Breaking the Silence - Metal in the Heart of the Lion City
I will not play a part in this infantile farce,
Your offer I decline;
Building walls of pretension to conceal your intentions
Was just a waste of time!
Though in your life of make-believe
The best things came for free
Why should I trust my plans in the ‘capable’ hands
Of a shallow fool like thee?
Lyrics from The Sky Beneath My Feet by Skyclad, a folk metal band
Ask the common person what he thinks of metal, and what his imagination conjures forth is ugliness.
He thinks of harsh music that is grating to the ears. He cringes as his mind’s eye looks upon lyrics that transgress and offend. He imagines violent hooligans beating each other up as they are worked up into a frenzy. He perceives a community of idiots, layabouts, decadents, and chauvinists.
That is what he thinks… but he is mistaken.
For what else does metal resemble more than art?
Its harshness belies a complexity of construction discernible only to the attentive ear. Its lyrics bespeak a rare honesty by daring to go where others fear to tread. Moshing is nothing else but the dervish’s ecstasy recast in a studded jacket and leather boots. And scientists, philosophers, writers, and even presidents dot the metalheads’ ranks.
Need I say more to explain my love for the genre?
I left the Bras Basah MRT station ready for war.
A battle jacket hung loosely around my shoulders, bedecked with every manner of band patch, metal stud, and pin button known to man. A graphic depicting a commando lying in ambush adorned the front of my T-shirt. Distressed jeans riven with tears wrapped my legs while belt chains hung from their loops, announcing my presence with each step.
But for today, I was not here to cause trouble. I was only here to fulfil my oath to the Iron Brotherhood. The Lords of Thrash Metal had come to town: obliged I was to pay them fealty.
What, exactly, is thrash metal? Well, it’s the sort of metal that people talk about when they bring up Metallica. A synthesis of punk and heavy metal, it combines heavy metal’s grandiose machismo with punk’s irreverent aggression. Distorted guitars play speedy riffs to turbo-fast drum beats as vocalists yell lyrics about assorted acts of violence and resisting The Man.
And so it was this brand of metal that hypnotised the masses on Sunday, 23 October, when legendary shredders Heathen came to town. This was the band’s first-ever visit to the Lion City, who are currently in Southeast Asia to cap off their 2022 Empire of the Blind tour. They played at The Theatre Practice on 54 Waterloo Street, only a few minutes' walk from Singapore Management University.
The reception began at 6 pm, and excited metalheads–me included–began streaming into The Theatre Practice not long thereafter. A lively atmosphere developed as we waited for the doors to open. Long-time gig-goers greeted each other like old comrades while band members fist-bumped gleeful metalheads to loud hails of approval. A long queue formed around the merchandise table as people began snapping up tour shirts, patches, CDs, and cassettes.
Fans also began introducing themselves to each other, and vibrant discussions soon erupted. I joined a small impromptu group of metalheads eagerly discussing the contemporary metal scene. Following a round of introductions, we talked over the latest developments in metal and our most recent forays into its many subgenres. There was certainly an eclectic mix of tastes: One of them was a Greek black metal buff while another had been digging through cheesy power metal. There was also a pair of brothers who had seen Destruction and Vader–a German thrash metal band and a Polish death metal band respectively–live in Singapore.
(As for me? Well, I’m a connoisseur of death metal. It’s probably no surprise then that my first live gig was headlined by Vital Remains, an American death metal band.)
At around 6.30 pm, the concert venue finally opened. We moved into a spacious black box theatre that had been outfitted with a makeshift stage. People milled about as soundchecks were conducted. Meanwhile, my newfound comrades and I took up our positions towards the right and front of the stage, where we were closest to the speakers.
Local band MetalGunz took the stage at 6.45 pm as the first opener. More than two decades old, the veteran band has performed at The Substation as well as at international music events such as Taiwan’s Rock in Taichung and New York City’s CMJ Music Marathon. Playing highlights from their album Never What It Seems and new songs from a work-in-progress, they warmed the crowd up with their groovy heavy metal/rock ‘n’ roll blend reminiscent of Pantera. My personal favourite from their set was Leatherface Man, a tribute to the villain from the movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A close contender was The Part That Kills, whose heartfelt lyrics were complemented by a slow and steady yet poignant rhythm.
A short intermission followed before the next opener appeared onstage: Antologi. Also a local band, this decade-old group has performed in music festivals across the Malay Archipelago from Indonesia to Batam. Over the years, they have transitioned from the heavy metal present in their first EP Tangisan Lara Pecinta (Heartbroken Cry of a Lover), to the death/thrash metal blend encapsulated in their latest album Chronicles of Catastrophes. Performing songs from the aforementioned album as well as their previous album Berjuang (Fight), they assaulted the metal horde with a solid wall of sound. They opened the set with Thrashin’ In Chaos, a love letter to thrashers everywhere. It was followed up by a masterful cover of Testament’s Brotherhood of the Snake, which had this humble author headbanging along to a beloved classic, as well as the song Age of Pandemic–one of the most epic songs about Covid-19 I’ve heard thus far. They concluded their set with the anthem Thrashers of the World, a rousing tribute to thrash metal and its enthusiasts the world over.
Another short intermission followed. The room was abuzz with excitement as we awaited the band we had all come here for: Heathen. Heathen was spawned in the mid-to-late 80s thrash metal scene of San Francisco’s Bay Area. Among metalheads, they rank alongside such notables as Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Exodus. Heathen employs a degree of technicality in guitar work matched by few other thrash metal bands, and this element has only deepened over the four albums that the band has released altogether. Perhaps this has contributed no small part to their substantial following and continued success.
Suddenly, the lights dim. Cheers erupted as the members of Heathen took their places on stage, but silence soon took over as they began playing the opening instrumental to their latest album Empire of the Blind. At the instrumental’s crescendo, we were taken off to a blistering start as the band deployed The Blight.
Lightning-fast riffs and rapid drum beats ripped through the crowd, driving it to a frenzy and opening a mosh pit in its midst. The chaos was amplified as the band segued into the album's title track; its mid-tempo beat interspersed with fast sections made absolutely irresistible headbanging material. This was followed up by Control by Chaos and Opiate of the Masses from their albums The Evolution of Chaos and Victims of Deception respectively. The former, a memento mori, the latter, a censure of orthodoxy–together, they made awesome calls to rebellion. Back to headbanging, we went as the band performed the slow ballad Sun In My Hand before they concluded with a jaw-dropping performance of Death by Hanging off Breaking the Silence. Frisson overtook me as I watched the guitarists shred their way through the song as tightly as they had in the studio.
As the band left the stage, we thought the show was over. Cries of one more song! and its various permutations rang out from the crowd as was gig tradition. Much to our surprise, however, Heathen’s answer was yes! Even louder cheers erupted as the band came back on stage to perform an encore. Another mosh pit tore apart the audience as the ferocious Dying Season burst forth from the speakers, an electrifying hymnal to societal death. The mood was then somewhat lightened as the band then performed a cover of Sweet’s Set Me Free. However, the night ultimately belonged to darkness. Heathen finished off the encore with Hypnotised from Victims of Deception–my favourite song of theirs. Many horns and fists shot forth from the enraptured crowd and me as the band performed this defiant declaration of disbelief.
Head aching and ears ringing, I exit the venue alongside my similarly dazed group. Our verdict was unanimous: The gig had lived up to our expectations. Heathen had proved their worthiness of the accolades that had long been bestowed upon them–and we had gotten some sweet new merch out of it too! It also left me optimistic about the state of metal in Singapore. Though the scene had taken a beating from Covid-19, the recent spate of gigs showed me that this had not dampened our enthusiasm in the least bit. If anything, the material coming out now would not have been possible without the lockdowns. As a long-time metalhead, I am hopeful that this groundswell of creativity will continue well into the future.
Credits: A special thanks to Street Noise SG for organising the gig, giving me Heathen's setlist, and graciously allowing me to use the pictures taken by photographers Donald Soh and Ian Png. Thanks also to MetalGunz and Antologi for giving me their setlists as well.
A Short, Non-Exhaustive Primer on Metal
Heavy Metal - The metal that most people know, well, metal, for. Best understood as hard rock turned up to 11. Instrumentation employs distorted and down-tuned guitars; bluesy riffs; emphatic drumming with a much heavier use of cymbals, and loud yet clean vocals. Lyrics straddle a wide variety of themes ranging from biker culture to literature and history.
Pioneering Band: Black Sabbath
Influential Bands: Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Saxon
Contemporary Bands: Solstice, Slough Feg
Local Band: Witchseeker
Thrash Metal - The metal that people are thinking of when they bring up Metallica. Stems from the incorporation of punk influences into heavy metal. Guitars are further down-tuned and distorted; riffs are played faster; drumming is more aggressive; vocals are harsher and persistently yelled. Lyrical content emphasises anti-establishment politics and social injustice.
Pioneering Band: Overkill
Influential Bands: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth
Contemporary Bands: Warbringer, Havok
Local Band: Deus Ex Machina
Power Metal* - The cheesy cousin of heavy metal. Where thrash metal built upon heavy metal’s masculine aggression, power metal explored heavy metal’s fantastical elements instead. Power metal keeps the guitar tones of heavy metal and melds them with the riffs and drumming of thrash metal. However, vocals are now higher pitched and even melodic. There is also the heavy use of keyboards. Lyrical themes delve into speculative fiction.
Pioneering Band: Helloween
Influential Bands: Rhapsody of Fire, Stratovarius, Sonata Arctica
Contemporary Bands: Blind Guardian, Sabaton
Local Band: Kersani
* This paragraph only discusses European power metal. American power metal is much more similar to thrash metal and is often considered a blend of it and heavy metal.
Death Metal - People unfamiliar with metal bands will often inaccurately label them as this. The end result of several years of experimentation on the thrash metal fringe. Guitars are down-tuned and distorted to their limits; riffs are extremely fast; drumming is overwhelming and rapid with the frequent employment of blast beats; vocals are indecipherable screams. Lyrical themes heavily involve horror, gore, and acts of violence.
Pioneering Band: Possessed
Influential Bands: Cannibal Corpse, Death, Morbid Angel
Contemporary Bands: Blood Incantation, Skeletal Remains
Local Band: Rudra
Black Metal - Remember the metal bands that got banned from Singapore? They were a part of this subgenre. Also evolved from thrash metal experimentation. Shares many of the characteristics of death metal; however, riffs involve a much heavier use of tremolo picking and music production is deliberately low-fi. Lyrics lean deeply into religious horror and anti-religious sentiment.
Pioneering Band: Venom
Influential Bands: Bathory, Mercyful Fate, Mayhem
Contemporary Bands: Emperor, Dark Funeral
Local Band: Balberith