Star-crossed lovers are as fitting an analogy as any for the members of Iraqi thrash-metal band Acrassicauda. After forming in Baghdad in 2001, the band has spent most of the past decade in various states of limbo and forced hiatus. And yet its approach to its music -- and metal in general -- still possesses a sense of excitement, fresh passion, true love.
"Half of us live in New Jersey, half of us live in New York," drummer Marwan Riyadh tells me during a phone interview, when I ask where he, specifically, lives now. Riyadh doesn't seem to refer to himself much in the singular. The band, it seems, is who he is.
Its other members include singer/guitarist Faisal Talal Mustafa, guitarist Tony Aziz Yaqoo and bassist Firas Al-Lateef. Together, they entered the consciousness of Vice Magazine readers in 2004, when the publication ran a story profiling Acrassicauda as Iraq's only heavy-metal band. A bigger break came when Vice reporters returned to Baghdad to check on them. That nerve-wracking visit became the basis for the 2007 documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad. Most rock documentaries (see: Some Kind of Monster or Dig) find drama in clashing egos and personality disorders. Acrassicauda's conflict was with the band's whole country.
If you've ever been part of (or anywhere near) a metal band, these four dudes will seem familiar. They grew up listening to bootleg cassettes of Slayer and Iron Maiden -- along with a little Rage Against the Machine and Slipknot -- and dreamed of living someplace that would allow them to grow their hair out. They faithfully cover their thrash heroes, while incorporating traditional Iraqi instrumentation into their originals. Much of the time, they sound like Black Album-era Metallica.
Riyadh jokes that they all want to be rock stars, but it's pretty obvious that they just really, really, really love to rock. "When you start [playing music] at an early age, money doesn't mean the same to you as when you're 27 or 30," Riyadh says. "It's about the feel of the thing when you're playing your instrument and making your songs. We weren't trying to make money; it was just the zest of just being musicians."
Punk and metal were banned under Saddam Hussein's regime, but Acrassicauda managed to sneak a small handful of shows past censors by not doing anything that could be seen as Satanic, and throwing in a few pro-Saddam lyrics now and then. Every spare moment was spent practicing.
While Hussein's Iraq was oppressive, it had been at least relatively orderly. That changed after the U.S. invasion in 2003, when the country was thrown into chaos. Faced with regular death threats (spawned in part by their newfound notoriety in the States) as well as escalating violence, the members moved to Syria, one by one. The filmmakers, determined to move the band members to a safer place, raised funds to relocate the group to Turkey. In 2009, they were granted asylum in the United States.
Since then they've hung out with James Hetfield, shared the stage with Voivod and Cannibal Corpse at Scion Fest, and found a home in the New York scene. ("The metal scene is like a big family, that's something I'll always respect," Riyadh says. "They look after you, whether you're a band from Brooklyn or Baghdad.") They work as waiters and bartenders and practice more than 24 hours a week. ("Sometimes people fall asleep on their equipment while playing," Riyadh says with a laugh.)
In the film, Acrassicauda had the time-capsule feel of a band with limited access to new music. But since coming to the States, its sound has become more nuanced, featuring more progressive riffs and diverse tempos. Says Riyadh, "[W]e spend a lot more time working on songs, bit by bit, piece by piece, rather than just jamming whatever comes out -- like, 'Oh that sounds good, let's play it at the next show.'"
Acrassicauda's members now live in a country where they can freely bang their heads. But they've sacrificed a lot, having left behind their families and homes indefinitely. They also know that they've been lucky, and that much of their notoriety has little to do with their music.
"We're working hard now to prove ourselves as a metal band." Riyadh says. "It's a tricky situation. Everybody knows us from the documentary and the interviews we did. The documentary and the interviews are about more than the songs we did, and the audience is the type who aren't really metalheads. It's more like people who are interested in politics or the Middle East."
As distracting as their story might be from what they really love, "This probably wouldn't have happened without it," Riyadh admits. "But it's all just because of the music. We did it without knowing we were doing it, because we loved it. It wasn't a choice. The story got bigger and bigger, and we just stayed who we are -- just musicians who want to play music."