A skinny lad who looks no more than 16 walks past me, arms pumping like pistons in sync with the choppy beats emanating from the speakers. He wears a Sex Pistols t-shirt and red bandana tied around his neck.
“He used to come to our shows with his father in the early days,” says Shashank Bhatnagar, former vocalist of groove metal band Undying Inc. “Nowadays, he comes alone. We made him, like we made all these people”, he says, waving expansively around the dark, cloistered space.
We are at a club in South Delhi, packed with metal heads and longhaired hipsters, to attend a show boasting two of India’s hottest punk rock bands, Pacifist and Death By Fungi, both part of a loosely-knit collective known as Bombay Hardcore.
The punk scene is still at a nascent stage in India with a small but devoted following. Promoters put in a lot of effort to grow the audience for these acts, most of them only just about breaking even at the end of the day. “I have failed at many things,” says Bhatnagar. “But it doesn’t feel like failure when it’s something you love.”
Four men leap on stage and start shredding the air with an explosion of manic energy. A raging torrent of sound rips through the space, immobilising the crowd. An instant later, they erupt into a head-banging frenzy as front man Sidharth Raveendran screams out the lyrics to ‘Reactionary’, a song from their new EP Greyscale Dreams:
Symbols of hatred
We’ve turned into Gods
Judgement upon all
For I am the Lord
Witch-hunts and trophies
Lynch all the snakes
Blackened and painted
and burnt at the stake
Burnt at the stake
The lyrics allude to online lynch mobs hurling death and rape threats at critics of India’s current ethno-nationalist government, often with the blessings of politicians.
“The song is about the digital ‘outrage culture’ that we’re living in; about people who gain pleasure from just putting others down on the internet and triggering people online, revelling in their rage and fuelling more hatred,” Raveendran tells me. “Everyone’s made up their minds, picked a side and are not engaging in any actual productive discourse or real debate. They just want to enrage and win at all costs.”
The band – comprised of vocalist Raveendran, guitarist-producer Apurv Aggarwal, drummer Varun Sood, bassist Utkarsh Jaiswal and guitarist Ashish Dharker – may be called Pacifist, but their music is the very embodiment of rage, deployed as an act of catharsis for the band and their audience. It’s a weird dualism – seeking peace through music that’s loud and violent.
Hardcore punk emerged in 1970s California as an antidote to the peace and love hippie counterculture. While never tasting mainstream success, some of the early pioneers of hardcore – Black Flag, Minutemen, Dead Kennedys and Husker Du – managed to attract a large enough following to have their work featured in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest albums of all time (2003).
Raveendran lives by the staunchly anti-corporate stance espoused by the pioneers of punk rock. Here ‘f**k the system’ is not just a bumper sticker slogan, it means taking control of ones’ own narrative, rather than being another cog in the wheel.
“Punk/hardcore has everything to do with the DIY spirit of ownership. You are in charge of your destiny. You create the music, the artwork, organise your own gigs, run your own magazines/labels, create your own merchandise,” he tells me. “These genres made an underground movement possible in an era dominated by major label commercial interest.”
In the shadows
Sandesh Shenoy, a Bangalore-based extreme metal aficionado and an early pioneer, started the Trendslaughter festival in 2011 with some like-minded friends to showcase the most radical and subversive talents on the scene. The audience response for their first event far exceeded expectations and based on the demand, bands like Orator (Bangladesh), Ugra Karma (Nepal), Hellucinate (Indonesia), Genocide Shrines (Sri Lanka), Dying Embrace (India), Cauchemar (Canada), Abigail (Japan) and Demilich (Finland) were roped in for subsequent shows.
Shenoy has a penchant for picking the most eccentric, some would say outlandish, acts for his label, Cyclopean Eye productions.
“I would pick out artists like Bell (the US), Sathara’asthika (Sri Lanka), Konflict (Sri Lanka), Reek of the Unzen Gas Fumes (Japan), and Jyotishavendanga (India-Russia) as being some of the most eccentric and refreshing artists that I have ever signed,” he says. “As for the live acts that I have brought to India, I would say bands like Demilich and Cult of Fire have been the most eccentric of the lot.”
Fearless and incendiary, these bands often stay in the shadows for fear of backlash. The front man of Genocide Shrines, a black metal band from Sri Lanka, asked me not to use his name in the article. With songs like ‘Rape of the Kamadhenu’, ‘Mahabharata Terror Attack’ and ‘Nectars of Tantric Murder’, I can see why he is reluctant to make his identity public.
CT Trident, as he calls himself, is drawn to extreme metal for its staunchly uncompromising approach to art. “My lyrics are based upon concepts such as survival, the individual, purpose and Death. I take reference from old folk plays, scriptures, rituals, etc. We are obsessed with the occult, Maha Ravana and the Shunyavaada, where we explore mostly the Theravada concepts of Death in its most purest forms.”
He strives to awaken a slumbering populace, members of a “brain dead consumerist culture who deem the purchase of the latest iPhone or getting the most amount of likes/hits on social media as an achievement.”
The band has a diverse range of musical inspirations. They are fans of classical Indian and Sri Lankan music and of artists such as Pandith Amaradeva and Maestro Premasiri Khemadasa. The drummer, who goes by the name BWG, holds a Vishaarada title in Indian classical music. But their sound is mainly derived from 80’s heavy metal and the extreme end of the musical spectrum such as black/death/grindcore and industrial/noise/experimental music.
Existential angst and alienation
Hardcore bands have popped up all over South Asia including, notably, in Pakistan. Lahore-based group Multinational Corporations, came to notice with the release of their debut EP Jamat-al-Maut in 2014. Their pissed-off lyrics, penned by vocalist Hassan Amin, deal with topics ranging from the purposeless grind of the rat race, disgust for ethno-nationalists and religious bigots (‘F**k Your Patriotism’) and existential despair. The title track is an obvious dig at the Taliban and other violent militias that riddle the country.
For the unaccustomed listener, hardcore and extreme metal can be a disorienting experience, characterised by a noise-filled sound that uses heavily distorted guitars and manic percussive beats performed at high speed, accompanied by vocals which consist of growls and shrieks, seemingly designed to bludgeon an audience into submission.
Not surprisingly, psychologists have found links between the extreme metal subculture and mental health problems that plague urban youth, including depression, addiction, suicide and trauma-related issues. Themes of death, suicide, deviant religious practices, nihilism and ultra-violent behaviour that undergird death/black metal are described as “externalising behaviours” to help young adults cope with existential angst and alienation.
Psychology may offer a partial understanding, but deeper insights about metal subculture can be gleaned from the fields of social and cultural anthropology. In his study of the French renaissance writer Francois Rabelais, Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin posited the notion of the ‘carnival grotesque’, derived from the bawdy, grotesque and profane elements in his work.
The eponymous carnival served as a venue for bacchanalian celebration where the sacred and the profane, the high and low, the godly and ungodly could all coexist in the same space. Clowns, fools and entertainers would use parody and humour to celebrate the body and its base needs – eating, drinking, defecating and fornicating. It was a way to turn the social order on its head, to ridicule king and clergy and subvert the status quo.
In a 2006 essay titled ‘Heavy Metal Carnival and Dis-alienation: The Politics of Grotesque Realism’, Karen Hanlon, building on Bakhtin’s theory, writes that death metal aids with a “suspension of hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions”, and therefore “provides liberation from internal censors”, and in doing so, “challenges exposes and transcends the limits between body and world, life and death interior and exterior.”
In brief, the experience of extreme metal allows us to “question whether we are really alive amidst the numbing pressure of commercial culture”.
The iconic British group Napalm Death, an early pioneer of extreme and black metal, inspired dozens of bands worldwide, including False Flag, a Pune-based hardcore band that won some acclaim for their debut EP Spectrum Disorder. Like their forebears, False Flag is unabashedly political and outspoken about their views. A track called ‘Docile Body‘ on their 2018 album was influenced by German philosopher Max Horkheimer, in particular his essay ‘Rise and Decline of the Individual’.
“The idea that new technology is a mark of progress is really questionable because in practice it can only be seen to be utilised to generate more and more capital and to invent new means and forms of power to control and discipline individuals,” says front man Shaunak Phadnis.
“Today’s consumption based technology dehumanises Individuals and makes them “dividuals” that inhabit a pseudo-nature in which capitalism becomes a form of life itself. We become the means and ends of capital to generate and expand itself further and further.”
Back at the club, the young man with the Sex Pistols shirt is jumping around like a hyperkinetic marionette, bouncing off a dozen or so other men in the throes of what looks like religious ecstasy or an epileptic seizure.
Sweaty bodies slam against each other in the ‘mosh pit’, channelling the latent rage coursing through the veins of the city like a red-hot stream of bubbling lava. Here, slam dancing or moshing is an expression of revolt against the banal niceties of bourgeois culture.
Pacifist has started performing the EP’s title track ‘Greyscale Dreams’:
Lost in the promised dream
Steel girders & beams
Dark hues from a murder scene
Disposable second hand lives
Crushed, choking alive
Hear it play in the back of your mind
Grinding against the grain
House of cards
A debt waiting to be repaid
No time for second thoughts in your head
There’s a child to be fed
Another breadwinner dead
Raveendran tells me that the song was inspired by the public stampedes at a railway bridge that killed almost over 23 people at Mumbai’s Elphinstone Road station in 2017.
“Countless other daily incidents continue to occur in Mumbai, with building collapses, accidents and people drowning in the floods/rains & general lack of value for human life in the city,” he says. “So much for the ‘City of Dreams’ – the illusion of how opportunity quickly cascades into sheer desperation & barely getting by in the ruthless grind of Mumbai.”
The song lyrics are poignant, powerful and all too familiar to anyone who has experienced the soul-crushing grind of the city. The mosh pit comes alive once again as Pacifist lays waste to the stage. The rage is visceral and palpable, like a hard punch to the gut.
A group of people who unwittingly walked into the nightclub scurry out upon seeing what looks like a rioting mob. I turn to Shashank Bhatnagar and ask him if he thinks we are due for a revolution.
He nods, “There will be an all-out war, a revolution in India, but not via lyrics and songwriting. War will happen on the streets.”
Vikram Zutshi is a cultural critic, filmmaker, vintner and a professional vagabond.
Featured image credit: Chandu Meghanadan
Video courtsey (‘Death by Fungi’ and ‘Pacifist’): Rana Ghose