in the Pacific Northwest. But with bombs. When they realized that “most of our friends were either dead or out of this country,” they questioned whether they actually had freedom at this point. Thus, the emigration (metal exodus!) to Damascus. The results of Operation Enduring Freedom left behind were a sadly depleted population, over 24 million departed. Deeper than that, the band asks, “Where is God? Look at Iraq.”
Fortunately, the band finds redemption in a surprisingly passionate (if not particularly spectacularly attended, but we’ve all experienced that, even in the States) show in Syria, bringing the moment of true freedom they experienced several years before at the Al Farar hotel back with the opening notes of a cover of Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” (OK, that choice bummed my metal-loving wife out a bit, but come on, Laibach covered it too.) As the band effectively moves on to originals and versions of anthems like “Fade to Black,” one can’t help but think: Wow, we really aren’t any different from these people, and music really truly is a universal language — so why are we killing them or driving them out of their homeland?
Heavy Metal in Baghdad trailer