Black metal is something of an ideological battleground. First, it carries the obvious historical stigma of anti-religious sentiment (church burnings, anyone?) but lately, the media has been quick to jump on the smallest slight, intentional or otherwise, to expose the vast undercurrents of political and racial bigotry that taint the world’s most beautiful form of musical expression. The ‘NSBM’ (National Socialist Black Metal) label that so many bands are now defined by has become the rallying point for extremist groups opposing these viewpoints – but all too often that very label is not one the bands themselves identify with but have been classified as such by those very same groups that fight fire with fascist fire. This is especially true when dealing with opposition to Islamic culture: big hitters within black metal, like Taake, have been dealt numerous blows by an uncaring press regarding their views while the anti-Christian viewpoints that, to a large extent inspired the musical movement, are all but ignored.
But then, from deep within the cradle of Islam, you have acts like Iran’s From the Vastland (prominently featured in the 2017 documentary, Blackhearts) who defected to Norway as a political refugee in order to pursue his chosen vehicle of musical expression. Or the subject of today’s discussion, Saudi Arabia’s Al-Namrood, whose twelve-year, seven full-length album career has been one under constant threat of execution. Yes, you read that right. Black metal is considered an offence punishable by prison at best, death at worst. Forget about Norwegian luminaries spending time in prison for arson or murder, or even those whose love affair with death resulted in suicide: here are musicians whose creative output carries the potential for their death at the hands of an authoritarian regime.
Celebrating their first decade of existence, “Asdaa Al Dmar” was released in 2018 as part of a retrospective.
So it is no wonder at all that their latest release, Wala’at, is a penetrating, uncompromising affair, jam-packed with bile and disdain from its uncharacteristically instrumental introduction (“Al Hirah”) right to its close. Apart from this, the band’s style has not changed very much since their last release, 2017’s Enkar. Expect dense, fast thrash-based music that tends more towards riff than melody – until, that is, the Middle Eastern influences and folk structures kick in. The album closes with two tracks – “Wahum Althaat” and “Alqaum” – that come across more as blackened folk than just black, effectively incorporating acoustic passages into the arrangements. The microtonal dissonance between traditional and western instruments heightens the sense of unease and apprehension.
On top of all this, there’s the slightly unhinged vocal delivery. Current singer, Humbaba, has a rolling, sing-song approach that is unique in black metal and is an immediate love/hate binary: either it will turn you off Al-Namrood completely, or its exotic inflection is going to draw you deeper in. Factor in the group’s sense of ancient history, and the mythology of the proto-Persian civilizations that predate modern Islam and you have a shining example of glocalisation at work. The same anti-religious context that defined the Scandinavian black metal scene with its message of pre-Christian paganism, only emerging from a different culture is something to be celebrated, creatively and academically.
2015’s Diaji Al Joor record introduced the band’s interpretation of a ‘western’ style of music video in the shape of “Hayat Al Khezea”.
On the negative side, the programmed percussion suffers from a tinny, digital presence – but this is entirely forgivable given the scant offerings of similarly minded musicians within the band’s immediate geography. On top of that, Al-Namrood do run the risk of monotony: if it weren’t for their clever incorporation of the Middle Eastern instrumentation, Wala’at would be a one-sided argument, more of an inferior Watain clone than the individual voice in its own right that it should be.
Overall, however, the overriding impression that Wala’at leaves is one of respect: not just for the circumstances that birthed the album (and Al-Namrood themselves) but for the audacious incorporation of melodic structures and themes springing from the very culture that would brand these musicians as criminals and infidels. A brave, angry and ultimately beautiful expression.
Wala’at Track Listing:
1. Al Hirah
2. Sahra Yaesa
4. Kail Be Mekialain
5. Al Shareef Al Muhan
7. Aar Al Estibad
9. Wahum Althaat
Run Time: 36:26
Release Date: June 24, 2020
Record Label: Shaytan Productions