The Dubai Desert Rock Festival is a haven for headbangers and metal lovers in these heavy economic times.
Long live rock
Ozzy Osbourne once joked that following a nuclear war, the only survivors would be cockroaches - and Lemmy from Motörhead. As he jets in to headline the Dubai Desert Rock Festival this weekend, the artist formerly known as Ian Fraser Kilmister may yet prove to be the most indestructible gravel-voiced 63-year-old in rock. But the musical genre he helped to pioneer is in surprisingly rude health too.
With its super-fast guitar riffs, deafening volume, growled vocals and relentlessly adolescent lyrics, heavy metal can seem utterly ridiculous. But it can also be ridiculously exciting, short-circuiting the grown-up side of your brain and connecting directly with your inner teenager. Which may explain why, while most of the music industry is facing a gloomy and uncertain future, metal is enjoying its biggest comeback in years.
Released last October, the long-awaited new albums by Metallica and AC/DC have sold by the bucketload. Five million people bought AC/DC's Black Ice in just two weeks, making it a chart-topper in 29 countries. Meanwhile, the reformed metal pioneers Judas Priest are currently on a major joint tour with the Eighties thrash metal veterans Megadeth. And Iron Maiden are on an unassailable high, winning a Brit Award for Best Live Act last month in between selling out huge shows in Dubai, India and Brazil.
But it is not just the British and American old guard who are reaping the rewards of metal's renewed popularity. Young bands from Scandinavia, South America and the Middle East are increasingly part of this globalised scene. After all, Dubai Desert Rock is fielding its most metal-heavy line up since launching in 2004. Nervecell, Dubai's very own rising stars of melodic "extreme metal", will grace the bill for a third time. Having recently signed a management deal with the festival's promoters, Center Stage, the Nervecell guitarist Barney Ribeiro credits this annual gathering with putting the Middle East on the worldwide rock map.
"Desert Rock is the reason why metal music has grown to such an extent in the Middle East," Ribeiro says. "People from all over the region - from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan - come over for the festival. It's the rise of the Middle Eastern metal movement. It's crucially important because it's good to show international bands and media that there is a metal scene here, and we are proud to say that we represent that."
Joel McIver is a UK-based journalist and the author of a dozen rock books, his latest being 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists. Heavy rock's current resurgence, he says, is just the latest upswing in a familiar boom-and-bust cycle. "Heavy metal is currently at the top of a wave of popularity," McIver says. "It has risen in commercial terms in the last five or six years to a point of public prominence. No doubt it will fall back into a lesser position in a couple of years when an alternative form of heavy music comes along, just as it did in 1992 when grunge became popular. This swinging back and forth in popularity is nothing new. It's been happening since metal's year zero, 1970."
This historical pendulum may also confirm another theory, popular among critics and academics, that heavy metal appeals more in times of global recession. Last October, just as the credit crunch exploded into a full-blown economic crisis, this line of argument was supported by the chart-busting comeback albums of AC/DC and Metallica. Britain's Guardian newspaper even went so far as plotting the Australian hard-rock quartet's most successful releases against a timeline of economic meltdowns dating back to 1973.
"People crave something uncomplicated and dependable in a time of uncertainty, and rock music has never produced a band so uncomplicated and dependable as AC/DC," the paper's pop critic Alexis Petridis noted gleefully. "For 35 years, they have done exactly the same thing - which in guitarist Angus Young's case involves dressing like a naughty schoolboy - unaffected by changes in fashion or band personnel."
Around the same time, a feature in The Times by the veteran rock chronicler Mick Wall drew a similar parallel between the current financial crisis and the resurgent careers of AC/DC, Metallica and others. The article quotes CP Lee, a lecturer in cultural and film studies at Salford University near Manchester, who views heavy metal as a vital outlet for aspirational fantasy during hard times. "People have always sought solace through music in times of economic depression," Lee said. "The success of heavy rock now is comparable to the success of Hollywood and Broadway musicals in the Thirties. They're ludicrous in comparison to what's going on around them, but they make perfect sense. It's the same with AC/DC and heavy metal. It's a time when people want something simple as an escape from depression."
Ian Fortnam, the deputy editor of the UK-based magazine Classic Rock, agrees with this analysis. He points to short-lived British pop movements like Glam Rock and New Romantic, weapons of mass distraction which arose during previous economic downturns. "Escapism rules in a recession," Fortnam says. "Nobody wants to wallow in harsh reality when they can't afford the gas bill. It just depends on what's the most escapist entertainment available. The Thirties had Busby Berkley musicals and Universal horror movies. Now as post-millennial global recession bites, rock's caricatured enormity and epic overstatement will take audiences' minds off the dual spectres of foreclosure and bankruptcy."
Such generalisations are highly debatable, of course. But the current economic climate may actually have a measurable knock-on effect on Nervecell's career. Ribeiro has just been laid off from his day job as a media planner, which is obviously not good news. But at least it frees him to concentrate on cracking metal markets in Europe and beyond. The band have already been booked for three of Germany's biggest rock festivals this summer, with more European dates to come.
Which brings us to another selling point for heavy metal: it travels well. Just look at the international mix on that Desert Rock bill. Headliners Motörhead are grizzled Britrock legends, of course, while Chimaira and August Burns Red are both younger US groups. Sweden's fertile metal scene, currently enjoying huge acclaim and influence, is also represented by the Stockholm-based Opeth and Arch Enemy from Gothenburg. Meanwhile the Middle East is well served by Nervecell, of course, and Scarab from Egypt. It's like a mini-United Nations of rock.
"Heavy metal is a universal language," says Nervecell's Barney Ribeiro. "A lot of fans around the world tell us we have a sound that has a kind of Middle Eastern touch to it, mainly in the solos and riffs. But it's not intentional; it's just we've been born and raised here. We don't really write music in that direction, we're not really stressing any Middle Eastern sound. We're just trying to maintain a Nervecell sound, which is heavy riffs and good grooves. Keeping it brutal yet melodic."
This points to another factor in the latest heavy metal boom. While more culturally specific rock scenes get lost in translation, here is a music which crosses national borders with ease, finding a ready audience everywhere that speaks the globalised language of hard rock. "Heavy metal has no need of subtitles," says Ian Fortnam of classic rock. "A gruesome corpse-painted man shouting himself hoarse as stuff explodes all about him is going to appeal in all languages. Heavy metal is the Frankenstein's monster you can dance to, the Bogeyman with a beat, and nothing translates more universally than bloodcurdling Grand Guignol horror. Especially when delivered at 120 decibels."
Joel McIver claims this horror-movie intensity is precisely what gives the music its universal appeal. Metal shows, he says, offer an outlet for extreme emotions in a safe, theatrical, controlled setting. "This is metal's USP," says McIver. "Its universal ability to unite people by bringing out the beast in them, even if it's only temporary. Everybody needs to scream and shout at times to let the stress of everyday life out, and listening to heavy music is obviously a quick way to that release. Being in a mosh pit with waves of music pouring over you and other people bouncing off you is rather like being a soldier under fire, with similar adrenalin levels."
In truth, behind their cartoonish reputation for anger and aggression, heavy metal shows are generally benign affairs. Because the music has never been taken seriously by highbrow critics or the mainstream media, it has developed into a largely self-supporting fan community, with little of the haughtiness and hierarchy seen in more fleetingly acclaimed scenes. In general, metal audiences are friendly and fiercely loyal.
"Metalheads are real diehard fans," says Barney Ribeiro of Nervecell. "They're not trendy, they don't change by the year, they really stick to their guns. Always committed, always there. It doesn't matter where you're from geographically. It doesn't matter about your race, or what kind of job you have. It's about the passion, love for the subject matter, love for the music." Another factor that distinguishes heavy metal from mainstream rock is its relative youth. Most pop historians agree metal was born around 1970, with the emergence of groundbreaking acts like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Judas Priest. This means most of metal's founding fathers remain alive, active and able to exploit renewed interest in their back catalogue. Crucially, their audiences have grown up with them, too.
"Old school bands are enjoying a resurgence in popularity because audiences that discovered and supported them in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when they were at their peak, have now reached an age where their children have left the family home for university or workplace," says Ian Fortnam. "They've paid off their mortgage and have more disposable income." Meanwhile, Fortnam argues, younger kids are being drawn to vintage metal as well, partly for its retro-chic cachet, because it sounds much more authentic than polished contemporary pop alternatives. But also because classic metal has infiltrated computer games and films, becoming a badge of teenage cool almost by stealth.
"The generational divide that once made parents' music anathema to their offspring has all but disappeared," Fortnam says. "Heavy metal is now the musical lingua franca of horror and action movies, not to mention computer games like Grand Theft Auto and the phenomenally popular Guitar Hero. This guarantees that younger kids than ever before are exposed to heavy metal." Of course, heavy metal's current high profile will eventually recede again. But fans of rock's most enduring, indestructible subculture have never been too concerned with winning chart races or beauty contests. Most metalheads are in it for life, just like their grizzled musical heroes.