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By: Guido Segers
Metal arises in the most surprising places. One of the most unlikely locations for this kind of music to spring up is Iraq. Mir Shamal Hama-faraj is like a catalyst for metal in the country we know mostly for its dictator Saddam Hussein and the war-torn recent history of it.
It’s also a country of a long and complex history, mysticism and one of the cradles of civilization. The region known as Kurdistan is part of northern Iraq and this part of the world has its own history and myths that Mir Shamal taps into, to create his very own taste of death metal.
The musician got into metal and started making music on his own, by himself. Metal in Iraq was the theme of a documentary, dealing with the band Acrassicauda from Baghdad. The band Cyaxares hails from Sulaymaniyah though, a predominantly Kurdish town in the northern part of the country, which is region with a strong identity and historic awareness.
Mir Shamal Hama-faraj is thus pioneering metal in a part of the world that this far has barely been touched by the genre. At this moment, his home is extremely close to the troops of IS and thus under threat. His other band, Dark Phantom, is from Kirkuk and has taken politics and religion as themes for their music. I asked him what the status was in his region, to which he replied: ‘They are extremely close, neighbours with Kirkuk (Dark Phantom’s) and the Kurdish Peshmerga is the only thing holding them back. All the members are ok, for now…’
Metal is still being made in some places in the world, where it isn’t wanted. Where danger is a real thing and repression is a daily thing. So enjoy reading about one of the most unlikely metal bands out there and be sure to check out the music.
(((o))): What does the name Cyaxares mean?
Mir Shamal: Cyaxares was the third and greatest king of the Median, the most capable ruler and the Great Father of the Kurds. I chose this name, because it’s a proper name for this band and it matches what I do in my view.
The band started out as Voice Of Silence, with three members. We didn’t have any original tracks back then, because we just had gotten into metal. Some things then changed and we had a new name with three members, which was Beneath The Oceans Of Sands. Some of the songs written for that band can be found on my album, namely ‘Whores Of Babylon’ and ‘Temples Of Fire’. Both songs where written by me. After that I continued by myself as Cyaxares.
(((o))): How did you get into metal music?
Mir Shamal: It was in 2008, when I got into rock music and so I decided to get myself an album. I heard of a store that sells that kind of music, so I went searching for it to buy an album. My choice was: Iron Maiden. I bought the record A Matter Of Life And Death.
Listening to that record, I knew that this was what I wanted to do to. It actually took a while for me to learn that this music was called metal at this point, which was what I got more into. I moved on towards more extreme metal, after I started listening to Cradle Of Filth and Amon Amarth. They inspired me to do extreme vocals and music.
(((o))): Do you do all the music yourself for Cyaxares? How do you go about recording stuff?
Mir Shamal: Indeed, I played and recorded everything on the album myself. As far as recording goes, I recorded it in my room without any professional or semi-professional equipment or what so ever.
(((o))): Are there any limits technically to what you can create, being an artist from Iraq?
Mir Shamal: In fact I’m very limited to what I can do. It’s pretty much impossible to get good instruments and equipment let alone a decent studio. I’m also not able to see a real live metal concert or get a good teacher. I have to do everything by myself and the whole project rests on my shoulders. That means writing, recording, rehearsing, learning, funding and whatever comes with being a band.
(((o))): Iraq is of course for the ‘Western World’ (sorry for not being able to define this any better) one of the most unlikely countries to find metal. How do you regard this fact? Are there more metalheads and bands around?
Mir Shamal: True, metal is a very rare thing in Kurdistan and Iraq. The amount of bands from this region is in total six and that’s it. The skills of most bands are limited, so they don’t really catch any attention, simply because they don’t live up to the global standard.
(((o))): Is there any sort of repression you have to deal with, doing this in your country? How does being from Kurdistan matter? And how about your other band Dark Phantom?
Mir Shamal: Religious and old-fashioned people fight metal over here, like anywhere else. As Dark Phantom, we’ve received multiple threats and Cyaxares is actually the only death metal band from Kurdistan, making it a band with ten times as much obstacles as bands in other parts of the world.
(((o))): Is there anything typical for metal music from your country? Do you draw inspiration from where you come from that you put in the music?
Mir Shamal: Metal is a very obscure thing here, so there is too little to speak of typicalities. Yes, I have inspired others to start playing metal music, but it’s very limited at this moment. What I try to put in my music is the ideologies and mythic elements of my culture and I hope to make a difference and change things in this way.
Musically I draw inspiration from oriental music and the mythology. The metal influences, I would say, are mostly Behemoth and Lamb of God.
(((o))): What are the main themes you try to weave into your music?
Mir Shamal: The main themes are derived from ancient mythology and historical events in the Babylonian, Sumerian, Persian and of course Median tradition. The call for leaving behind religion is a big theme in my music, but I’ve also put some classical poetry in there.
(((o))): I’ve checked out your album Whores of Babylon. How did the writing and recording process of that take place? What story are you trying to tell the listener on it?
Mir Shamal: The writing process took me about four years, because I started from absolute zero. Actually I had to start by teaching myself all I needed to play this music, you know? It took me about three days to record everything by myself.
Every song has its own message, My message as Cyaxares is ‘Temples Of Fire’, a call for Zoroastrianism as an ideology. What I want to achieve is to make my culture known, to give the Kurdish people an independent voice and show its strength as well. We are a people that have always managed to do so much with so little.
(((o))): I did an interview with the band Melechesh a long time ago, who also indicated that they made ‘Mesopotamian/Assyrian metal’. Do you feel related to this band in any sense?
Mir Shamal: Melechesh is an authentic Mesopotamian metal band; I enjoy most of their work, but we both have a different sound of our own.
(((o))): Would you be so kind to tell a bit about what ‘Mesopotamian metal’ is and what makes it so? Can you also elaborate a bit on the stories it involves and entities discussed in the lyrics?
Mir Shamal: Mesopotamian metal is a combination of Arabic scales and rhythms in the music, combined with metal of course. The oriental atmosphere in the song and the lyrical themes then make up what I think is Mesopotamian metal. The themes should also incorporate mythology. A good example of a band playing this specific style of music is Aeternam.
(((o))): What part does religion play in your music and are there dangers involved in it?
Mir Shamal: I’m an atheist myself and my opposition to religion will always be a part of Cyaxares. It’s not a safe thing in this country to be an atheist, but I will refuse any sort of religion, with or without music.
(((o))): Can you also tell a bit about Dark Phantom, your other band?
Mir Shamal: Dark Phantom is a thrash metal band from Kirkuk, which I joined last year on vocals and bass. We’re working on an album right now. The main themes of the band are war and terror and it has five members. The situation in our country is part of the theme. I keep that out of Cyaxares though.
(((o))): What are your future plans for Cyaxares?
The future plan for Cyaxares right now is a new album, titled The House Of The Cosmic Waters and hopefully go abroad, get a label and create a full band.
The second album is progressing slow, three songs have been finished this far. I’m not sure how many songs will be on it, but it will probably take me about eight months to finish it. That’s mostly due to a lack of time and economic means to finish it faster.
Currently I’m working on a video for the song ‘Temples of Fire’.