Intense. Psychedelic. Loud. Aggressive and powerful. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls it “arguably the most commercially successful genre of rock music.”
What is it? Heavy metal.
Several Israeli heavy-metal bands are making names for themselves at home and abroad, combining the traditional sounds of the distorted electric guitar with a unique Middle Eastern tone.
Some of these artists describe their music as “complex,” like Gil Grosz, a bassist for the Israeli heavy-metal band ONOMA.
Others explain that, for them, heavy-metal music is about the message.
“When I listen to rock music, I feel like the artist wants to say something but he censors himself,” says Yishai Sweartz, owner of Raven Metal, which books and produces heavy-metal shows in Israel and abroad.
“A heavy-metal band will go all the way and tell you what it thinks.”
Heavy metal bands differentiate themselves through their shows by being totally crowdcentric, according to Grosz. He says heavy-metal musicians, “give it up for the crowd” by engaging in “crazy things,” from jumping from 10-meterhigh ledges to walking on ceilings.
BUT NOT all heavy metal is exactly alike. There are at least four kinds of heavy-metal bands in Israel, says Grosz. These include black or “satanic” metal; death metal, combining deep vocal growling and screams with slasher film-style lyrics; progressive metal, a fusion of heavy metal and progressive rock; and thrash metal, characterized by its fast percussive beats.
Ilia Badrov, vocalist and lyricist for the Israeli melodic death/ thrash metal band The Fading, says today the lines between metal genres are starting to blur. If one used to be able to easily define a band, “Today, I just call it all metal.”
That is especially true in Israel, where music is influenced by musicians who come from other places and bring with them sounds from all over the world.
“Israel is a country full of immigrants and each one brings his own flavor to the mix,” says Jerusalem-based piano-playing singer-songwriter Ben Draiman, whose older sibling David sells out arenas as vocalist of American hard rock bastion Disturbed.
The Internet has also played a role, says Draiman.
Today, one doesn’t have to travel or wait for bands to come to Israel to hear and be influenced by their sounds. This has allowed musicians to borrow elements from different genres and combine them with traditional sounds.
In Israel, most bands infuse a “Mizrahi” dynamic into their music, says Draiman. The most famous Mizrahi heavy-metal band is Orphaned Land, which “is the epitome of hybrid music – a combination of influences from the outside and things more authentically Israeli. People are really into it.”
Another popular Israeli heavy-metal band that is engaged in “blending” is Tel Aviv-based alternative metal band Walkways, that claims on its website to “blend everything that is relevant on the verge of heavy and alternative music.”
According to Grosz, there are about a hundred professional heavy-metal bands in Israel right now, but only 10 to 15 bands “that can be considered genuinely interesting and producing high-value music.”
A quality metal show can be found in Tel Aviv nearly weekly, says Sweartz, and monthly some top heavy-metal band from abroad comes to play in the country.
Grosz, Draiman and Sweartz have been monitoring Israel’s heavy-metal scene and its evolution over the last two decades. “There are incredible, talented people in Israel,” says Draiman, but the music scene in general is so small (and the heavy-metal scene even smaller) that it is hard for local bands to make it financially unless they are able to gain a following abroad.
People don’t come out for shows – even in larger cities, such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, says Draiman. An ever-thin crowd has led to struggling music venues, who are hesitant to employ local artists that might not bring in paying customers.
Clubs are constantly going under.
“Jerusalem has not been able to keep open nearly any live music venues,” says Draiman. “As of now, there are two relatively small ones in which local bands can play.” He says any other concert halls are large and demand an international band with a minimum of several hundred fans.
Part of the reason for the struggling scene, especially when it comes to metal, is not just population size but available audience. In the book Heavy Metal, Gender and Sexuality: Interdisciplinary Approaches
, editors Florian Heesch and Niall Scott report that the average age of heavy-metal fans is between 15 and 24, with minor differences between male and female fans. In Israel, those individuals are in the army.
“It’s just not possible for them to be out listening to metal until 2 a.m.,” says Draiman.
“Sometimes there are more bands than crowds and it is quite sad to look at that,” says Grosz.
The core heavy-metal scene is made up of 600 to 700 people who go to all the shows and are active in the Israeli heavymetal Facebook community, says Sweartz.
A second circle of about 2,000 fans is comprised of individuals who go to metal shows about once every six months. A third, larger circle of around 20,000 fans are older – over 40, says Sweartz. These are people that were into in the past and still enjoy coming to listen to a show now and again.
THE SMALL market means heavy-metal musicians focus on an international audience, much like a hi-tech startup.
Bands sing in English to make their lyrics accessible to larger crowds. Draiman says top bands spend the majority of their time traveling, and some even aim for dual citizenship abroad.
Chen Balbus, who plays guitar and keyboard for Orphaned Land, says Finland is the capital of heavy metal.
His band also enjoys playing in Turkey and in Germany, which is likewise considered a metal country.
“They bring in all the big metal bands and they know and appreciate their music more than in other countries,” says Balbus.
Members The Fading say they like to play in the former Soviet Union, where fans are really into hardcore “screaming” metal. They also enjoy playing in Sweden and recorded their first album there.
Still, when push comes to shove, most Israeli bands say there is no place like home.
“As both a performer and a music loving fan, I can tell you there is a different vibe here in Israel than I have ever seen anywhere across the world,” says Balbus. “The fans are more giving and more honest.”
Balbus, whose band Orphaned Land plays around the world, says he has made friends with a diverse group of artists, many of whom have traveled to the Jewish state. He says they report that their Israel shows are “the best shows of their life” because they “never experienced such a crowd.”
“The fans become your friends,” comments Yoav Efron, founder, composer and producer of Tel Aviv’s modern, progressive metal band, Distorted Harmony.
Israeli metal musicians are a tight-knit community, too. This has its pluses and minuses, says Pavel Mitiyanine, who plays guitars for The Fading.
“Everyone is complimentary, like it is all ‘sababa’ [great], so you don’t really know if you are good or not. The only way to overcome this is to play in front of an audience outside the country – then you can really test yourselves and see what you are capable of,” Mitiyanine says.
It has been a roller-coaster ride for Sagi Givol, who with his brother, Idan, is a founder of the Israeli hard rock band Chasidica, that has a strong inclination to the metal genre.
The brothers grew up listening to heavy metal and experimental music. In the late 1990s, Sagi left for Australia, where he formed a heavy-metal band called Demona. But midway through his 10- year journey down under, he connected with the local Chabad and became religious. In 2007, he came back to Israel a hassid, married and started a family.
Givol debated whether to give up his successful career for the world of Torah, but determined that hassidic teachings required him to continue to use his talents.
“Hassidism talks about not ignoring your talents, but finding a way to use them for good,” the artist says. “Even if those talents translate to metal or dark music. The soul is Godly.”
Givol uses shouts and lyrics about the dark side to elevate the crowd.
“There is a sacred part to the darkness,” he said, noting that in hassidism, the wordless niggunim are very deep, too, and reveal a dark side of the soul. “The music is meant to try to comfort the soul and lift it from the sadness of this crazy and evil world.”
That’s a different perspective from that of Yoav Efron, who is founder, composer and producer for Distorted Harmony and one-man metal band Augmented Reality Project. He considers his work to be “progressive metal,” and describes Distorted Harmony’s second album, Chain Reaction, as “very angry” music.
Efron, who has bipolar disorder, said he has a lot of opinions about society.
“Humans annoy the shit out of me,” he says. “I felt [in Chain Reaction] this was my chance to speak about everything I hate about humans, everything I think that shouldn’t be.”
Shortly after completing Chain Reaction, Efron fell into a deep depressive low. It was during that time that he started ARP, which he considers full of personal pain.
Today, he is back working on a third album with Distorted Harmony, trying to merge the universal messages and progressive sounds of the band with the personal messages and angry notes that came out through ARP.
For Efron, the biggest high is the live show. “When I am on stage with Distorted Harmony I feel like I could do anything,” he says.
MELODIC METAL band The Fading hits a happy medium. Founded in 2000 by vocalist Ilia Badrov and then-guitarist Boris Aranovich, the bands tries to “be the heaviest band that an average person who likes rock and alternative music will listen to,” says member Eyal Ben-Shushan (bass).
The band hit it big in 2008 when it won a competition at Germany’s Wacken Open Air festival, the largest metal festival in the world. The prize was funds to make a first album, which they recoded in Sweden, and then to take a short tour. This helped The Fading fine-tune its style, which the band says is largely about the live show.
“I think we were the first Israeli band that made intense live shows with a lot of choreography and costumes – we are like the Back Street Boys of death metal,” says Pavel Mitiyanine (guitar).
“The songs are allegories for life,” says Ben-Shushan. “Every person can relate to them.”
In recent years, The Fading has played for crowds of more than 20,000 people abroad. Badrov said the band has experienced some mild antisemitism and negative Jewish jokes when being promoted in the former Soviet Union.
“It is things like, ‘We didn’t know Jews could play metal,” says Badrov, “but on the whole the crowds are very supportive.”
“Whenever we are outside Israel, we make sure that people know we are Israeli,” Ben-Shushan continues. “A lot of people have a distorted image of this country and what is going on here. People are surprised there’s metal coming out of Israel, and we are proud of where we are from.”
The members admit that they are not sure how much longer they can continue touring. Each of the band members has a day job and is in a serious relationship.
“When we were in our 20s, we didn’t care if we were on the road for a month and a half, if we ate shit – or didn’t eat at all – and played every night,” says Mitiyanine. “Now we have a different perspective.”
Orphan Land’s Balbus says his band is still hoping to make the world a better place.
“At our shows, there are people from many religious beliefs and countries,” he says. “Technically, these people are supposed to be enemies – at least that is what you read in the papers – but at the shows they are standing next to each other, dancing and singing together. This is the power of music.”
The band sings about the message of Middle East peace and weaves in lyrics that draw from the Bible, bridging the religious gaps between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Their song “All is One” has been used around the world in equal-rights protests and marches.
“We don’t have to like each other, but at least let’s try to live with one another,” says Balbus.