Daniel J. Gerstle works with metalheads “singing not about zombie invasions and medieval swordsmen but about surviving actual war” and wonders how so few have heard them.


CROSSING THE RAINY STREET in deepest Bushwick, Brooklyn this past winter, I searched for the address where I was to meet up with Acrassicauda, Iraq’s best-known metal band.

Their spring tour would see them zigzagging across the United States leading up to this coming June 23rd show, with industrial metal icons Ministry, here in New York City. Dashing over puddles and getting psyched to hear some live thrash, I found myself obsessing about a related mystery of the music world.

For decades, metalheads, punks, hard rockers, and rappers in the West have been blasting their names across the universe on the wings of memes, slogans, and lyrics in which they brandish their scars. Real traumas no doubt: Metallica’s Cliff Burton killed when their bus flipped; Randy Rhodes smashed in a plane crash; Sid Vicious charged with murder, then overdosed; Tupac getting shot, flipping off his attackers, recovering, singing about Heaven, and then getting shot again; Motorhead’s missing teeth. Metal massacres. Battles of the bands. Thug life. And many of these artists’ songs, from Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy” to Cannibal Corpse’s “Hammer Smashed Face,” either recall hard times or salivate for gore.

But more recently, the world has seen a wave of heavy metal from actual war zones, pioneered by bands like Acrassicauda. Many of these guys and girls grew up trapped in besieged cities fearing checkpoints and hiding in shelters, sometimes under a rain of explosives. These bitter kids never wanted to deny what was happening around them. Embracing hard realities, one either has to grab a weapon or find some catharsis to process this trauma. Ergo, something I like to call, “shrapnel thrash.”

When I got to the address in Brooklyn, I was surprised to find myself on a residential street staring up at a house. This couldn’t be the nest of Tigris thrash, could it? I stumbled past a few still-burning cigarettes and half-empty beer cans at the door. Inside, a hallway with five doors, all of which were rattling viciously as if holding back wild animals being electrocuted. I put my ear up to one door, trying to identify the band’s signature sound.

Acrassicauda first launched into the world back in Saddam Hussein-era Iraq, when they got media coverage for bringing headbanging and devil’s horn-wielding tradition to Baghdad for the first time. More recently, people in the West came to know them from the VICE documentary film, Heavy Metal in Baghdad. As the film shows, they succeeded in throwing a thrash concert in the Al-Fanar Hotel at the height of the war. Then, when thugs blew up their practice space, they left for Syria, then Turkey, and ultimately to the United States. Many people wondered what happened to them.

Embracing hard realities, one either has to grab a weapon or find some catharsis to process this trauma. Ergo, something I like to call, “shrapnel thrash.”

Curious as hell last fall, I reached out to their manager Rachel Martinez, a red-haired metal vixen from El Paso who could give you a sweet smile even while she’s punching you in the balls. I told her how Travis Beard, his band White City, and the Afghan metal bands District Unknown and White Page were putting together the Sound Central Festival, Afghanistan’s first regional festival. They wanted Acrassicauda to be part of it.

Singer Faisal Mustafa, who looks tough with his skull rings but talks softly, went up to Rachel’s Manhattan rooftop where I filmed him pretending to beat up the camera and sending a message of solidarity to their new allies in faraway, war-torn Kabul. Later, the intellectual, warrior-like drummer, Marwan Hussein, and Faisal came to speak at the Sound Central global opening-night party in Brooklyn. Since then, I was dying to hear them jam.

Which of the five rumbling doors did I enter? After a time, I heard their signature song, “Garden of Stones.” Bassist Firas Allateef was battling with Marwan to produce the driving rhythm. When the song ended, I barged in, offering a six pack of “Bass” Ale as admission. They were in good spirits. Strong new songs, like the shredder’s rocket ship, “Sinbad.” As I tucked into the corner of the room, I watched Mo Al-Ansari take on the guitar solo like he was tickling a cobra.

For people who have never heard thrash metal live, I have to explain why some people get so obsessed with it. When performed live, thrash offers a psycho-physical feeling that cannot be found listening to mp3s, CDs, records, or watching little online videos. You have to stand within vibration-wave distance of the amplifiers and within sweat-spray distance of the kids slam dancing to get the full effect.

The closest comparable feeling to live thrash may be hitting an open road and slamming on the gas and then making sudden, sharp swerves around curves in the road. When one is really there, emotionally, the percussive starts and stops of the unified power chord, bass, and drums causes what feels like a sustained adrenaline rush.

Spent from playing, the guys melted back into their normal selves. No bullshit, just some dudes having a smoke and a beer. They told me how tired they were of people wanting to ask them about Iraqi and American politics. They don’t give a shit about Iraqi elections any more than Megadeth cares about what’s on the buffet menu at the White House. It’s just that, like other shrapnel thrash bands, they face a promotional paradox.

Even truly great bands cutting their teeth in label-rich Brooklyn can win fans for decades and still get nowhere financially. Bands need a story, a legend. Acrassicauda has an awesome story, but they do not always want to be called the “war zone band” or asked about politics. And to achieve this graduation to “global band,” they need to replace their out-of-Baghdad story with a new one. That’s where new songs like “Sinbad” come in. For a new direction, they’ve decided to “crowd”-produce their new songs, inviting hardcore fans from all over the United States to give direct, live feedback and be part of the creative process. Their new moniker would be “the interactive thrash band.”

The entire documentary can be found on YouTube in nine parts.

Firas hands me his bass. What the ? For a few minutes I fuck around nervously as they talk. Then Marwan gets behind his mountainous drum kit and starts banging around. We get into a groove, and, hell, I’m jamming with motherfucking Acrassicauda. Soon enough, Austin Dacey, the creator of the music and human rights project Impossible Music Sessions shows up and takes over bass. Faisal gives me his guitar. It’s my moment.

Marwan times up AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” I launch into it and…completely mess it up. It was the heavy metal equivalent of cumming too soon. I want to run and hide, or do something macho like pushups. Faisal looks at me disappointed but humored, not saying anything cause he’s not sure how well I take shit. Humbled, I give him back his guitar. It’s not so easy jamming with pros, at least not while drunk at 2AM surrounded by guys you just saw in a movie.

This brings me back to that mystery of the music world I was obsessing about while I walked there: Why is it that, while here we finally have the real thing — metalheads singing not about zombie invasions and medieval swordsmen but about surviving actual war — so few have heard of these dudes? How do formatted press memes about celebrity scars in promised-land America give music fans more of a hard-on than fear-sculpted Rolling Stone and VICE stories about musicians who produce great music despite surviving actual wars, attacks, and threats?

Momentum in the music world, I’ve learned, is less about the actual story behind the artist than about the legend created by industry promoters. Bands that produce tough music in tough places, like Acrassicauda, are some of the most honest dudes you’ll ever meet. They’re tired of lies, tired of exaggerations, and especially tired of talking about war.

They’re not going to go into an interview and talk all about how tough they are, how their dads didn’t love them, or about political BS. They’re going to avoid your questions with some gallow’s humor, plug in, and then jump start your heart with a few thousand volts of armor-piercing sound.

If you’d like to see Acrassicauda up close and personal, follow them on Facebook for concert dates. They’ll be performing live with Ministry in New York on June 23rd, 2012. To follow the greater cause of tough music in tough places, see other chapters in this series or follow the Humanitarian Bazaar Music project on Facebook or Twitter.