Raising hell in the Holy Land

After 25 years, Israeli death metal pioneers Salem are still thrashing away – while juggling families and day jobs.

salem band 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
salem band 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
By day a senior official at the Givatayim municipality, by night a wild-haired, thrashing metal singer. Somehow Ze’ev Tananboim has made it work. And he never even gets confused and starts growling demonically at the city parking inspectors he supervises, or brings audience members in for their unpaid parking violations.
Tananboim’s not-secret-at-all second life (or maybe it’s the municipal exec gig which takes the back seat) as the singer and driving force behind Israel’s groundbreaking extreme metal band Salem is going strong after 25 years, with the band’s seventh album, Playing God, newly released, and the impetus for a gala Pessah show by Salem on Saturday night, April 3 at the Barby club in Tel Aviv.
“Music is a way of life for me and always has been,” the 43-year-old married father told The Jerusalem Post during a break from his day job. “Of course, everyone at work knows what I do. There’s no opposition or discrimination against me. In fact, I’ve advanced nicely.”
Tananboim got hooked on hard rock in his teens and decided to take it several steps further than anyone had yet taken it.
“In the 1980s, I went to this big club in Tel Aviv at the time called Kolnoa Dan on Rehov Hayarkon [which was run by current top concert promoter Shuki Weiss]. I saw a band called Requiem do a heavy rock show, and I remember thinking that if I did something like that, I would do it much more… more everything – more extreme,” said Tananboim. “Their singer had telephone wire wrapped around his body – I said to myself I would use real wire.
“The idea was to create music in a way that nobody had heard before, or doing it in your own special way. Musicians who say they’ve brought something new are usually full of it. But the idea of forming a band started developing and I began gathering like-minded people.”
The result, in 1985, was Israel’s first, and one of the world’s first, extreme metal bands – and surely the only one with lyrics concerned with themes of Jewish identity, the Holocaust, and albums entitled Kaddish and Millions Slaughtered.
Admittedly a niche market, death metal in the Jewish vein still won the band fans worldwide, and within a few years, led to a record deal with the German label Morbid Records.
“I never saw this as a hobby, but when you decide to make what is non-conventional music, you’re automatically restricting your audience, especially in a small place like Israel. So it’s hard to make a living from it,” said Tananboim.
STILL, WHILE some band members changed, others started families, and everyone pursued other careers, Salem persevered. Creating Our Sins (1992) and Kaddish (1994) became the first metal albums from Israel to gain recognition abroad, including MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball naming Salem as one of the 10 best up-and-coming bands in the world.
Kaddish also featured the band’s first song in Hebrew –  a version of “Ha’ayara Bo’eret” (The small town is burning),  adapted from the Yiddish poem “S’brent” by Polish-Jewish poet Mordechai Gebirtig in 1938, written in response to a 1936 pogrom. The metal rendition rustled enough feathers back home to prompt a debate in a Knesset committee over the appropriateness of death metal bands playing songs related to the Holocaust.
Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, Salem’s star continued to rise with new record label signings and more albums in the 1990s and 2000s, like A Moment of Silence, Collective Demise and Necessary Evil, as well as a high-profile 2007 performance at the Hellfest, the French showcase metal festival. 
“The reactions were great and it pushed us to create more and take things to the extreme even more ,” said Tananboim. “With maturation came more musicality – we eventually began making music instead of noise.”
However, with band members holding down responsible jobs and the financial rewards of touring questionable at best, Salem has remained mostly a hometown band.
“We’ve played at Hellfest before and it’s possible we’ll go back there. But you know, we’ve got families now, we’re parents. It has to be worthwhile for us to travel like that,” said Tananboim.
As if on cue, he got a call from one of his young children.
“I’m 43 and most of the other band members are in the 35-40 range,” Tananboim continued after finishing with his child. “We’re aware that we have families and need to make a living. We’ve seen plenty bands go abroad and come back with sand in their pockets.”
While Tananboim is the only original member remaining in the band, theother players are already longtime veterans with Salem, including LiorMizrachi (guitar), Nir Gutraiman (guitar), Michael Goldstein (bass),and Nir Nakav (drums). Nakav is a drumming instructor at the RimonSchool of Jazz and Contemporary Music and has been the first teacher tointroduce academic courses on metal drumming in Israeli music schools.
The band has taken its time creating the newly released Playing God,which Tananboim sees as a major step forward for the band musically.More than ever, he felt that he had something to prove – as amiddle-aged, family-raising professional – that he could still raisehell.
 “Anyone who knows me knows that if I don’t do something 100%, I won’tdo it,” he said. “The music has evolved and advanced from the firstalbum to the seventh, but it’s just as intense. If we were justrepeating ourselves, I would be bored.”
For anyone that dares to approach the Barby club on Saturday night,bored won’t be an adjective that will likely emerge from their mouth –if they can speak, or hear, at all.