Booming guitars accentuated by a crushing low-end bass reverberate from the speakers. The drums hammer down with monotonous intensity, making every riff take on the form of an unrelenting earthquake. A slow, mournful lead makes its entrance, terrorizing the listeners and lulling them into a state of entranced horror. The low, howling, depraved chants of the vocals overpower the instruments and contribute to a mighty assault on the senses. These are the sounds of Doom Metal, a genre that has been growing in popularity among the niche metalhead subculture of Pakistan.
International audiences are sometimes surprised at the Pakistani scene, however the sounds of Doom Metal are universal. They belong to no single culture and are owned by whoever swears by the genre. Often overlooked by those easily impressed by speed and awed by technicality, Doom Metal has one of the richest and most vibrant soundscapes in extreme music. The ethos of the music remains the same everywhere and yet wherever Doom extends its forlorn shadow, it takes on a spirit of its own.
Doom deals in sounds that are born in the darkest corners of one’s mind. Doom deals in horror and in tragedy. Doom deals in eternal paradoxes of life – of love and hate, loss and joy. It takes us to the grander highs of life, inspired by breath-taking scenery of mountains, lakes, deserts, shortly before crushing us down with reminders of the bleakness of slums, ghettos, and human ills. These topics are not alien to Pakistan’s indigenous art forms. Qawwali music, for example, draws upon the pathos of tragedy while also being a celebration of life. The Islamic Republic has always been intrigued by the balance between life and death.
Pakistani Doom Metal has existed since the early 1990s, meaning that it is not a byproduct of the internet era, as some would have you believe. One of Pakistan’s earliest and pioneering metal bands was Dusk, born in the sprawling urban metropolis of Karachi. While most of the current crop of Doom enthusiasts were in the loving arms of our mothers, Babar Shaikh and his ensemble were crafting anthems that South Asian metalheads still hold in high esteem.
After a slew of acclaimed demos, Dusk (who at that point boasted legendary guitarist Faraz Anwar) released their debut album My Infinite Nature Alone in 1999. While maintaining their ghastly appeal, Dusk flirted with progressive tendencies in their work, painting a unique portrait of how Pakistani society manifested itself.
“It says a lot [about Pakistani society]. Dusk lyrics have always been somehow drenched into the ways and doings of society, since our first full length we have experimented with words that paint extensive portraits of various societal subjects,” says Dusk‘s founder and sole original member, Babar Shaikh. He goes on to explain that tracks like “Fortress of Solitude,” “Still Black and White,” “Night Bulb Angel,” and “Sorrows of the Flesh” were designed to reflect different subjects in Pakistani society.
Babar continues to spearhead Dusk, even through multiple lineup changes. Its latest incarnation just released a split CD with Indian Doom Metal act Dying Embrace. Babar adds, “It’s just the absolute morphine of ultimate disdain, it’s the undying passion for depression drenched rock and roll that makes it so unexplainably lovable!”
While the Karachi-based Dusk maintained its cult status for almost two decades, it was a long time before the claws of doom spread their way north to Lahore. The capital of the ancient Punjab region and a historic city in its own right, Lahore has always been different from Karachi, more recently because it has been relatively untainted by the ethnic rivalries and gang warfare of Pakistan’s largest city. Historically, Lahore has been the center of arts and culture in the country. It wasn’t until the old underground rock and metal scene died out that Doom Metal began to take hold.
Dionysus was created in 2010 by brothers Sheraz and Umair Ahmed, and after two years of playing local gigs to metal-starved audiences they finally unleashed their debut EP Hymn to the Dying. With its songwriting influenced by everything from Scandinavian Black Metal to British Doom Metal, as well as Neo-Folk and other melodic elements, the Dionysus cult spread like wildfire – converting a lot of metalheads in the process.
Indeed, even small cities like Gujrat had new bands emerging that would cover Dionysus songs like “Burial Ground.” Commenting on the appeal of Doom to newer Pakistani metal fans, founder and chief songwriter Sheraz stated, “I think Doom Metal is really expressive and thought provoking and most of the Doom songs come straight from the heart. I think people in Pakistan are more into Doom Metal because it goes with melancholic atmosphere and the overall feeling of agony and frustration while living in this society. Like they say, listening to sad music makes you happy.”
Dionysus continues to play shows and record, despite the logistical difficulties that come with vocalist/bassist Waleed Ahmed now living in Karachi. The members also have a slew of their own side-projects in genres that vary from Indie Rock to Grindcore. Still, Dionysus recently completed their material for a cross-border split with Indian Doom band Dormant Inferno. The new album features longer songs with more Black Metal elements. Sheraz describes himself as hardly the type to stay confined by genre restrictions. “I didn’t decide that I want to play Doom, I just wrote a song and it turned out that it sounds like what’s considered Doom Metal. But in fact I was just expressing myself.”
Around the same time as Dionysus, a two man act dubbed Myosis appeared and promptly disappeared within a few years. Hailing from Karachi and influenced more by the cannabis-laced musings of the Sludge Doom circuit rather than traditional Death Doom, Myosis managed to churn out one demo and three split releases. A minimalist approach to production and songwriting was merged with intellectual themes, and in the words of chief songwriter Asadullah Qureshi, “A frequent subject is the average Pakistani’s fetishistic fascination with religion.”
Despite a healthy run, Myosis eventually fizzled into obscurity due to a number of reasons, primarily due to band members going their separate paths in 2012. Dusk promptly came back to prominence, and another short-lived band from Karachi sprung up as well – Khorne. Khorne was mainly influenced by Dionysus, in fact – their vocalist Farhan Rathore was introduced to Doom Metal through the Lahori band. Internal tensions in the band caused them to implode, but not before releasing an EP called “We Begin” in 2013.
The EP featured 5 songs, with themes revolving around satanic imagery, complete with the demons and destruction that are more common in Black and Death Metal than Doom. Yet, the EP closed off with a track called “Karachi” – essentially a collection of sounds and news clips from and about the city. Commenting on how the violent and gory themes tied in with the closing track, former vocalist Farhan Rathore stated, “In Karachi we see all this evil stuff happen right in front of our eyes. All the violence, all the killings. It creates a feeling of helplessness in us, and as a result our belief in God starts to dwindle. Our brutal lyrics are a direct result of the reality of life in Karachi.”
While bands in Karachi came and went, the Doom scene in Lahore continued to flourish. Former guitar students Ahsan Shahid and Farid Munir started a band with their old teacher, Dionysus‘ Sheraz joining the fold as a chief songwriter and bass-player. The band, dubbed Irritum, dedicated its existence to propagating Doom Metal in all its grandeur, seemingly without much reflection on its cultural purpose. “It doesn’t say shit about Paki society.” says Ahsan sarcastically, before adding “We follow the age old cult of doom that has been followed since decades. Incorporating everything, from every influence and of every genre.”
Irritum don’t even have an EP or album out, yet through live performances since last year, they have already managed to fill the vacuum left by Dionysus. Their live set contains covers by classic acts such as St. Vitus and Katatonia as well as their own original compositions. Crowd responses have been more than favorable, especially towards vocalist Ahmed Malik, who is often hailed for his deep growls and stage-presence.
“Yeah it’s getting more popular than it was. Back in 90’s we only had Dusk but now there are many bands and they are doing their best to educate the metalheads of Pakistan about Doom Metal,” quips Ahsan. “Still many people don’t like Doom cuz it’s slow but who gives a shit about these kind of people.” Irritum are hard at work completing their debut album “Treading the Lands Unknown” and for those interested in tracking their progress, a cut from the album is up on their Soundcloud page entitled Crossing the Gates.
At the end of last year another entity made its presence felt in the emerging Doom subculture. Cloaked in anonymity and shrouded in secrecy, Sindh-based Doom band Munkar released their demo “An’al Haq” at the end of last year. Its name is from the Sufi doctrine of Mansur al-Hallaj, which refers to the spiritual link between the individual and the divine, and the band itself is named after one of the angels that implement the Punishment of the Grave. However Munkar’s lyrics primarily deal with the socio-political concerns of Sindhi people. I interviewed them a few months ago.
“The thing that very few “Pakistanis” realize is that every ethnicity in Pakistan apart from maybe, the Punjabis, has been at the receiving end of state oppression. What they fail to realize is that when the “Pakistan” envisioned by the various hallowed ideologues of the state actively seeks to suppress who you are, things will usually take a rather awkward turn. “Pakistanis” love simplifying things. They have “us” all figured out. They call us “traitors”. It’s easier that way. They get to absolve themselves of all responsibility. It’s an atmosphere of constant tension and paranoia. Sahib rules with an iron-fist, after all. One should therefore not be surprised at the state of things. Language politics and misdirected aggression – Sindh made simple for our fellow “Pakistanis.””
As two relatively new bands in the Pakistani Doom scene, Munkar and Irritum both showcase different approaches to the genre. One is acutely aware of the concerns of Pakistani politics, whereas the other prefers to let the music do the talking. Both approaches, as well as the approach of every other band mentioned in this article, say much about the areas of Pakistan in which they originated, whether they like it or not.
Bands born from the ethno-linguistic puzzle of Karachi tend to be more affected by it in terms of the topics they discuss in their music, using Doom Metal as a way to voice their opinions about the society they dwell in. Lahore bands on the other hand let the quality of the music do the talking, avoiding controversial lyrical themes for a traditional approach to Doom Metal, playing music for music’s sake. It will be some time before the subculture settles on a spirit of its own, which will come eventually. The ways of doom and gloom requires patience.
Photograph courtesy of Khorne.