They stood, in the dark and the rain, waiting… hoping they wouldn’t hear the words they dreaded. Some among them, drunk and spoiling for a fight, were hoping for those very words, just so they had an excuse to unleash the mayhem they came prepared for anyway. As the crowd braced, the words floated out over the PA system, garbled and a little rushed in nervousness: “This next one is our own composition…” And instantly the air was full of the whistle and thump of bottles flung from the audience towards the hapless band on stage.
Okay, so it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as all that. But for anyone growing up in the late 1990s/early Noughties, those words were an intrinsic part of any metal gig you went to. It was either that, or announcing that this next song was by Metallica and sneakily slipping “our OC” in before the drunk crowd sorted out their confusion.
As a genre, metal couldn’t be more removed from the Indian context, culturally and musically. There’s really no reason why a black metal band, singing of Satan and a return to pagan days, should resonate with Indian audiences but it has, and how. Perhaps it’s because, despite all our cultural diversity, there really is no form of expression for rebellion in Indian music and arts. Sure, protest music has always been a part of our folk arts, but what does the urban Indian kid turn to express his angst? Bollywood with its saccharine artificiality had nothing for the angry teen, Indian classical music is rigid in form and function and a ghazal wasn’t going to cut it when you’re mad at the world. Dance definitely wasn’t an option. So what did you turn to, to say “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me?”
Metal was easy in that sense. Those distorted guitars, guttural vocals and pounding drums skipped the ears and spoke directly to the angry core of me back then. Having been force-fed a diet of classical music and dance growing up, I couldn’t believe the sheer power of a Metallica song the first time I heard it. Battery and Master of Puppets was a sort of aural crumping; two listens and I felt I could take on anyone with these tiny fists. So discovering friends who listened to the same kind of music felt like some sort of a miracle, but it was when I attended my first Independence Rock in 1999 that I felt I’d really come home.
It’s easy to be dismissive today about the cover band scene back then, but there was an undeniable magic to it. Few people still had computers, fewer still the internet, so the closest you could come to seeing Metallica in concert was watching Sceptre cover their songs, or Xenon play a far from perfect Iron Maiden cover, and we lived for it. From Bombay bands like Naked Earth, Sceptre and even Brahma, I discovered Metallica, Megadeth, Iron Maiden and Slayer. In Bangalore, NLS’ Strawberry Fields brought Threinody (then Threnody) who introduced me to Kreator and Myndsnare (then Mindsnare), sent me scampering to collect Death CDs, Kryptos brought Sodom to my notice.
But these same bands were driving a slow shift towards original music. In Mumbai, bands like Pin Drop Violence and Demonic Resurrection began playing all original setlists, and PDV would go on to win Independence Rock 2001 – another first for a metal band. My first encounter with an all-originals CD though was through the “Deepthroat” compilation, put together by Ranjan from Cranium, which featured DR, Kryptos, Metakix, Kinky Ski Munky, Psychomotor, Sceptre, PDV, Fate, Arcane Ritual and Blasphemy. Admittedly, the first time I heard the compilation, I laughed. But that CD, at least for me, was pivotal in shifting my focus to original metal in the country.
Two things contributed hugely to the Mumbai scene at this point: Razzberry Rhino became a sort-of weekly pilgrimage for the metalheads in the city with their Thursday gigs, and Gigpad gave independent music and its fans a platform to voice their opinions.
It was Gigpad that effectively created the independent music “scene”. Before the online music forum (now a Facebook page), there were gigs and there were fans, limited to their own cities and with no real way to communicate with each other. Gigpad brought this disparate community together, hosting reviews, news, and most importantly, the forums, where fans could trade abuses and bands could start flame wars with each other. But no, really, before Gigpad there was no real conversation about music in the country. The website got people talking, analysing music, and building a vocabulary for independent music. Bands would now play gigs and then rush home to check on its reviews on the forums, and scenesters would rush home to write those reviews. Invariably, fights would break out. Names would be called. And then people would meet up over a beer after the next gig and make up. Rock Street Journal’s forums soon added to the clamour and, to this date, I still know old scenesters better through their forum names that their real ones.
Similarly, the now-defunct music venue in Juhu, Razz became the focal point of metal in the city. Thursday nights, fans would make the long trek from different parts of the city by bus, train and rickshaw to Juhu. If you got there too early, you would be witness to a very unique phenomenon – that of the afternoon social, where boys and girls who’d skipped college would congregate at Razz to dance, sometimes alone, with only their reflections for company in the pub lurid, mirrored interiors. Post 6 pm though, the growing number of black t-shirts would cause a small exodus of party people, and a good metal night at Razz ended by 12 am, so everyone could take the last train home.
The first Deathfest took place at Razz in 2001 (a night so loud that my ears rang for two straight days after), and continued annually till 2003. In 2004, iconic music venue Rang Bhavan shut down in what was one of the biggest blows to live music in the city. We let it go quietly too, we didn’t fight hard enough for it because we didn’t realise what we were losing.
Eventually, Razz became the only venue for metal shows. DR frontman Sahil Makhija’s Resurrection series of gigs kickstarted in 2004, giving the city’s slowing metal scene a much needed boost. Since I spent much of Resurrection handing out magazines and CDs at the ticket counter outside, my memories of the gigs are largely of warm evenings spent bantering with drunk people outside Razz. But I was there when TJ Morey took an epic swandive from the first floor of the pub to land on the audience below, in one of the defining Resurrection moments for everyone who was there.
Post 2004, the metal scene in Bombay exploded. From thrash and death metal (and nu-metal courtesy PDV) which were the prominent genres in Bombay, the scene expanded to fit everything from black metal to hardcore. Bands proliferated and burned brightly for a while before fading into oblivion. Chaos Theory, Skincold, Bitchslap, Amidst the Chaos, Disembodied Corpse and Defleshed came and went. Bhayanak Maut was born as a troll band, Devoid made their presence felt, Prakalp briefly made a case for metal in Hindi.
2007 was a particularly important year for metal in India. Filmmaker Sam Dunn, who’d previously made “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” turned the spotlight on India with his new film “Global Metal” that explored the appeal and impact of metal in unexpected places. More importantly, an event we never dreamed, never imagined would ever happen, did. Iron Maiden came to India to play to 40,000 screaming, crying fans, and changed the Indian metal scene forever. The floodgates were open and bands we’d never expected to watch in other countries, let alone India, were suddenly everywhere in the country. Megadeth, Textures, Opeth, Enslaved made multiple visits to the country and metalheads had a choice of bands to pick from. It was almost surreal how quickly things changed.
Today, metal is a very real part of India’s cultural scenario, even if it is still a middle-class affectation, as some have chosen to see it. We really have come a long way, a bumpy, complicated journey that is more to be experienced than written about, as this article clearly demonstrates. It’s impossible to even adequately capture that feeling of joining 5,000 other voices in singing along to Fear of the Dark for the first time, or two years later to Full Body Burn; of 18 years of fandom hitting you square in the solar plexus and sobbing hysterically while watching Iron Maiden; or that giddy feeling of having packed a venue to capacity for a line-up of homegrown bands. But there’s a long way still to go, and I, for one, don’t plan to miss a minute of it.