Southeast Asian Vedic heavy metal rocks China’s extreme music scene

SINGAPORE — In his 2006 book “Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge,” British sociologist and music critic Keith Kahn-Harris said that heavy metal music is not for innovators, but refiners. Deena Weinstein, an American professor of sociology, later described the globalization of metal as bound to universally established canons of sound and style.

Southeast Asia, however, seems to have turned those arguments on their head, with diverse and localized forms of rock-derived music ranging from Indonesia’s Islamized punk and heavy metal to the incorporation of ethnic folklore and instruments in Thai and Malaysian pop and rock music.

The groundwork for such contemporary musical innovation often springs from unsung and forward-thinking pioneers like Singapore’s extreme metal band Rudra. Active since 1992, Rudra mixed metal streams such as black and death with Sanskrit and Vedic religious literature, inventing an original subgenre called Vedic metal. The band has now found audiences further afield, with its first foray into China.

“We came up with the term Vedic metal because [the genre] fuses ancient Indian philosophy and music, especially folk-traditional and classical, with extreme metal,” said Kathir, Rudra’s singer and bass player, and one of the band’s two active founding members.

Rudra is a deity in the Rigveda, the main and oldest text of the India’s Vedic religion in the period 1500 to 1000 BC, and is associated with wind and storm. It is assumed that the Hindu god Shiva originated from Rudra: Both gods share a fierce, unpredictable and destructive nature.

Rudra performs at Metal United World Wide, in Singapore, in May 2018. (Courtesy of Rudra)

Vedic metal stands out from most globalized adaptations of Western-born extreme metal thanks to its unique use of Sanskrit lyrics and rich literary traditions. But it was not created with India or its diasporic communities in mind, said Kathir, even though the band was initially comprised of Singaporean Indians whose ancestors came from India or the British colony of Malaya, now part of Malaysia.

“We thought that Vedic metal could be instead something refreshing for metalheads around the world, because such an original fusion hadn’t been adequately explored or exploited yet,” Kathir told Nikkei Asia. The band first toured India in 2001, conquering fans thanks to its innovative musical fusion.

Rudra’s first three albums, “Rudra” (1998), “The Aryan Crusade” (2001) and “Kurukshetra” (2003) — named for a city in Haryana State in northwest India, known as the setting of the Hindu epic poem “Mahabharata” — laid the groundwork for its unique genre. The albums fuse the classic raspy, high-pitched vocal style and distorted guitars of black metal with lyrics inspired by Vedic literature and religion.

These three albums are now being remastered and will be relaunched with new artworks by India-based Russian artist Viktoria Polikarpova in October, almost 30 years after Rudra’s inception, on the Beijing-based label Awakening Records.

“The Aryan Crusade,” top, and “Kurukshetra,” Rudra’s second and third albums, respectively, will be rereleased by Beijing’s Awakening Records in October. (Courtesy of Rudra)

Established in 2018, this Chinese label has clawed its way to the surface of the competitive global extreme music marketplace thanks to a string of remastered editions of classic extreme metal and thrash albums by cult American and European bands like Master, Sarkasm, Mace, Gehenna, and Mad Butcher, which are distributed both in China and internationally.

Rudra is the first old-school Asian metal band, and the first with such a distinctive locally developed sound, to be picked by the Chinese label. “I didn’t know what Vedic metal was, and I liked Rudra because of their music,” said Li Meng, Awakening Records’ manager. “In my mind, they are the true leaders of Asian extreme metal music.” 

Kathir is excited about Rudra’s new chance in China, which he thinks will introduce the band’s concept and sound to new international fans. “We have met fans who were born after the band formed, and never had a chance to grow up listening to our early albums when they were released,” he said.

Some of these fans went on to form other bands inspired by Rudra’s pioneering Vedic metal. One is technical death metal band Dying Out Flame from Nepal, which released its debut album “Shiva Rudrastakam” in 2014.

But Vedic metal has influenced extreme metal bands even further away from South and Southeast Asia: Moscow’s Kartikeya, for instance, is named after the god of war in the Hindu pantheon; and Czech black metal band Cult of Fire blends Vedic beliefs, Hinduism, Indo-Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism and ancient European paganism in its musical concepts and haunting stage costumes.

Cult of Fire performs at Eindhoven Metal Meeting, in the Netherlands, in 2017. The Czech group is one of the several bands around the world influenced by Rudra’s pioneering Vedic metal. (Wiki Commons)

Rudra’s upcoming Chinese rereleases may also bring attention to the three albums that followed, known as the “Brahmavidya Trilogy,” regarded by fans as a zenith of sorts in Rudra’s Vedic inspiration. Composed and released between 2005 and 2011, the three albums are inspired by different Sanskrit epics, and show the greatest degree of cross-fertilization between Rudra’s global extreme metal roots and unique South Asian influences.

“‘Brahmavidya: Primordial I’ presented an ancient body of Sanskrit literature called the Upanishads, while the second album in the series, ‘Brahmavidya: Transcendental I,’ refers to secondary Sanskrit literature written in the last 2,000 years,” said Kathir. “We identified particular Sanskrit texts and wrote each song on those albums from the inspiration we got from each one.”

The third and last album in the trilogy, “Brahmavidya: Immortal I,” is based on another Sanskrit text called Brahmasutra, which deals with logic and reasoning. “What really stands out in these three albums is how we brought up the concept of the Brahmavidya, which means in itself ‘knowledge of the absolute’ or ‘knowledge of consciousness,'” said Kathir. “It comes from the Advaita Vedanta, or nondualism, the Indian philosophy that we have always been writing about.”

Rudra’s choice of themes and original approach to extreme music has earned the band acceptance even in conservative Singapore, where genres like heavy metal and punk have been regarded with official suspicion since their beginnings in the late 1970s — a time when the Singaporean government prohibited long hair for men in an attempt to curb the spread of hippie culture from the West.

Still images from Rudra’s music video for their song “Ancient Fourth,” from the band’s album “Enemy of Duality.” (Screenshots from YouTube)

In the 1990s, the city-state banned all forms of moshing (violent dancing to rock music), slam dancing and body surfing. The U.S. heavy metal band Metallica’s first Singaporean show in 1993 is said to have been the most-patrolled gig in the country’s popular music history because the band’s previous show in Jakarta had degenerated into a riot.

Before the coronavirus pandemic curtailed live music — forcing Rudra to reschedule practice and studio time for its 11th album, which Kathir hopes to complete by the end of 2021 — the cancellation of Swedish black metal band Watain’s show in March 2019 due to pressure from local Christians reminded Singaporean metalheads that the city state remains mistrustful of metal music.

Rudra and its Vedic metal subgenre have met with a radically different experience, however. The band has headlined Bay Beats, one of Singapore’s most important music festivals, and collaborated with local Indian cultural organizations and the government, which approved of Vedic metal’s unique synthesis of ancient culture and musical extremity.

“Perhaps the reason why we never faced any problem was because of the nature of our lyrics,” said Kathir. “I think that as much as they can be aggressive or challenging for some in some way, we use a very artistic approach writing them, exploring art through the lyrics, like bringing philosophy into art. … It requires the right time, place and reason to be provocative.”

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