Heavy metal is the ideal soundtrack to the bloody conflict raging in Baghdad right now. The city boasts a macho crowd—guns for hire, thrill-seeking journalists, war profiteers, kamikaze insurgents—and metal holds machismo in very high regard. Of course, Acrassicauda, the band at the center of the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, which opens the New York Underground Film Festival April 2 (a DVD release comes later this year), was not born of war-torn, modern-day Iraq, but rather a much less openly violent society.
Baghdad’s metal scene grew from a small community of teenagers with a shared love of American music—many of the most accomplished and well-known Iraqi groups got their start covering Metallica and Ozzy Osbourne. In the late 1980s, bands like Scarecrew performed regularly to sold-out crowds of headbangers and moshers, albeit in small halls and with almost no commercial backing. By the late ’90s, the scene had cooled slightly, though a few bands, like Converse and Passage, still played regularly for packs of fans numbering in the low hundreds. Acrassicauda’s story begins in this small but close-knit musical environment in 2000, where four friends—Faisal Talal (vocals, rhythm guitar), Tony Aziz (lead guitar), Firas al-Lateef (bass), and Marwan Mohammad Riyak (drums)—developed a love for metal during high school. Iraq has never been an easy place to find recordings of Western music, and in those days, reliable Internet connections were rare.
“We were forced to buy albums on the black market and share them with friends,” recalls Talal, who speaks English with an American accent and says “dude” a lot. “There was just no other way to get the music we loved.”
Unsurprisingly, this practice made for a well-connected group of metal devotees. Acrassicauda (Latin for “black scorpion”) cut their teeth in this crowd, and managed to learn English from bootlegged copies of Slayer and Slipknot albums along the way. The band began rehearsing and writing songs in a Baghdad basement in late 2000. Their sound was—and still very much is—informed almost entirely by the golden age of American metal. “We listen to a lot of stuff—jazz, pop, traditional Iraqi music—but our metal tastes are very old-school,” Riyak tells me. “We love the classics, like Slayer, Metallica, and Megadeth.” The band was also lucky enough to gain the support and musical instruction of Saad “Yngwie” Zai, a virtuosic guitarist and one of Baghdad’s most prominent underground musical figures; by 2001, Acrassicauda felt confident enough to start booking shows.
“When we were just starting out in the early part of the decade, we booked six gigs, three of which we did before the war began in 2003,” Talal says. “At both our first and second show, nearly 450 people showed up, which we were really happy about. At our third show, we played in a hall that was usually reserved for orchestra concerts, and nearly 600 people showed up, which was amazing.”
Acrassicauda were optimistic about the future. After the U.S.-led toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the band figured it might get a shot at the international metal scene, and made plans to record a full-length album. Soon thereafter, however, Baghdad began to fall apart. Still, the band pressed on, despite growing pressures from insurgency groups. In 2004, the band tore into a Metallica cover during a show at the Baghdad Hunting Club, with hundreds of fans rushing onstage to dance and mosh. A club official trotted to the microphone and ordered everyone to sit down, but the band played right through the announcement, and half the crowd remained standing. The official promptly cut the power and ushered the band offstage, causing Talal to swear intensely at him, to the delight of the fans.
Soon after the botched show, though, Acrassicauda began receiving death threats (accusing them of Satan worship) in their practice space, which they assumed came from one of the many fundamentalist sects carrying Baghdad closer and closer to chaos. Also around this time, Suroosh Alvi, a co-founder of Vice magazine, got in touch with Talal and announced his intentions to make Heavy Metal in Baghdad. The documentary follows Alvi and Eddy Moretti, the director of Vice‘s film division, as they meet the band for the first time in 2003, and goes on to record the eventual ousting of Saddam and the subsequent fall of Baghdad through the band’s eyes. In 2005, Vice organized what was to be Acrassicauda’s last concert in their own country, at the famed Al-Fanar Hotel. When a mortar exploded next-door in the middle of the set, the band didn’t drop a beat.
By 2006, it was too dangerous to play anywhere in Baghdad, and all four members of Acrassicauda fled to Damascus, where they lived together in a small basement flat underneath the house of a friend of a friend. “We spent a year and a half in Syria and managed to book two gigs,” Talal recalls. “About 30 people showed up to the first one, and only six guys came to the second one. Syria isn’t really big on metal.” When visa requirements changed abruptly in mid-2007, the group held a meeting in their basement flat. “We decided that we couldn’t go back to Iraq, but we had to get out of Syria,” Talal says. Faced with dwindling assets and expiring visas, the band turned to Alvi for help. Vice set up a PayPal account for the band on the film’s website and began asking visitors to help out. On October 10, 2007, Acrassicauda flew from Damascus to Istanbul, via Amman, on tickets purchased through donations.
Despite how far they’ve come, the band still has very real challenges to overcome. Istanbul is much safer than Baghdad, but it is not home. “Sometimes we want to go back,” Riyak admits. “Where we come from, it’s all about family. You live in your family house your whole life. We miss our families. At the same time, we have a lot of awful memories—a lot of people lost, a lot of sadness and drama. We put this stuff in the music because we don’t really know what else to do with it.”
“We’re still struggling, but hopefully we’re not going to stop as a band,” Talal says. Acrassicauda has played a few shows in Istanbul, and hopes to record a four-track demo of new material in the next few weeks, on donated studio time and instruments. In the meantime, the band is prepping for their third and final interview with the United Nations High Council for Refugees, which will decide their fate, hopefully by assigning them to a refugee-friendly country. “We don’t care where we go, so long as we can perform,” Riyak says. “We follow the music, man.” After all, metal never dies.