Arts and Entertainment

Metal music hasn’t disappeared in Kathmandu—it’s just not what it used to be

  • Metal might not be as popular as it used to be in the 2000s, but the scene has expanded and become much more inclusive
- Timothy Aryal, Kathmandu

Apr 10, 2019-

In 2001, Anil Dhital, then a seventh grader, was approached by a close friend in school and handed a pamphlet. On it, a large man sporting long hair and a wild beard, carrying a double-necked guitar, was advertising a heavy metal show. Dhital was intrigued.

The concert was at the Godavari Alumni Association (GAA) Hall in Thamel and Dhital, an aspiring musician himself, went to the show.

“Though I had listened to metal since I was a first-grader, it was my first concert, and I was fascinated,” says Dhital. “The headbanging crowd looked intoxicated and wild. As I exited the concert venue, I was inspired, and my own ambitions of becoming a musician some day took root.”

The band headlining the show was Ugra Karma, a death metal outfit active since the late 90s, but limited to covering foreign bands like Korn, Metallica and Iron Maiden. In the early to mid 2000s, heavy metal, and its many variants, was booming. Every other band seemed to be playing covers of metal bands like Children of Bodom, Cradle of Filth, Burzum, Pantera and Napalm Death. But just as quickly as the genre had exploded, it died down. There are now barely half a dozen popular metal bands when at one time, there were over two dozen. Metal in Kathmandu appears to be on the wane, but is it really?

Hazy beginnings

The first bands that started playing metal in Kathmandu did the same thing that rock musicians had been doing for so many decades--covering the music that they listened to. Ugra Karma too, started out covering bands and apocryphally, they are considered Nepal’s first metal band to release a demo, in 1999, that was free of covers.

“We are not the first Nepali metal band, of course. There were a lot of bands covering Iron Maiden, Megadeth and Metallica,” says Sunil Dev Pant, vocalist and bassist of Ugra Karma. “But it didn’t sit well with us and we decided to do our own stuff.”

The band members were all listening to a lot of death and black metal, metalcore and grindcore, says Pant. They barely had any other interests.

“So we made our own stuff and we became the first metal band in Nepal to record our own songs,” says Pant. “But we weren’t trying to break records. We did it for the love of the music.”

Pant says that he and his band were attracted to metal because of the message the genre carried.

“Metal deals with youth anxieties, teenagers and the feelings they have of abandonment and of shame,” Pant says. “When you’re a teenager, there’s a lot of hormonal change and you don’t know what to do about it. On the inside, there’s a lot of turmoil going on and metal gives a channel to vent their frustrations and all their anger using curse words and provocative lyrics. The abrasiveness of the music, its intensity and message were combined in metal. This is what attracted us and other youngsters.”

Metal might deal with teenage angst, frustration and anger, but it often tends to do so in an extreme fashion. For instance, one of Ugra Karma’s earliest and most popular of records, Chandal Saitaan, hints at the band’s affection with themes of gore and serial killing:

Chandaal Shaitaan, PGA

Chandaal Shaitaan, twisted minds

Grotesque, sick, vile acts

Twisted words inducing humor

Brainstorm going through everyone's head

Smoking, drinking, tapping, pulling our beloved

We share our morbid thoughts gathered at the tower

We have the rage, aggression & the power

We are what we are, our own lords

Nihilistic thoughts embedded within us

Shaitaan Chandaal, PGA are we

You'll thus suffer now we're free!

“We were clear about what themes we wanted to explore from early on. We didn’t like gods and went on to write shit about gods. Then we wrote about serial killers and gore and aimed to impart some message,” Pant says about his lyrics. “It’s not a message about going out and killing people. It’s a message about hatred. It’s a message about aggression, being downtrodden, being the oppressed or the oppressor, either way.”

At the beginning of the metal scene in Kathmandu was one more band producing originals, X-Mantra, whose song, ‘Shaleek’, became an instant classic when it was released in 2001. The band was fronted by Rojesh Shrestha, who moved from Kitcha, a band doing covers in Thamel’s crammed pubs, to partnering with Rajan Pradhan and Puru Lama to form X-Mantra.

“The vibe in Thamel used to be really great, everyone in the audience looked involved and were really enthused listening to what we played,” says Shrestha. “But even though I loved the music, there was little about us in what we played. I was fed up of playing covers.”

Pradhan and Lama invited Shrestha to play with them and he recalls singing them some Iron Maiden and Sepultura. “They were impressed,” says Shrestha. “I was exactly the kind of vocalist they wanted, and they asked me if I wanted to join them. I was excited but I had a precondition: we would not be doing covers anymore. We would only make music that we could call our own.”

In the early 2000s, rock and grunge were still dominant in Kathmandu’s music spheres. From mainstream bands to Thamel performers to underground, independent musicians, everyone was playing rock and there were only a handful of metal bands, says Shrestha.

“We would manage our own speakers and other accessories. There were the core audience who would come wherever we played. Our objective was to make them understand heavy metal. And we were hopeful that other new bands would come up with some crazy ideas,” says Shrestha.

Ugra Karma released their first full-length album, The Himalayan Metal of Death, in 2001 and shortly afterwards, several other bands emerged, eschewing covers and playing originals. Alongside this rise in bands, venues also began to book metal concerts every weekend. Venues like the GAA Hall in Thamel and bizarrely, the Mahendra Police Club and Army Officers’ Club were choice venues hosting metal concerts full of bedraggled, long-haired, bearded, tattooed men playing raucous music to an equally shabby crowd.

“Initially, we played to a crowd of about 30 or 40 packed in a room,” Shrestha recalled in a phone interview with the Post. What used to be a small but very enthusiastic crowd swelled to a sold-out crowd of multiple thousands when metal gigs were being played in open areas like Bhrikutimandap or the Jawalakhel grounds by the end of the aughts. “When we played in the Jawalakhel ground, we would see nothing but heads banging, from Jawalakhel to Kumaripati, bouncing in unison to the tunes,” Shrestha says.

A lot of the credit for this explosion in the metal scene must go to KTMRocks, an online forum and later, a short-lived magazine. The brainchild of Umes Shrestha, the forum became a gathering space for metalheads and musicians to discuss music, meet each other, form bands and organise gigs. Umes would help coordinate media, do promotions and organise concerts. But as the scene dried up, so did KTMRocks. The magazine stopped publishing, the website is a graveyard and Umes Shrestha himself has moved on to teaching.

What happened?

But is Kathmandu’s underground metal scene as vibrant today as it used to be?

“It’s laughable even trying to compare things then and now,” says Vishal Rai, who has been active in numerous punk and metal bands since the 2000s. “Today, there are more shows, better venues, loads more bands, more releases, and international bands coming in as well.”

Contrary to public perception, the underground scene today is far, far more vibrant than it used to be, says Rai.

But Rai is an exception. A majority of musicians playing extreme music have disappeared. Some have settled into quiet middle-class lives, while others, like the popular band Albatross, have changed genres towards a more radio-friendly sound. Still others, like Shrestha, have left the country.

“Our first album, Crying for Peace, was sold out. The album sold around 30,000 copies in cassettes and around 4,000 CDs,” says Shrestha. “But as the internet slowly developed and YouTube came around, album sales dropped to zero by 2012. We used to get paid by the record company back then but not anymore. There was no option than to fly abroad for employment.”

Many promising new acts are entering the scene and there are underground gigs happening around town--at least four or five shows a month, says Bijay Khadka, an event organiser. “But as of now, we can’t think of paying the bands for playing. Yes, sometimes if the footfall is good, we pay them, but otherwise, the bands play out of passion,” he says.

While metal might have seemed to be the dominant underground genre among young people in the early 2000s, the centre might have just shifted and Kathmandu residents unaware, says Rai.

“Metal is not a Kathmandu-centric thing anymore. With promoters like Extreme Underground Metal Society Nepal (EUMSN) and Underground Pokhara, shows have been taking place more frequently in Pokhara, Butwal, Dharan and even smaller towns like Kakarbhitta,” he says. “Silence Festival has been bringing in big international bands while EUMSN has been promoting tours for smaller, more underground bands from India, the US, Europe and Japan.”

Many bands that played metal in the past possibly grew out of their youthful passion. Those who stayed musicians have experimented with different genres. Even Rai, who started out playing in a punk band, now plays in a grindcore outfit, Neck Deep in Filth.

“If you like playing heavy music, that’s what you’ll do no matter what. I’ve never had the desire or the ability to go commercial. I’m not a musician like those talented gentlemen in Albatross; I just like playing guitar or screaming in heavy bands,” says Rai. “So with my distinct lack of talent--I stopped playing guitar because my stock of riffs ran out--and my preference for music that few people can stand, I’ll always be stuck in the underground.”

Eighteen years have passed since that first show Anil Dhital attended, and much has changed in Kathmandu’s music landscape. Cassettes and tape recorders have been replaced by YouTube, Soundcloud and Spotify. Metal music, which originated in late 60s UK, has developed several, heavier-sounding sub-genres, dividing and serving up many choices for aficionados of extreme music—grindcore, hardcore, power metal, among others.

Dhital, meanwhile, hasn’t given up. He plays metal full-time with his ethnic metal band, Lakhe. And while other bands might have given up, pioneers like Ugra Karma continue to go strong--they’re currently practicing for their upcoming Europe tour.

And metal is no longer the sole province of men.

“Our country has narrow-minded families treating metal music as noise, or associating it with drugs or satanic rituals,” says Jyoty Basnet of the EUMSN Sisters, which works to increase female participation in metal. “There are sisters who want to play a gig, be part of extreme music either as supporters, crew or as musicians. We not only give strength to female metalheads around the country to show up to gigs and participate, but we’ve also created a strong bond between all metalheads, both male and female, which is really beautiful.”

Published: 11-04-2019 07:00

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