As Nervecell, the UAE's biggest death-metal band, prepare for the release of their new album, we spent the night with them in the desert, on the set of their upcoming music video.
Death-metal band Nervecell shoot their latest video in the desert
Death metallers don't like to make life easy for themselves. Not content with focusing on the less optimistic aspects of existence and struggling to fill whites-only laundry washes, it seems they also prefer to film their music videos at locations near impossible to find.
It's 8pm somewhere near Al Ain and I'm peering at a printout taken from Google Earth of the surrounding area. A hand-scrawled arrow labelled "Nervecell Video Shoot" points to a random patch of sand off an unnamed road. The biggest metal band to come out of the UAE are filming their latest video and I've been invited to watch the proceedings. Unfortunately, the only way to get to this particular patch of sand is via a turn-off opposite Jebel Hafeet, a turn-off which I've been warmly assured is "very difficult to spot, especially in the dark". Squinting into the night, I pull into the first path I see (missing it would mean having to return to the next roundabout some 20 minutes away and I'm already late). Nothingness. Zero. No sign of video equipment, lights or a three-piece death metal outfit.
Out of the oblivion, another motor comes spluttering through the dust. The inside lights are on and the two occupants stare at a map that looks suspiciously like the same Google Earth printout. We look at each other in mutual confusion. Eventually, the windows come down. "Nervecell video shoot?"
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As it turns out, we both played the caution card and turned off too soon. Just 100 metres up the road is the dirt track we need, and a further half kilometre over a rock-strewn landscape unsuitable for a Mitsubishi Lancer we find a couple of four-wheel drives, the band and a team of crew members running about with big lights, cameras and other filmmaking paraphernalia. Thankfully, it seems everybody is extremely late.
"Yeah, we were supposed to here at 5pm," admits Rajeh "James" Khazaal, Nervecell's talismanic bass player and main vocalist. "But we got lost on some unnamed road."
The video being shot is for the track Shunq, or to give it its full title, Shunq (To the Despaired…King of Darkness), taken from Nervecell's second album Psychogenocide. The album comes out across the region on Thursday on Spellbind Records, the independent record label of the Dubai-based entertainment and events company Center Stage Management. Shunq will be the second single after All Eyes On Them, the video of which is being filmed next month in Poland.
"The song is about the struggle of humanity with evil," explains Khazaal. "It's an Arabic word meaning to be hung by the neck," adds lead guitarist Rami Mustafa, looking quite menacing with a black V-shaped guitar slung around his shoulders.
Jolly content aside, Shunq is also something of a first for the genre. "It's the only extreme metal song to feature both Arabic and English," claims Mustafa. The Arabic part is being sung by James while the English is being provided by Karl Sanders, lead singer of US-based death metallers Nile, who has been flown over from South Carolina for the occasion.
"Karl has got such a distinct growl," says rhythm guitarist Barney Ribeiro, the only member sporting the long locks that repeated viewings of the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap had taught me would be prevalent in a metal band. The growl, I'm told, is one of the most essential elements of death metal; the deep, guttural vocals that rumble over the music and add much of the beast-like terror to already frighteningly fast-paced guitar riffs and drums. Sanders is considered one of the masters.
An off-the-cuff question unwittingly kick-starts a debate among the band members over which language offers the most menacing growl. "English," says James, almost immediately. "Actually, we've been hearing that Arabic seems more fierce to the West because it sounds more haunting," adds Ribeiro. To clear things up, the imposing yet friendly figure of Sanders wanders into the argument, planting his boots firmly in the new camp.
"As an American, hearing the Arabic growl is scary, as you have an immediate association with it. Also, given the nature of death metal itself - which aims to frighten - people are becoming used to English, so it's not that scary. Arabic gives it a new level."
With the argument settled, Sanders goes on to tell me that he's been enjoying his first trip to Dubai, where he's been staying at Atlantis on the Palm Jumeirah (surely a contender for least death-metal hotel ever built).
Finally, it's time for the cameras to start rolling and Sanders and Khazaal take up their positions. The first scene involves the two chatting on a temporary majlis while a small fire casts flickering shadows of them on the rock face behind. Out of shot - and distinctly un-menacingly - sits a fire extinguisher.
Silence descends, the clapper board comes down and the roar of Shunq flares up from nearby speakers. Sat on a red cushion, James turns to Karl and pours him a cup of Arabic coffee. It seems a rather jovial intro for a song about evil, and the scene seems even stranger when the recording of James's guttural growl appears over the top of their cosy chinwag. But as an amateur to this genre, I'm willing to let it pass.
"The story involves djinn," says director Shane de Almeida, finding a few minutes away from the set. "These guys are in the desert and the spirits become interested in what they're doing." The djinn, says de Almeida, will be added later with the help of a green screen.
A graduate from New York Film Academy Abu Dhabi, de Almeida is now a technical assistant at the college. Most of the other crew are also former academy students now working professionally.
De Almeida, who says he chose the location and helped write the script, admits he's probably among Nervecell's oldest fans, having watched one of their first gigs when they formed in Dubai around 2001.
Back then, Nervecell didn't have a label and the idea of a video shoot was some way off. Their first demo, Vastlands of Abomination, emerged in 2003, with a debut EP Human Chaos following the next summer, both of which helped garner worldwide attention from metalheads. After playing at the first Dubai Desert Rock festival in 2005, alongside other metal events across Europe and Australia, in 2009 they finally released their first album Preaching Venom. Germany's Lifeforce Records signed an international record deal and Preaching Venom went on to shift several thousand copies. "I've listened to a lot of metal bands," says Sanders. "And these guys are good." Not a bad grade coming from someone once ranked fourth in the best death-metal guitarists ever by Decibel magazine.
Back to the video shoot, and with the majlis removed and the fire extinguished using a bottle of Masafi, it's time for the full band. The music roars again and Ribeiro, Mustafa and Khazaal begin strumming wildly on their guitars and banging their heads while Sanders stomps the ground aggressively, occasionally raising a fist to the air. Were it not for the fact that their instruments aren't plugged in and they're pretending to play, it would all look relatively normal.
By now, however, it's past midnight and not even the Krispy Kreme doughnuts or energy drinks laid on in abundance can keep me awake. I leave Nervecell, Sanders and the 10 or so crew to their shoot and saunter back to my poor motor, a long - and confusing - drive ahead of me.
I hear the next afternoon that they're up till daybreak filming. I may not yet be a death-metal convert, but respect where respect's due.
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