Band on the run: Rock in a hard place

Life in a heavy metal band is no joke - especially in war-torn Baghdad. But the plucky members of Acrassicauda haven't given up hope, despite being down to their last guitar. By Claire Soares
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The Independent Online

With slam-dancing and head-banging frowned upon, life was never easy for the only heavy metal band in Baghdad.

In the days of Saddam Hussein, Acrassicauda were forced to write a thrash song about the Iraqi dictator and include it in their set. After the US invasion, a bomb blew apart their rehearsal space. And as the country imploded in a maelstrom of sectarian violence and religious militants starting sending members of the group death threats, the band had to flee abroad.

For just over a year, the four metal-heads have been on the run, escaping first to Damascus, then moving on to Istanbul. However, with just days left on their Turkish visas, they find themselves confronting the terrifying prospect of having to return home. "Where would we go back to? It's too dangerous. We are receiving daily messages: this person got killed, that person got kidnapped. It's happening every day," the drummer, Marwan Reyad, said in a telephone interview from Turkey. "I keep remembering what my father, who's half-paralysed, said to me before I left – 'I do not want to bury you, a father should go to the grave before his son, so just go, leave and concentrate on staying alive.'"

Iraq today, according to the band, is like the cover of the Iron Maiden album, Death On The Road. The sleeve shows wild-eyed horses careering along through a bloody-red landscape, pulling the skull-laden carriage of a cloaked and scythe-wielding Grim Reaper behind them. The irony that the apocalyptic visions of one of the Western bands that dominated the heavy metal scene in his youth, should now conjure so accurately the Iraq of his adulthood is not lost on Reyad. Neither is the fact that the chorus of one of the album's tracks parrots his father's advice: "Run to the hills, run for your lives. Run to the hills, run for your lives."

Reyad and the other band members – Firas Al-Lateef, Tony Aziz and Faisal Talal – are holed up in an apartment, the wood-burning stove and the grandmotherly floral wallpaper something of an anomaly with their on-stage image. They are living off donations from the global metal-head community, and trying to plan their next move. With tensions rising in Turkey over Kurdish rebels near the Iraq border, it is not the ideal time to be an Iraqi in Istanbul, never mind the fact that their visas are about to expire.

Musically, times are tough too. Acrassicauda's sum total of musical equipment at the moment is an acoustic guitar they managed to smuggle out of Baghdad. "We're all fighting over this poor one guitar," Reyad chuckled. "As for drumming, I try to practise with whatever I can lay my hands on, metal pipes whatever, and in the meantime, I try to keep my mind busy writing lyrics."

For the 23-year-old – the band's youngest member and its chief songwriter – the screeching guitars, crashing drums and ranting vocals that characterise heavy metal make it the perfect medium to say what he wants to say. "Heavy metal is the only style that really expresses what we have gone through and what we're going through, the anger, the misery, the frustration," he explained. "Nobody was expecting that in Iraq heavy metal could exist. But we started it and we're not going to stop."

He shares some of the lyrics he has recently written for a track called "Message from Baghdad". But, on paper at least, they seem melancholic, and you struggle to imagine them after the thrash treatment. "As I grew bonded to my fate/Rewinding wounded memories that I gained/So weak, I can hardly breathe/Sick of their lies, tired of deceit/Is it the gods' will or just a lie? People live, and others die," goes one of the verses. Perhaps this new tone is a product of the weariness Reyad says he feels in exile.

"I have been writing a lot just now. The two main subjects in my mind now are war and the leftovers of war, the ruins and wounds it leaves and how it has created this lost generation," Reyad says. "It's so dark and gloomy though. I grew 20 years older in the past two years. I look and try to find a point of hope but it's so hard, with things so dark, to find a light."

It's a far cry from the group's Saddam-era nationalistic offering "Youth of Iraq" which railed: "Following our leader Saddam Hussein/We'll make them fall/We'll drive them insane." Reyad is quick to distance himself from that work, saying he was still a teenager. The track was duly composed when authorities suggested that if the band wanted permission for a gig, they might like to include a song about the president in their playlist. Now, he says, he eschews religion and politics in the band's repertoire.

Acrassicauda, whose name has Latin roots and roughly translates as "Black Scorpion", got together in 2001 but their love of heavy metal dates back to when they were younger. As the rest of the country grappled with the Iran-Iraq war in the Eighties and then the Gulf War of the early Nineties, they would scrabble around on the streets of Baghdad, trying to track down the latest bootleg records from heavy-metal giants such as Metallica, Slipknot and Slayer. "We would buy whatever rock we could lay our hands on and devour it," Reyad recalls. "Others were into pop music, but it was all about love and slushy stuff and we didn't have time for all that stuff. I had to help my family as the economy was so bad and heavy metal spoke to me more directly."

In the two years between the band forming and the fall of Saddam, Acrassicauda managed three gigs, including one at the concert hall usually reserved for the Iraqi National Orchestra. Instead of Baghdad's suave and sophisticated elite flocking for a evening of musical entertainment, more than 500 metal nuts slam-danced the night away.

After the US-led invasion in 2003, the band were to play another three sets, but attendance dropped off and venues became more low-key as violence escalated; roadblocks, power cuts and curfew all took their toll; and religious militants gained greater prominence, condemning all things American.

Photos from a gig in 2004 show a curious mix of fans. There are the polo-neck crowd, sitting politely on the sort of grey polyester chairs found in a draughty parish hall. Then there are the crazy metal aficionados, sporting gothic black T-shirts with images of the Grim Reaper and slogans like "Gore Fest" wrestling on the floor under the psychedelic yellow, blue and pink lights.

By 2005, things were getting more precarious. Playing in a Baghdad hotel one night, the sound of mortar bombs came ominously close. "That's when you decide you're not going to perform any more, not just for your sake but for the sake of your audience," Reyad said. And before long, even rehearsing in their usual Baghdad basement had become too dangerous. The band turned up one day to find a piece of paper rammed into the lock: "You are Americanised, you are playing American music. Stop or you will be killed." In July 2006, the building was destroyed by a bomb and the group fled the country shortly afterwards.

Like a quarter of the four million Iraqis who have sought refuge abroad, Acrassicauda headed for Syria. They carried both Sunni and Shia identity cards to navigate their way through Iraq's maze of sectarian roadblocks. They have since laid down three demo tracks, "Between the Ashes", "Underworld" and "Massacre", with everyday noises of Baghdad such as gunshots and the squeal of accelerating car tyres incorporated into the mix of sounds.

Early next year, Heavy Metal in Baghdad, a documentary about the band, is due for release. Made by two Canadians, Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi, it also has the backing of Spike Jonze of Being John Malkovich fame as executive producer. The film-makers are raising money for the band and helping them to find a safe new home through the website: