From drinking goat blood to worshipping Satan, the story of Indian metal bands and how they have mellowed in recent times
Drashti Thakkar | 17 Jan, 2014
From drinking goat blood to worshipping Satan, the story of Indian metal bands and how they have mellowed in recent times
Screeching women flail their arms wildly and run into one another. A couple of them stumble and fall midway. They look embarrassed and surprised. A set of female hands promptly helps them get up. They are in what’s called the ‘mosh pit’ at a live 2013 performance in Pune of the post-hardcore band Scribe at NH7 Weekender, one of India’s most happening music festivals. Mindless collision fuelled by metal aggression is routine at meta concerts. The women are abiding by the pit’s sacred code of behaviour: helping a fallen ‘mosher’ up.
Vocalist Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy has a cheeky smile on his face as the band plays a metal cover of Justin Timberlake’s What Goes Around Comes Around. The men in the audience, who have formed a circle around the women, keep their hands to themselves or clasped round phone cameras. Awestruck at the spectacle, they egg on the all-girl mosh pit in the centre.
‘The Indian metal scene is in its nascent stage.’ I’ve heard variations of this sentence a million times, sometimes spoken apologetically and sometimes assertively. But this is not accurate. An all-girl mosh pit might be a contemporary phenomenon, but the Indian metal scene has for some time had cult personalities who inspire scenes and reactions just as frenzied.
At the fag end of the 1990s, a notorious Chennai-based band was doing the rounds of the Indian metal scene. Aptly named Blasphemy, the black metal band was on a mission to shock listeners with music. Among the many notorious incidents their vocalist Phebeian Johnson tells me about was one that took place at Jawaharlal Institute of Post- graduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER) in Puducherry.
“It was a dry day, but we managed to score a bottle of Monk [Old Monk rum]. I remember paying for it under the table,” says Johnson. When a very drunk Blasphemy reached the venue, the audience did not know how to react to what they heard. And saw. The bassist, Vasanth, unable to hold his bursting bladder, took a piss on stage right beside the monitors. “After that,” he says, “the drummer gives a four count with his sticks, and we get into the next song like nothing’s happened.” For many in the audience, it was their first tryst with black metal, a subgenre of metal infamous for its controversial musicians.
Black metal bands are frequently characterised by scandalous incidents more than their style of music and instrumentation. From mock crucifixions to featuring impaled animal heads on stage to burning churches and murdering fellow band mates, the genre that was once hailed as the voice of dissent now comes across as a twisted version of its former self—with pretentious eye-popping rituals assuming priority over non-conformist beliefs.
Another major Blasphemy moment was the band’s song Garland of Guts, about Rajinikanth. They had the guts to perform it at JIPMER in a part of the country that sees the Tamil filmstar as a god. It was 1999, and an explicit combination of scandalous lyrics and indecent stage acts left the faculty—and even some students—seething. “It was the axe effect,” says Johnson, laughing. “There was a meat axe that belonged to my brother’s grandma. It was part of our stage act.
That night I almost chopped the head off this guy in the audience in all the frenzy. Sadly, that axe had a very sad and unworthy demise. Aunty sold it off to the scrap iron man for Rs 15.” The night ended with an angry mob chasing the band away, while policemen tried in vain to keep things in order. Understandably, Blasphemy was banned from returning to JIPMER.
The next year, however, the band sneaked back onto JIPMER’s campus under a slightly-different name, Blaspheme, and a slightly-different lineup, but with the same temperament. “That year, we drank so much before the show, horse brandy and all,” says Johnson. The band’s guitarist suffered alcohol poisoning and slipped into coma. “We rushed him to hospital. It was pretty serious, his pupils were dilated… we thought he was gone.” The normal thing to do would have been to cancel the performance. The band, of course, did no such thing. In defiance of medical advice, the guitarist reached the venue with a drip needle in his forearm for the next evening’s performance—a needle that was ripped out on stage as part of their performance.
That was not the end of all the gore that night. Later into the performance, a headbanging fan injured himself near a barricade. “A stray needle had induced a deep cut stretching from his forehead to just above his eye,” says Johnson. The fan got six stitches. But before that, he got the band’s personal attention; they tended to his wounds with sugar. “It was our remedy to stop the bleeding.”
Blasphemy was founded in 1999 and survived only two years. After the band’s first round of shows, it found itself banned at most places. Its story had begun with a local gig that a friend secured for it, a performance being filmed for TV broadcast as part of a cultural festival of sorts. A prerequisite to a performance here was a song in any regional language. “We didn’t know any Tamil at all, but we had Hindi in school, so we decided to write a song in Hindi,” Johnson recollects. “Me and Mario [Feegrade, guitarist in 1999] were quite deep in the dark magic scene at the time. Have you done table tapping? You know, people sit around the table and call on spirits of dead people? It’s quite interesting if you get the right kind of spirit.”
That was a regular pre-performance ritual for the band. It also served as inspiration for a song. “We got in touch with the spirit of this lady who had been murdered. We wrote her story in a song titled Bees Saal Baad.”
In addition to performing a Hindi song inspired by the vengeful wish of a spirit, Blasphemy showered the State-run channel’s cameras with generous amounts of profanity and debauchery. Asked to leave, they threw the mic at the anchor.
The band’s track titles have always been edgy. And if songs like Dead Bodies in the Basement, Sledge Hammer Blow to the Balls of God and Genital Cancer were a cultural shock to people, their belief in Satan worship was harder still for some to handle. For black metal bands, though, such worship is routine. Satan, to them, is a metaphor of freedom, an embodiment of the forces of chaos and anarchy they champion against the covert evil of organised religion. Blasphemy’s method was to shock audiences out of complacency and into reality. For some reason, it did not work.
“We had difficulty finding a stable lineup,” says Johnson, “No one wanted to play the songs we wrote. One dude came to audition for the position of a bassist. He got selected but quit because his mother thought we perform animal sacrifices.”
In 2000, Blasphemy played a set at IIT-Madras. “The axe on the mic and drums got us sent off and they didn’t like my T-shirt either,” says Johnson. “It was a DIY shirt which read ‘Fuck religion, fuck the police, fuck boy bands, fuck IIT, and if you don’t like it, fuck you too’.” A faculty member forbade him from getting on stage with that T-shirt, so Johnson wore another one over it, got on stage, and then took his cover off. “Needless to say, we got our set cut short. But the wackos in the crowd loved us, we were called back on stage for an encore, and the management went berserk trying to cut off the sound while we played.”
Another popular Indian band of the genre is Cosmic Infusion. Formed in 2003, it has its origins in the unlikely setting of Ambernath, a distant suburb of Mumbai. “The music you make is inspired by the environment you live in,” says Sushan Shetty, who handles keys and vocals for the band. “Where we lived in Ambernath, the area was filled with forest growth and dilapidated bungalows. It was in one such bungalow that we began to jam.” As he recounts the story that led to the band’s discovery of its unique sound, I can’t help but think of Black Sabbath. Arguably the pioneer of metal music, this band found inspiration for its 1973 album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath within the eerie confines of Clearwell Castle in The Forest of Dean.
Influenced by its surroundings, Cosmic Infusion’s songs express a fascination for death and the supernatural. Black metal came to the group naturally. The lineup has changed considerably since its inception, but Cosmic Infusion has had some of the most eccentric musicians. Take, for example, Chetan Tadke.
Five years after the band came into existence, it was raising hell at Marine Centre, a bar and restaurant in the Mumbai suburb of Vashi. The restaurant, a popular venue for metal concerts, had Cosmic Infusion—fronted by Tadke—among the bands on the bill one fine night. “I don’t really remember which song it was. I had my hands full with the keys, but we had talked this through. It was the band’s decision,” says Shetty.
Tadke picked up a bottle that was lying on stage and poured the contents all over his head, drinking some and letting the rest soak his face and torso. It was goat’s blood. This incident remains an urban legend, one that Shetty confirms as having happened: “We were a black metal band like any other black metal band. Our songs were about satanic rituals. Our rituals did not involve anti-Christian sentiments, only blood from time-to-time.”
Tadke has now detached himself from the scene, but the eccentric vocalist with his long orange hair is one of the best frontmen the domestic scene has had. Once, on a local train to Ambernath, Tadke is reputed to have beaten up a couple of hecklers who mocked his hair. He is also known to have passed out several times on stage with a bottle of alcohol in hand. The last time he did that, he almost took the drumset down with him.
“I met him about two years ago,” says Shetty, “He is a different man now. I think he is somewhere in Sangli looking after his parents.”
Resurrected recently, the band played its first gig after a long hiatus at Marine Centre. Many things have changed since the old days. For one, the venue also hosts Bollywood music. If one walks out of the hall near its bar where metalheads beat each other up in a mosh pit, one would be greeted with the sound of old Bollywood songs emanating from a classic pair of Ahuja speakers, complete with karaoke backing tracks.
The new version of Cosmic Infusion is big on corpse paint, another tradition typical of black metal bands; this Halloween, a fan even requested the band members to lend him some corpse paint for a party. Shetty has assumed control of the band as its frontman and lead vocalist. “The band has given up on most stage gimmicks. Now we are more about the music. Hopefully, our fans will appreciate that,” he says.
Still, wild events are characteristic of the metal scene as a whole. Metal is strong music, the objective being to hit you with the music. If, in the process, it leaves you hammered, even better. Some musicians, though, take this hammering rather seriously. In 2005, Vishal Dadlani shoved a microphone stand at a fan in the audience, causing him serious injury. The story goes that someone in the audience threw a plank, studded with spikes, at the bassist. Dadlani lost his cool and threw the mic stand in the general direction of the offender, accidently injuring an innocent attendee.
Something like that happened again during Scribe’s performance at NH7 Pune. There is some dispute over what exactly transpired, but word goes that someone in the audience kept disrupting the set and abusing the band’s guitarist. Scribe’s vocalist and frontman Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy warned him off a few times, but to no avail. Vishwesh then decided to resolve the matter himself, and asked the audience in Hindi to “teach him a lesson in the mosh pit”. Not a very sporting request for a vocalist of the most popular metal band in India.
Several of these reckless episodes may be blamed on the adrenaline rush of live metal concerts. A similar kick caused a metalhead to jump off the mezzanine floor into the crowd at Razz (Razzberry Rhinoceros). TJ Morey remembers his fall at that fateful Resurrection gig. “It was the 3rd or 4th edition of Resurrection as far as I can remember,” he says. “I got hammered beyond my comprehension, climbed on the first floor balcony, and did a leap-of-faith of sorts, only to realise that the bitch of a crowd parted way for me like the sea did for Moses and I ended up flat on the ground with a broken bit or two.”
In 2009, several injuries were reported at Delhi’s Great Indian Rock concert. “Our performance saw an insane number of members of the audience getting injured,” says Shashank Bhatnagar, lead vocalist of metal band Undying Inc. “Two guys sustained serious head injuries, five people broke some bone or the other, and six came down with ligament injuries. One of them later came backstage to get his head bandage signed.”
Veteran metalhead Ravi Balakrishnan recollects another such incident from 1997-98 when VJ Danny McGill performed with his underground band Power Onions at Rang Bhavan in Mumbai. “He stage-dived into the crowd. I’ve heard two versions of what happened next. In one, the crowd parted all around him and he crashed to the ground from quite a height. In the other, they did this thing that was in vogue back then—public dhulai. It was this gag where one of your ‘friends’ grabs your eyes while the others smack you on the head. When McGill got back on stage, he realised his pager had been stolen.”
Inevitably, some of these hell raisers have now matured. Johnson lives in Dubai and is happily married with a five-year-old daughter and an 18-month-old son. Cosmic Infusion has sobered up and been making music at phenomenal speed. As I talk to Sushan Shetty, he insists that these antics were a part of their past, and that they’d rather people listened to their music than talk about these incidents. Both Vishwesh Krishnamoorthy and Vishal Dadlani have at some point expressed their regret, and apologised, for their behaviour on stage. Metal is much more than a few crazy episodes, which is why these wild stories have died down.
Yet, the metal scene continues to thrive. It has become significant enough to accommodate its very own humour blog by the name Metalwikileaks.wordpress.com. The writings feature mock reports on people from the scene—musicians, organisers, fans. There is also the web series Headbanger’s Kitchen, pitched as a ‘heavy-metal cooking show’ that doubles up as a talk show.
The show has featured nearly all of India’s metal musicians, with host Sahil Makhija, frontman of the band Demonic Resurrection, cooking for invitees, followed by a discussion over dinner. So far, goat blood has not been served.