A Scriptorium of Death in the Valley of the Nile
Scarab and Anarchy in the Metal Blast Festival at El Sawy Culture Wheel, Cairo
by: Aly Hassab El Naby
Right in the middle of Cairo, the island of Zamalek sits in one of the nation's most prime locations. Right there, just a few steps away from the river, sits El Sawy Culture Wheel; a cultural center seen by most Egyptian rock and metal fans as one of only two reasonable venues in the entire city. A city with such massive proportions, archaic history and a dizzying array of districts offers about three decent metal shows per year, and that's on a good year. So on the warm night of the 25th of November 2013, as small boats with terribly incoherent lighting and loud speakers playing some of the newest in local underground pop songs sail up and down the Nile, the line at the ticket stand started to take shape.

Meanwhile, the occasions hall of the big mosque next door to the venue is the scene of a funeral reception. For a few minutes, the ticket line, filled with excited metalheads, seemed to go as far back as the funeral reception line of mourners paying their respects to the family of the deceased. This highlighted a rather ironic snapshot of Egyptian society and how people can be so different in what they're doing, yet become so engrossed in their respective activities to the extent of not even noticing that there's something entirely different going on in the same place.

As the line receded, everyone made their way to the Brain Slash organized Nile-side show that brings to the stage two of Egypt's most promising acts: Scarab and Anarchy. Having played in countries as far south as South Africa and as far north as Germany and the UK, these two names alone were enough to bring about 500 misfits to this buzzing centre of Cairo. Anarchy opened up with "The Battle Within" to a very eager audience with a wall of arms raising the horns. Thus began a very open exchange of energy to and fro this very metal-deprived audience. Eight months earlier, Anarchy was the promising opening act for a long, eight band line-up which included bands from Jordan and Poland. Back then, a handful of notes could have been taken regarding their performance, but this time around, the difference in performance is quite obvious and audible.

Having reached the half hour mark, the lads had confidently and very tightly pounded their way through most of their debut release _Scriptorium_ without losing their grip on the place. Vocalist Adham Kafafy does most of the movement for the band, especially when it's time for a guitar solo, but that turns out a bit too much at times; he does know how to rile up the crowd for a mosh pit though. Anarchy's only instrumental piece "Headbanger" made for a decent segway to the last piece, which was also a new one. The air of unfamiliarity surrounding this one didn't finish the audience off on a high note, which wasn't the smartest decision they've made regarding the set list. Regardless, Anarchy got off the stage leaving behind an audience waiting for more.

On came Scarab, with a look that pays a less than subtle tribute to the monks of ancient Egypt. They opened with "Valley of the Sandwalkers", which succeeded in lifting the crowd from its state of stagnant anticipation into a frenzied mosh pit. The band's vocalist Sammy El Sayed exudes confidence on stage and his experience shows through his commanding growls, while the rest of the band plug away with a clinical precision that sends the energy levels through the roof. "Eye of Sanity" followed by "Devourer of the Unjustified" were blasted out with exceeding tightness, and they set up the crowd up for an aggressive delivery of "War to End" -- which was said to be the final cut, but that turned out to be a misunderstanding. After that was cleared up, everyone got back to position to perform a hitherto unreleased track from the upcoming sophomore album _Serpents of the Nile_. That was followed by the title track from the same album, which was greeted by a slightly more responsive crowd seeing as it had already been released before.

Much to my surprise, the attendance was actually dwindling as Scarab reached the second half of their set. Probably without even noticing the thin line of attendees heading for the door, Scarab kept on mounting the heaviness of the performance with "The Afterlife Illusions" as the mosh pits kept on circling with youthful fervor. Some took to the floor in an ecstasy of headbanging while others dosed out their exhilaration in temporarily choreographed headbanging trains. The last track, for real now, was "Days of a Burial Mask", again from _Serpents of the Nile_ -- a very fitting ending, because its pulsating beats and technical execution dug into the crowd's energy for one final act of moshing.

As the music grinds to a halt and the audience makes its way out, one can't help but think of the broad overview. Metal has always been a touchy subject with social taboos stretching back as far as a controversial mass arrest case in 1996. Back when Egyptians first started playing metal, a venue as big and mainstream as El Sawy Culture Wheel in Zamalek was an unfathomable dream. Now, they march with confidence in numbers through the front gates, all proudly donning their favorite band's T-shirt. Another milestone in the evolution of the Egyptian metalhead that made itself clear during this show is that the fan that went to shows just to listen to some covers doesn't seem to exist anymore. People are actually hungry for and excited to listen to original material and they have developed enough patience and support for the local bands that is giving the bands the comfortable space to find their own sound.

From the looks of this show, I'd say that Egyptian metal is moving in the right direction. The bands are alive and kicking. The country needs a couple more decent venues and a handful of albums per year, and we might just be on our way to having the biggest scene in the Middle East.

(article submitted 23/12/2013)

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