Iraq's Acrassicauda: Poised To Strike

By: Cal Roach

Acrassicauda is named after a species of scorpion, and it rolls off the tongue in a metal sort of way. They're not the only heavy metal band to come out of Iraq, but they're certainly the most well-documented. You can find their story in The New York Times, or in the 2007 documentary Heavy Metal In Baghdad, or in Vice magazine as far back as 2003. In fact, Vice helped to raise $40,000 in donations to facilitate the band's eventual relocation to the U.S. Pretty typical story: band's practice studio and equipment destroyed by bombs; death threats force exodus to Syria; Syrian government changes refugee laws, prompting band to flee to Turkey; band is finally granted asylum in the U.S. in January 2009.

Lead vocalist-guitarist Faisal Talal doesn't want his band defined by its backstory, though; he wants the music to speak for itself. The group's first EP, Only The Dead See The End Of The War, an almost retro blast of thrash metal, was released March 9. JamBase spoke with Talal a couple days after Acrassicauda's first major show in the U.S. (at the Scion Rock Fest in Columbus, OH) about his band's arduous musical odyssey and the people who have helped along the way.

JamBase: How was the Scion Rock Fest?

Faisal Talal: Oh, man, it was awesome, one of the awesomest nights ever! We had a jam with the greatest bands, legendary bands, awesome people. We made a lot of friends, a lot of family. You know, it's a small community over there, but they all support you from the bottom of their hearts; there's no hiding, there's no faking. You can get lost here in New York, but in Ohio, there's not as much crowd to get lost in, you know? So you can see people's hearts, whenever they talk to you and tell you, "You guys rocked," or "You guys sucked." You can make a difference. Plus, it's a metal fest, so it's the metal community all around you, surrounding you. That's one of the greatest opportunities ever, you know? So, we try to take advantage of it and stick to it tooth and nail as much as we can.

JamBase: Did you get a chance to check out a lot of other bands?

Faisal Talal: Oh yeah, we had the chance to meet with Voivod and Cannibal Corpse; we got to see bands like Dead Sea, Struck By Lightning, Yob. You had a good vibe over there, even the bands over there, trying to support you, surrounding you. They come to your concert, listen to your shows. A good vibe, good people.

Was that your biggest U.S. audience so far?

So far, yeah. I hope it will increase in the future, but it's one of the biggest and one of the [most] loveable. We really enjoyed being there. Nobody just sits there watching, doing nothing; they do whatever they can to make you feel that you're playing for them, not for somebody else. Some of them mosh-pitted, some of them banged their heads as much as they can. It was nonstop, the whole venue was moving on one vibe, and it's so great to see all these crowds moving to your music, jamming on it. It's really awesome.

You guys were required under Saddam Hussein's regime to write a pro-Saddam song, "The Youth Of Iraq." Do you still play that song?

Acrassicauda by Scion A/V Video
Oh, no. It was something that we had to do in the past, and... it's just like we've said before, we had to do anything and everything to keep the band running, just for the sake of the music. It's not about giving everybody some kind of credit to make him feel better just because we want to do our music, but it's more... something passionate. In our hearts, we had to do something for this band, because we owe it all to this band. We had to do it in the past, and it stays in the past; we stopped doing it. It's one of the starters. Every band had to face it, just to know what they are up to, really, which style they're struggling with right now. So, we finally discovered it, and we're still learning. We learn every day from each band, from each style. We keep going, and now, since we're working with legendary musicians, we have to pay attention to each detail they say, each move they [make]. There's nothing left in this world for us except paying attention to what updates our music to keep us going.

My understanding is that it was tough to get your hands on much Western music under Saddam's regime. How did you discover the underground metal scene?

Each one of us had his own way for discovering this kind of music. Some of us had friends; some of us had big brothers who discovered it before them. A lot of us had brothers who used to talk about good bands who'd played in the past [and] created their own music. And we kept going after these rumors until we discovered that there were actually [Iraqi] heavy metal bands that had been created before us. But none of it has kept going further, because the life procedure kept blocking their way, blocking their music. Some of them got married, some of them left the country, [and for] some of them it's not working for them this way. With a community surrounded by tradition and religion, you can't spread the music of rock & roll and foreign music all around it that easy. You have to find the right place and the right time. Plus, it's not very easy to keep playing and practicing loud. A lot of people don't accept that. Even here, you [only] have certain places you can play this kind of music.

So, we had to find the right people, the right places to do that. We kept searching and searching. Some of the bands who started just before us didn't have the motive or something to keep them carrying on, so they just got depressed and desperate from it [and] said, "Okay, it's not gonna work, why the hell are we still going?" But we couldn't lose the faith. Something kept us going. Something kept pushing us. I don't know what it is, but it's something really strong that made us leave our country and leave our lives and our families all behind just for the sake of it. Something justified the need, and our need was this kind of music; it had already justified what we had been through.

In the early days of the band, were you already thinking that some day you would have to leave the country in order to succeed?

Faisal Talal from Films
Well, I would lie to you if I said, "Yeah, I did," but no, we had never thought of leaving Iraq. We might've had the thought of going on a tour. Let's say we have passports [and] can go play as musicians in each country, but it is a lot of struggle and a lot of moving. We just wanted to do something, but the political situation had blocked our way. So we had to apply for asylum as refugees to get a good passport, to get a good opportunity in life, to keep playing this music around.

You did play some shows in Syria and Turkey, right?

Yes, we did.

Had word of mouth spread to those areas? How did audiences react to you there?

Well, Syria has limited waves of metal. They can't spread because they had certain problems with the government in the past because of Satan-worshippers. They kept having demonstrations because of it - that's what we heard from Syrians themselves. They kept telling us to keep this music underground, so we did what the natives said. You can't just resist or do something against the law to make your music grow faster. We just wanted to do it as a test. Plus, we had nowhere to go because Syria was kind of our basic home at that time. We lived there, our passports [were] going back and forth between the two governments [Syria and Iraq], and we didn't know if they were going to kick all the Iraqis out or keep them there. We didn't want to take any risks. We just wanted to be careful about it.

But, we did a couple of concerts. The first concert, like 30 [people] showed up; second concert was almost like six people, and four of them were our best friends. It almost sucked, you know? But as soon as we got to Turkey we had four or five shows, and we made good money out of it; good people surrounded us. The rock community over there surrounded us with their love, and also their support, but Turkey was just a temporary residency. You don't even know if you're going to be able to stay, if your month visa will be extended or not, so you can't expect anything over there anyway. Police surrounding you, every time they stop you they give you a heart attack. It's a matter of fear, depression, pressure, conflict, all surrounding you at the same time, but you'd rather just play your music to spread this anger all around it. You can't go there and keep killing people just because you're angry.

I guess we had to go through a lot just to start this music, but we saw a lot of the metal scene in Turkey, we learned a lot from Turkish cultures. We had to play in different types of venues. People helped us find our way through music, through bands, through equipment we needed in the past. But after all, in Syria and in Turkey, we had to sacrifice our own instruments and equipment just to pay the rent.

Continue reading for more on Acrassicauda...

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