Sunday, February 26, 2012

Impiety's Super Secret KL Show

Do you ever complain that black metal has gotten too commercial, and wish you were around for the days when the genre was synonymous with church burnings and murder? Well, then, you'll want to join your amigo Adrian here in Malaysia, where black metal is officially banned, and has been since 2006. The official reasons being that it's "totally against the syariat (Islamic principles) and could lead its followers to being murtad (apostate)." This means foreign black metal bands with shows scheduled in the country are barred from entering, and any local bands performing the style could be arrested, along with their audience members. And since the police and religious authorities have only the vaguest notion of what "black metal" is, they have license to shut down any rock concert they want.

So with this in mind, information about black metal shows seems to spread mostly through word of mouth, and kept very much on the downlow. I was lucky enough to hear about a secret black metal show from a friend, and made plans to see for myself what a truly underground scene looks like. I jokingly told a metal buddy back in NY that if he didn't hear from me in a few days, he should assume I was in prison. In light of everything I've read and been told about the risks, I'll admit I was kidding on the square.

The gig was a big deal, featuring Singapore's Impiety playing their first show in Kuala Lumpur since 2005 (which I was in town for and attempted to attend, before confusing Malaysian directions left me lost and heat fatigued in the middle of the city). Impiety are the biggest black metal band in the region and as such, would easily attract the ire of religious authorities if the show was widely publicized. Thus, everything was very hush-hush.

[Curiously enough, Impiety have played shows without a hitch in East Malaysia, which is mostly Christian. I guess there's something to be said about turning the other cheek.]

Because there were no flyers or even a Facebook page to refer to, I relied on my friend Han to keep me in the loop about where it was being held. In fact, the location had changed the night before the show was to take place. It's unclear to me whether the original venue got cold feet at the last minute or if it was purposeful disinformation to stymie Big Brother; both seemed equally likely.

Han and I met at a local punk squat, which we were told was the replacement venue. I was immediately alarmed by two things: the presence of a police station that was literally across the street, and the complete lack of anyone who looked like they might be into heavy music. We were in fact at the wrong spot, but luckily the crust kids who lived there helped us find the actual location.

When we finally drove up to the venue for the night's blasphemy (in a strange bit of irony, it also serves as a Christian ministry and bible study hall), we knew we had come to the right place by the amount of metal shirts we saw. I wondered if all the care put into keeping the gig under wraps would be undone by the conspicuous number of guys in black t-shirts loitering about. Luckily, no one else seemed to notice or care.

As is the wont of a last minute gig, the line up had dwindled from 6 bands to 4 (and the start time shifted from 1 pm to 5 pm). Deathcore kids Daarchlea were given the opening spot - strange, considering their more mainstream approach seemingly runs counter to the night's seditious tone. Not much has changed since I saw them open for Heaven Shall Burn: Their keyboards are still disappearing in the mix; they still sound too generic to appreciate; their lead guitarist's jeans are still way too skinny. Personally, I think that they were helped by the night's rough sound: the rawness gave them a power that they wouldn't have otherwise. It's clear that they have chops, and may in fact become huge in the region. But those jeans are way too tight for me to take them seriously.


Insanhak (which translates to "human rights" but is also the name of a Muslim NGO that's alleged to have ties to Al Queda and Hamas) are from Ipoh, a city in the middle of Malaysia that was once the center of the country's black and death metal explosion. Insanhak, though clearly veterans, are still very much a middling act; their covers of Amon Amarth and Unleashed aren't much to recommend them by, nor is their singer's monotone bark. They ended their set with the questionably titled "Supremacist," which is apparently a paean to their home town's metal scene.


Mistik, from the Malaysian island of Penang, began with a long keyboard instrumental, before their singer appeared out of nowhere, goblin-like, as the music ramped up into traditional black metal not unlike early Sigh or Rotting Christ. The audience was loving it, and I was impressed with the band's command of the style. Mid-set, it all took a strange turn when Mistik's vocalist went off on an extended diatribe in Malay, one that that the (entirely Malay) crowd responded to with gusto. With my limited grasp of the language, the only phrases I could pick out from his rant were "Orang Christian" (Christians), "Orang Islam" (Muslims)...and "jihad." Hmmm.

After Mistik finished, the audience was asked to leave the venue so that Impiety could set up (I guess watching them set up their gear and soundcheck would have killed some of the mystery, corpse paint or not).

Malaysians are naturally inquisitive and friendly, and while waiting to be let back in a number of my fellow concert goers wanted to talk to me. I did my best to be friendly in return, but by the third time I was asked "Did you come here alone?" the question took an ominous tone. Still, it was hard to deny the openness and spirit of brotherhood that the night engendered. A group stopped me and asked me to take photos; when I motioned for them to pass along the camera, I was informed that they wanted me to take photos WITH them, not of them. [One young Malay hesher, rocking spiked gauntlets and a bullet belt, told me quite seriously, "We're all brothers here. Brothers in metal." ]


When we were finally let inside, Impiety were already on stage, covered in blood (unlike their European counterparts, Impiety are apparently using the real deal - the entire room smelled like a wet market). Despite taking more than an hour to set up and soundcheck, the mix was terrible and unusually bass-heavy for the first few songs, before levelling out mid-set. By that point, the band had hit their stride; tongue lolling and headbanging, mainman Shyaithan was a commanding presence, and one of the few "real" frontmen I've seen here.


Not for the first time I find myself lamenting Impiety's politics; they're one of the few bands from South East Asia who could be embraced on a global scale (indeed, a decade ago there was a lot of excitement for them in the West before their antisemitism caused metal labels and journos to recoil). Their style of uncompromising blackened death metal will always have a built in audience - just ask Nuclear War Now. They could easily have been our Sepultura - the band that broke open South East Asian metal to the rest of the world. Instead, they're our Angelcorpse, weighed down by their boneheaded beliefs and past racist statements as they struggle to make it to the next tier.

Not that any of this mattered to their audience that night; as pure spectacle, Impiety's power is undeniable, and those assembled lapped it up. Their set comprised of songs from their upcoming album, Ravage and Conquer. Like everything else the band has done, the new material is all unbridled fury and blast beats (courtesy of their new Australian drummer). When it was over, they ignored calls for an encore and broke down their gear while their fans waited for the meet and greet session (pretty standard for the shows I've seen here - it's a trip to see people line up to get autographs from a death metal band like they're about to meet Kiss).


I was happy enough to consider the night a success, having taken part in a black metal show in Malaysia without being arrested, and headed home. On my way out, audience members were still giddily posing with each other for pictures. I was struck by the dichotomy between the very real camaraderie I witnessed that night and the local authorities' perception of what takes place in a "black metal concert." In fact, rather than suffocating the scene, the restrictions placed unintentionally brought everyone together even more. If the scene here was as open as it is in the rest of the world, it would quickly be invaded by bandwagon hoppers and hangers on. As it is, it's a rare and precious commodity that's not for the weak of heart, and has to be guarded out of fear that what's been built might be lost. No matter where you live, chances are the Malaysian black metal scene is more KVLT than yours.

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