Islamic Republic of Rock

25 Oct 2021

Islamic Republic of Rock

By Alireza Doostdar

October 25, 2021

https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/43434/Islamic-Republic-of-Rock

Growing up in 1980s Iran, I used to prepare for school every morning as state radio played The Calendar of History (Taqvim-e Tarikh), a show chronicling important events from Iranian, Islamic, and global history. It was one of the most popular radio programs of the 80s and 90s and continues to this day. For me, the show’s most appealing aspect was its opening instrumental sequence: a cacophony of ringing alarms and chiming clocks, followed by a rapid, continuous tick-tock, the beating of tom-tom drums, and the deep strums of an electric guitar. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the opening to Pink Floyd’s song “Time” from their hit 1973 album, The Dark Side of the Moon. Every Iranian with a radio within earshot heard the song at some point over breakfast or on their way to work. Most listened to it hundreds if not thousands of times, but few knew its origin or had heard of Pink Floyd.

 

The Calendar of History is only one among numerous Iranian state radio and television programs to have incorporated Western rock music over the past four decades. Uncredited snippets of rock and heavy metal have appeared in everything from political programming to sports, comedy shows, and reality contests. These sounds are lifted from songs by European and American bands, but also from Hollywood film scores and, more recently, video games. So pervasive is the reach of Western rock that it would be impossible to understand post-revolution Iranian music without careful attention to its modes of circulation and appropriation.

Over the past two years, I have been researching the Iranian rock and heavy metal scene as part of a larger project on post-revolution cultural politics. I have joined metalhead groups on Instagram, Telegram, and Clubhouse, listened to hours of rock and metal music in every genre popular in Iran, and conducted in-depth interviews with musicians and fans (including members of over a dozen bands). What I have found is a complex landscape of experimentation and exchange that complicates dominant accounts of opposition between official “Islamic” culture and underground “Western” music. Just as official cultural productions like The Calendar of History bear the imprint of Western rock music, homegrown Iranian rock and metal works contain subtle and not-so-subtle traces of Islamic and Persianate traditions that make their identification as simply “Western” problematic. 

The idea that there is a stark divide between rock music and “Iranian culture” or the Iranian state’s official view of Islam is partly indebted to a self-image that the guardians of cultural orthodoxy have projected since the 1979 revolution. Conservative and right-wing groups have long painted rock and heavy metal with associations of Western cultural contamination, sometimes even “Satan worship.” The production and dissemination of this music has been subjected to the stringent controls of official bodies like the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting service (which encompasses state radio and television). These controls most directly affect the work of Iranian musicians active in the rock and heavy metal scene, creating severe restrictions that often make their work all but impossible.

When Western rock tunes are incorporated into official productions, their presence is enabled through a set of erasures and dissimulations: no mention of the music’s original sources, no credit to the artists, no depiction of instruments, and most importantly, no lyrics or vocals. And yet, the sounds themselves persist, and their reverberations help extend a kind of ambivalent cultural openness that I like to think of as “covert cosmopolitanism” – the flow of artistic creations from a cultural “other” typically painted as deviant or demonic, by way of concealing or refusing to acknowledge the very fact of openness.[1]

 

If the Iranian state’s attitude toward rock and heavy metal is riddled with contradiction, the community of musicians themselves evince little ambivalence about either their Western musical inspirations or the Iranian or Islamic motifs that make their work distinct.

 

This ambivalence also finds expression in state attitudes toward local, unofficial musical production. Iranian rock and heavy metal musicians are both beneficiaries and victims of a decades long push-and-pull between different factions of the revolutionary state: those that seek to impose maximal limits on any music that resonates with Western deviance, and those that prefer a relaxation of constraints to enable a more vibrant culture of artistic experimentation and creativity. Even in the best of times, as during the presidencies of Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani, musicians have been forced to navigate a frustrating tangle of bureaucratic hurdles and unsympathetic managers to reach their audiences. In the worst of times, they have suffered bans, harassment, and arrests.[2]

If the Iranian state’s attitude toward rock and heavy metal is riddled with contradiction, the community of musicians themselves evince little ambivalence about either their Western musical inspirations or the Iranian or Islamic motifs that make their work distinct. They bring these disparate elements together in a wide variety of ways, ranging from the earnest entwining of rock with Islamic mysticism, to the playful deployment of somber forms for humorous effect.

In the clearest instances of admixture, some bands sing the lyrics of Persian Sufi poetry to rock and metal tunes. The most famous musician to do this is Farshid A‘rabi who, at fifty-one, also has the distinction of being Iranian heavy metal’s oldest and most recognizable voice. A‘rabi sports an ample salt-and-pepper beard and long jet-black hair tied in a ponytail, giving him a look that could be read as both rocker and Sufi (although in interviews he rarely lets off any mystical vibes). Over the past two decades, he has released four Culture Ministry-approved albums, produced several music videos, and achieved the holy grail of Iranian rock music: staging live shows at respectably-sized performance halls. His name is often associated with a kind of heavy metal and hard rock that is palatable to official sensibilities, not least because he frequently incorporates the poetry of Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi in his music. Even so, A‘rabi has suffered his own share of restrictions, including long stretches of time when he was denied permits to publish or perform his music.

A‘rabi mostly provides the vocals for his own songs, his clean delivery (no screaming or growling, and little or no vocal distortion) creating a hypnotic accompaniment for his otherwise aggressive guitar riffs. My favorite example is the 2012 song “Faryad Kon” (Shout!) made into a music video in 2015. Its lyrics, by Abbas Roshanzadeh, have the dynamic cadence of a Rumi ghazal but the rhyme structure of a masnavi (with independent internally rhyming verses). The poem is a melancholy call for help that obliquely hints at social criticism (more explicitly suggested in the music video) and finally transitions into an equally oblique appeal to the last savior, the Imam Mahdi, to return and establish justice.

 

The short-lived band Hatk (Violation) provides an interesting counterpoint to A‘rabi in its deployment of classical Persian poetic form while departing from that tradition in both thematic focus and style. In the mid-2000s, singer and lyricist Mad Metal (now a one-man band in Sweden) combined elements of rap with the harsh guttural vocals of death metal for a track called “Chera (Why). In the song, Mad Metal rages against the malaise of youthful urban life, echoing his own experience as an orphaned young man left to fend for himself on Tehran’s mean streets:

We are the earth’s condemned
Without any sins
Condemned to exist
In the depths of darkness
Condemned to cry
Condemned to laugh
Condemned to everything
Except what we want

 

Most of Hatk’s other songs, and indeed Mad Metal’s oeuvre in subsequent years, deploy free-flowing verse unbridled by classical Persian meter. But in Chera, we hear verses mirroring one of the best-known metric structures of the classical system, most famously represented in Khaqani’s medieval qasida Eyvan-e Mada’en, an elegy for ancient Persian kings named after the Arch of Ctesiphon in what is now Iraq (I am indebted to Kurosh Amoui for pointing out the parallel). Mad Metal’s clunky syntax is a far cry from the high Persian tradition, but his song’s metrical form echoes that tradition nonetheless.

If ancient Persian kingship haunts Mad Metal’s verse through the faint traces of classical meter, we can hear bolder resonances of Zoroastrian and Persian imperial imagery among other death metal bands. A sizeable contingent of Iranian heavy metal musicians have appealed to Zoroastrianism and ancient Persian mytho-history to compose songs that declare an alternative identity to what is on offer in official discourse. “Immortal Identity by the Mashhadi band Arsames (who recently had to flee Iran to avoid imprisonment for their allegedly “Satanic” music) is a characteristic example. In the song, founder and vocalist Ali Madarshahi growls out a manifesto in English from the first-person perspective of the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great:

I am the king of power the chosen one
I am the first instructor of human rights
I invite all to baptism of love and justice
Washing away diabolical thoughts of your minds and souls. 

 

While Zoroastrian imagery has been adopted across the metallic spectrum—thrash, death, black, progressive, groove, nu, and so on—its symbolism is not always as strident as in Arsames. One of my favorites from among the more understated deployments of Zoroastrianism is the 2021 album Tanpasin by Tehrani band Electroqute. The band was formed in 2007 by guitarist and composer Amir Vafaei, an electrical engineer by training who now owns a guitar import business and often collaborates with his wife, Asie Mirheidari, a film and music-video director. Tanpasin is the band’s fourth studio album. Its title means “final body” or perhaps “future body” (tan = body, pasin = late, later, or final). It is a Zoroastrian eschatological concept indicating the resurrected human frame reanimated at the end of time. None of Tanpasin’s tracks make any explicit references to the End Times or resurrection, nor indeed to any other Zoroastrian ideas. Instead, they probe experiences of depression, alienation, loneliness, self-hatred, moral anguish, and madness. These are all common themes in heavy metal, and not just in Iran. What the image of a “future body” seems to signify is abortive transformation, the failure to become what one is meant to be. This is most clearly indicated in the first vocal track, “Pileh (Cocoon), which tells the story of a creature condemned to imprisonment inside a dark, damp cocoon despite its struggles to break free. Anguished voices from outside the cocoon warn the creature not to leave, because outside its silky prison there lies only hurt, hypocrisy, chaos, and enslavement. The creature is thus fated to remain on “this side of the wall,” to die a painless death, with metamorphosis toward a future body held in abeyance.  

 

 The thrash metal band Padra is another group that frequently explores the themes of existential anguish and desperation. Their chosen genre is horror, which they probe by drawing on classic figures of dread from Iranian and Islamic folklore. In “Nahs (Malevolent), the band’s most sophisticated track to date, founder and vocalist Ramtin Dashti (a film school graduate) sings and shouts about a jinn who has possessed the song’s addressee:

I’m the curse of the world
I want your body and soul
I’ll stay in your heart
Singing the song of death
You’re thirsty for pain
Fighting with your eyes closed
When all you wish for is death
I’ll be there guarding your nightmares

 

In another song, “Ehsasat-e Gav (Bovine Emotions), Dashti sings of black crows, howling wolves, a sorcerer’s talisman, and a waking giant, before warning of a terrifying metamorphosis that recalls Gholam-Hossein Saedi’s celebrated short story The Cow (made into an equally-celebrated film by Dariush Mehrjui in 1969):

Enclosed by an imaginary fence
We’re mesmerized by the feed
We remember nothing of our names
All we know is we’re cattle.

Horror, of course, has long been a mainstay of heavy metal music and is especially pronounced in black metal. In Iran, as in most other metal scenes around the world, black metal is a niche within a niche, a tiny corner of the musical world that for the most part actively resists (indeed sneers at) popular recognition. Largely inspired by the Scandinavian scene, and especially that of Norway and Sweden, Iranian black metal musicians frequently adopt a lo-fi production quality, employ unpleasant and disturbing sounds, and delve into themes that range from the difficult to the repulsive.

My favorite Iranian musician of the genre is Lord Aras. Born in Shahr-e Kord and raised in Shiraz, he studied painting and moved to Tehran as an adult. When he isn’t creating music, Lord makes a living as a professional canvas-maker and papier-mâché artist, with much of his focus devoted to crafting masks and weapons from fantasy movies like the Lord of the Rings franchise (here he is in a composite self-portrait with a Nazgûl mask, holding a tanbur and a samurai sword). 

Lord Aras has published over a dozen albums and EPs since the mid-2000s, all released on bandcamp and other online venues. His creations range from depressive black to epic symphonic metal, and he often incorporates the tanbur. Much of his work has a mournful quality tinged with righteous anger about social inequality and political repression. “Dead Soul in the Cage (2005) for example, is a slow and hypnotic lo-fi elegy that begins with thunder and the sound of rain and gently creeps along with a slow-paced riff. After about two minutes, Lord’s blood-curdling shriek shatters the sonic space, but the howl is so distorted that it quickly fades into an ambient white noise. Again, he screams, weeps, moans, and mumbles, as if struggling to be heard against the noise. He goes on like this for a full seven minutes, with thunder occasionally breaking the musical tension, until his voice trails off amid the sound of a gentle, but persistent rain.

Lord Aras frequently draws on Islamic and Christian myths and Iranian folklore to flesh out his dirges. In one of his very first tracks, an unpublished Norwegian-style black metal song called Sokoot (Silence), he addresses an unnamed oppressor and pleads:

            Who’s the Husayn whose blood has dried on your hands?
            Who’s the Jesus whom your wrathful eyes seek?

Here, Lord compares the victims of state repression to Jesus and Husayn (the martyred grandson of the prophet Muhammad), both of whom died at the hands of unjust rulers. But as the artist told me, he was not personally committed to any religion. The moral passions that animate some of the greatest religious stories resonate through his music, and yet he stands defiant against any form of religious or political authority.

The theme of religious mourning brings me, finally, to Mohammad “Moody” Moussavi, a guitarist and composer who blends progressive rock with grunge and folk music. The son of an Islamic eulogy singer, Moody grew up in Rasht reciting the Qur’an and absorbing the sounds of Shi‘i devotional music. As a teenager, he became familiar with rock and heavy metal through the video game Guitar Hero. The game got him hooked on rock, and a few years later he had mastered the electric guitar and earned the nickname Mammad Eslash after the lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses.[3]

Moody has so far produced one album (Food Court) along with several singles and collaborative projects (including one with his father). In each of the tracks in Food Court, he focuses on a dish from northern Gilaki cuisine and weaves its aromas and flavors into a story of love, loss, lust, and violence. The tunes are darkly hilarious, and Moody enlivens them with strategic and playful deployments of Persian poetic form and musical textures. In the best track of the collection, “Khorus Fesenjan (Rooster Fesenjan), he tells the tale of a pesky rooster who annoys a whole neighborhood until the residents gang up to hunt him down, chop him up, and cook him into a stew of fesenjan. The lyrics (written by Arash Monsef and Moody) are composed in the bahr-e tavil meter of Persian poetry, a form deployed in both humorous as well as mournful compositions. In the song, Moody gives us a gleeful meditation on violence, blood, decay, and at the same time, the pleasure of food, all matched up with some barely concealed sexual inuendo. The doomed rooster could be read as a reference to the expression khorus-e bimahal (the “ill-timed rooster”), used to refer to anyone who speaks out of turn or intervenes in other people’s business without knowing his or her place. But both in metrical form and bloody imagery, the song also tracks the mournful eulogies of Muharram and the massacre of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn, his household, and his companions. Moody told me that the poetic structure of Khorus Fesenjan mirrored almost exactly a song whose lyrics he had found in one of his father’s eulogy collections. His intention was not to mock the tragedy of Karbala, but instead to redirect its musical, poetic, and affective forces for playful, humorous effect. 

In the examples I have shown of Iranian rock and metal music, traces of the Persianate and the Islamic appear in lyrics, metrical form, supernatural imagery, sonic textures, and affective resonances. I will end with the song “Joker,” a recent track that gives expression to a scornful sense of humor common among so many Iranians as the country suffers through a seemingly endless string of injustices and misfortunes. The song is a collaboration between Moody and the musical duo #Tehran:

Everything is calm and good
Everything looks to be where it should be
Who would have thought that happiness
Was going to belong to everyone?
People are happy, laughing
No one has any complaints
In the alleys of this city
There’s a downpour of love

No, there’s nowhere else like it
You’re the first
No, there’s nothing else like it
No, there’s no one else like it
You’re the last
The oil in our veins runs redder than our blood

Everything is calm and good
Everything is so beautiful
We’re the only ones living in peace
While there’s constant warfare in our brains
Our hearts are full of hope
Our words full of truth
We’ve stayed content in the moment and conquered the world

No, there’s nowhere else like it
You’re the best
No, there’s nothing else like it
You’re the greatest
No, there’s no one else like it
You’re the last
The oil in our veins runs redder than our blood

The oil in our veins
Runs redder than our blood
The oil in our veins
The oil in our veins runs redder than our blood

Between Khorus Fesenjan and Joker, the dark humor of Moody and #Tehran offers us powerful glimpses of an Iranian rock scene that has established firm roots in the experience of twenty-first century life with its gamut of anxieties, contradictions, and malaise. As a modality of cultural integration, their sardonic musical mischief also presents a counterpoint to the ambivalent openness of state institutions that are deeply enthralled with the sounds of rock and heavy metal but remain too timid to embrace its full creative potential.



[1] See my article, “Hollywood Cosmopolitanisms and the Occult Resonance of Cinema” (Comparative Islamic Studies, 2019) https://journal.equinoxpub.com/CIS/article/view/13560


[2] For more on the politics of Iranian rock and heavy metal, see Nahid Siamdoust, Soundtrack of the Revolution (Stanford University Press, 2017). Other studies of Iranian rock include Ebrahim Nabavi’s Avaz-haye Zirzamin (Nogaam, 2013), and chapters in Mark Levine’s Heavy Metal Islam (Broadway Books, 2008) and Orlando Crowcroft’s Rock in a Hard Place (Zed Books, 2017).


[3] Mammad is a colloquial, affectionate pronunciation of Mohammad (although it is almost never used to refer to the Prophet Muhammad himself, in whose case it is considered offensive). Eslash is the Persian pronunciation of Slash (the stage name for Saul Hudson). The “e” sound is added to avoid having to pronounce a consonant string at the beginning of the word.