It’s a rare wet night in Cairo as Noor Hamed – the singer of Egyptian black metal outfit Dark Philosophy – weaves through the crowded sidewalks and noisy streets of downtown Zamalek and into what appears to be an abandoned office block.
It’s hard to escape the thought that these crumbling corridors would be a great place to get mugged, but as Hamed (stage name, Noor Mephisto) opens the door to the neat, well-equipped studio it is clear that this haven is his pride and joy. It helps that its setting is a fitting place for a genre known for its love of all things dark and miserable.
While heavy metal is well represented in the Middle East, its extreme bastard child, black metal, is not. Often shunned for its perceived satanic links in the U.S. and European scenes, many regional fans have seen the music pioneered by bands like Darkthrone, Mayhem and Burzum as more trouble than it is worth. As a result, black metal bands find it hard to get onto bills, arrange shows and get exposure in this conservative part of the world.
Dark Philosophy have been around long enough to know that, but the Cairo-based four-piece seem not to have paid it much mind. Founded in 2004 by Hamed and guitarist Amr Abou Elezz, the band’s first offering, 2006’s Shrouded, is a gloriously lo-fi demo that includes a cover of Darkthrone’s “Blaze in the Northern Sky.” The lineup has since been completed by drummer Tariq Zulficar and bassist Islam Mostafa.
Their new album, 50,000 Years, was written and recorded between 2007 and 2009, but has only just been released – independently and heavily reliant on internet exposure. It’s fair to say that Dark Philosophy have been taking their time. Lineup changes and a certain amount of perfectionism, Hamed concedes, have had an impact, but over the last year it has been the revolution that has kept the band – like so many other Egyptians – busy.
“We finished everything but we are waiting because we see more problems right now,” explains Hamed, as he and Islam fiddle with the PA. “People are busy because of politics. Most people now have no mind to listen to music.”
The PA springs into life and buzz-saw guitars explode through the speakers. The pair smile at each other. As we sit and smoke endless cigarettes, 50,000 Years plays from start to finish. The songs, impeccably produced at Ultra Studios in Giza, are fast and technical, reminiscent of the progressive black metal of bands such as Woe and Hate Eternal, but with firm nods to the old school. It’s got to be difficult playing this kind of music, with all its connotations, here in Egypt, I suggest.
“It is not like before. I think the problem then was some people were negative, more aggressive, and it was a new thing in Egypt, so they drew the attention of the government,” says Hamed. “But after 25, you can find extreme metal anywhere,” he adds, using the common Egyptian abbreviation for the revolution that began on January 25th 2011 and eventually ousted Hosni Mubarak.
“Before 25 you couldn’t find any extreme black or death metal bands. When we played concerts they were only in small – not famous – places; private homes of my friends and so on, not in public places. Now it is different, now you can play any kind of music you like and make any concert in any place.”
Not that skepticism of heavy metal, and particularly black metal, in an Islamic country isn’t still a problem for Dark Philosophy. Religion remains a thorny subject, and the band is conscious that it represents a genre that is famous for its irreligious views, with many of the Scandinavian forefathers of black metal openly hostile to religious faith.
But Noor is resolute; it doesn’t have to be like that. “We only talk about what you feel, bad things, good things, inspirations,” he says. “We’re talking about what you think about your life and so on. We don’t talk about religion and don’t like to talk badly about god. Even if you are not religious you don’t want to talk about this subject. Here in Egypt it can create problems.”
As an Egyptian metal band, Dark Philosophy has a long road ahead, especially given the reluctance amongst many music fans in the major cities, Cairo and Alexandria, to watch local bands – preferring to travel to shows overseas and listen to U.S. or European groups.
“Most metalheads like to see international bands because they think most people playing music here in Egypt have no experience and are not good enough,” Noor explains.
At the same time, he feels that the best music comes from those who do not have it easy, and that in a place with as many problems as Egypt, it is inevitable that good music will eventually thrive
“It is hard to live playing music, and it is hard to play music here, because most people have no place to play and have no money and so on.” He pauses. “But if you had the money and everything to do music, [maybe you wouldn’t be inspired to] make music.”