In Havana, Heavy Metal Is a Struggle
Despite a lack of resources and endless bureaucratic red tape, the Cuban extreme metal scene is flourishing.
Mephisto / Photo by Nacho Vazquez
If you're reading this, that means you have the ability to get online, and chances are, it wasn't all that difficult. You turned on your computer, or pulled your phone out of your pocket, clicked on that browser icon or fired up the app, and voila—instant and virtually unlimited access to anything and everything, from the news of North Korea's latest potentially world ending nuclear follies to fetish porn's deepest and darkest depths of forbidden pleasures. It's all here.
But let's stick with music. Everything from vegan progressive hardcore to animist blackgaze is at your fingertips. Every day you can download, discover—and if you're a musician, pick and choose from—all those disparate sonic elements floating around in the online ether to come up with your own concoction of sounds and styles. And why can you do that?
Because you don't live in Cuba.
Yes, Cubans can get online these days. This isn't news. But accessing the internet there is a royal pain in the ass that involves lining up for a scratch card (that grants you an hour of net time) and then accessing a painfully slow network in an outdoor wi-fi park. For Cuban metal musicians, and everybody else in Cuba for that matter, this is as good as the Information Age gets. If anyone wants to hear what's going on with heavy music past or present, it's either get in line and find what you can in an hour (if you can afford it), or hope that something even vaguely metallic makes its way on to the Paquete Semanal—the Weekly Package; an illegal home delivery service of a terabyte of the latest TV shows, information, and music from abroad on an external hard drive. Again, if you can afford it.
That's why it's so impressive that metal exists at all in Cuba. The bands that founded the scene have histories dating back 30 years or more, to a time when playing rock music (let alone metal), was illegal, as was singing anything in English. The scene isn't huge (somewhere around a hundred bands in a country of about 11 million). And at present, there are no places for Havana bands playing originals to get on stage, unless the show is approved by the Cuban Rock Agency. There is a stage for cover bands playing softer standards at Club Turf in Vedado, not too far from the old punk and metal head stomping grounds of 23rd and G, but that's about it. Despite the fact that access to any decent recording studio is controlled by the government, Cuban metal bands keep finding ways to pump out new music. There's even a dedicated metal festival, Brutal Fest, organized by French expatriate David Chapet.
Times are changing in Cuba. Restorations and new developments are underway. Once Raúl Castro shuffles loose the mortal coil, who knows what the next era will bring. But until then, playing music of any kind is still a real struggle in Cuba, but not a spiritual or existential struggle, nor a metaphorical one. It's a financial, logistical, and political struggle, during which people have been beaten, imprisoned, or worse. Think of them the next time you feel like whining about how hard it is to be in a band. Until then, here are some bands bringing the heavy in la República de Cuba.
As the godfathers of the Cuban metal scene, with a name as recognizable to the average Cuban as the Buena Vista Social Club, Zeus play a mix of groove metal and thrash. Their music courageously assesses the everyday struggles of the Cuban people under the revolutionary regime as well as other issues like drug abuse, all in in a country wherein speaking your mind on social issues has been, in times past, enough to warrant a prison sentence.
Megadeth, Metallica, Fear Factory—these are the bands lead guitarist Hansel Arrocha lists as main influences when I have a chance to talk to him at a gathering of local musicians, artists, and filmmakers in a Havana apartment overlooking the old city to the west, the Malecón seawall and esplanade to the north in early August. Hansel mentions the difficulty of finding engineers who know how to properly record metal in Cuba. In nearly 30 years, owing to the prohibitive cost of recording and the difficulty of getting studio time for anything remotely controversial when everyone from the man on the mixing desk to the person micing up the drums is on the government payroll, the band has only managed a pair of full-length releases, and they're not entirely happy with the sound on either of them. But even three decades on, they're still going for it. They've toured abroad to Spain and Russia, and Hansel's gone to the U.S. with his other bands that play a more commercial and therefore profitable style (a much-needed source of income from abroad when playing Cuban jazz or rumba standards at a Havana bar might net a player $5 for a night's work). But unlike many other Cuban musicians who have defected during their trips overseas, the members of Zeus have chosen to remain in their homeland, for better or for worse.
Mention Zeus to any of the old school Havana heads, and another band that will likely come up is Agonizer. The Havana thrashers got their start in the early 90s, and like their brothers in Zeus, they toughed it out through the usual hardships of making music in Cuba, from lack of access to proper equipment to the painful bureaucracy involved with any attempt to play outside of their home country.
In 2013, Agonizer did manage to make appearances at SXSW in Austin and in Miami alongside fellow Cuban bands Ancestor and Escape, reportedly the first appearances by any Cuban metal or rock bands on American soil. Following the pair of shows, all but two members of these band decided not to return home. Agonizer has a pair of albums to their name to date, with their most recent output the 2010 demo El Precio.
One of the most prolific bands from the Cuban scene, Combat Noise, also hails from the capital, and has been cranking out Caribbean brutal death metal since the mid-90s. A slew of military-themed demos marked the band's early days until the first of three full-lengths, After the War...The Wrath Continues, came out in 2004.
Combat Noise, unfortunately, is one of the prime examples of the difficulties Cuban bands face when attempting to tour abroad. In 2011, the band was invited to participate in the Obscene Extreme festival in the Czech Republic. However, according to the band, by the time they were able to obtain exit permits (a requirement for any Cuban citizen who wants to leave the country for any reason), the deadline for them to provide their documentation to festival organizers had passed, and the organizers could no longer accommodate them, nor could promoters in other European cities. The entire works had depended on the letter of invitation from Obscene Extreme; the document was irreplaceable in terms of the band securing permission to leave Cuba, and thus a potentially career-changing tour that would have seen them on stages throughout France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Poland, and Hungary had to be canceled thanks to matters of bureaucratic inefficiency.
Cuba is about as unlikely an environment for cultivating frost-bitten black metal as one could imagine, and if there were a least likely place within Cuba for such a black metal band to exist, it might be the laid-back beach town of Matanzas. Regardless, this picturesque "City of Bridges" is the birthplace of one of Cuba's foremost black metal bands, Unlight Domain. This band, among others, is one that has benefited from a kind of convenient cultural shift in their home country. The shift has seen metal go from an outlawed form of expression to one that is at least tolerated. There's even a federal Cuban Rock Agency tasked with pushing homegrown rock and metal bands, and some of the bands promoted by the agency have been featured on programs airing on one of the nation's limited amount of state-run TV channels.
As such, Unlight Domain's first self-titled demo was nominated in the category of Best Metal Demo on a show called Cuerda Viva in the mid-2000a. Later the band put out the first split release in Cuban metal history, sharing disc space with their blackened compatriots in Ancestor. Ruins of Creation, the band's first proper album, was released in 2013, but the following year they lost their drummer, Andry Hernandez, when he emigrated to Brazil—this cultural brain drain as prevalent in metal as it is in every other aspect of Cuban society. As of this year, the band is planning to record an album centered on the realities of life in modern-day Cuba, entitled Unended Freedom Tale.
From the Graves
Featuring three members of Combat Noise, From the Graves seems to be somewhat new to the scene, even if the group is comprised of musicians that are anything but. Earlier this, year the band's first album, Rise of the Macabre, popped up on YouTube, and aFacebook page followed a few months later. Maintaining even the most basic social media presence from Cuba, where upload speeds can be sluggish at the best of times, is one of the major barriers for the country's metal bands old and new who might want to gain notoriety beyond their own borders.
Luckily, bands such as this one and others seem to be getting some help from the sizable expatriate Cuban communities abroad, as well as from people in neighboring Caribbean and Latin American countries, where information flows more freely, and at a higher rate of speed.
From the northwestern coast we go to the southeastern interior, less than a hundred miles from a little place you might have heard of called Guantanamo Bay, to Holguin, where Mephisto lays claim to being the country's longest-running black metal band. From the mid-90s on, Mephisto put out a spate of demos before going quiet in 2007, only to return last year with Reborn from Ashes, a full-length they recorded with the Holguin Symphony Orchestra. Twenty years is a whole lot of waiting and wood-shedding to get an album done, but it seems to be par for the course in a country where only a few have managed to secure enough recording equipment to get the job done at home.
In Cuba, musicians train for years at the nation's musical academies, starting as children at places like the Amadeo Roladán Conservatory. They might learn standards for a decade or more before finally getting the chance to explore their own musical whims. And even then, they may not be fortunate enough, connected enough, or wealthy enough to be able to finance their own recording. Then comes the added weight of the near impossibility of becoming known outside of Cuba. Still, in the face of all this, bands like Mephisto persevere.
Medium (Prev. Cronos)
It was in a Havana tattoo shop called La Marca that I was informed that the current capital of Cuban metal isn't Havana, but "Ciudad Metal," Santa Clara. As one of the artists so succinctly put it, "Havana is weak!"
Personal opinions vis a vis regional scene strengths and weaknesses aside, if you were to make your case for Santa Clara being Cuba's "Metal City," you would definitely begin your opening arguments with Medium. How the band managed to channel the Scandinavian death metal sound in the early 90s (they even covered Nihilist on one demo) during the pre-internet, full embargo clime of Cuba's so-called Special Period, in the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I'll never know. What I do know is that if you're into crudely recorded death metal demo tapes, this will be right up your alley (as will the now-defunct group's first and only full album, Blinder, released in 2001 on Mexico's American Line Productions).
Less than a half hour down the road from Santa Clara on the Carretera Central is Placetas, home to one of Cuba's finest death/thrash bands, Scythe (not to be confused with the Chicago post-Usurper project of the same name). Emerging around the mid-90s, it took Scythe 10 years to get a demo out, then nearly a decade more to usher their independently released debut, The Murderer's Confessions, into the light of day.
Anyone who misses the gritty Morrisound Recording heyday of death metal should dig Confessions in a big way. Those old grainy recordings—that booming drum sound wherein the hits were really allowed to reverberate throughout the room—they're largely of a bygone era, one that had its soul sucked out by the demon known as digital clarity and convenience. Scythe brings the heart and sound of early Floridian death metal back. Now if only Don the Con would ease the trade restrictions on Cuba so they could export some soul back to Tampa.
Back to Havana now, and Congregation, a death/grind band formed at the turn of the millennium with a sound rooted in the late nineties early 2000s. To date the band has released a trio of demos, two with original vocalist Lázaro, and one following the front man's death in 2007. At one time, the band featured members of both Ancestor and Agonizer.
Congregation is one of many bands in Cuba that have benefited from the founding of Brutal Fest in 2008. The fest, which is run by French label Brutal Beatdown and the aforementioned David Chapet, takes place in winter and summer each year, and works like a local mini-tour, hitting cities across the country from Bayamo to Pinar del Rio. In the 2014 incarnation, Congregation hit the road not only with several Cuban bands, but with bands from Finland, Switzerland, France, and Italy. Cuba is far from being a regular stop for touring bands from abroad, but festivals such as this one in which Cuban bands can finally intermingle with those from overseas can only serve to help the scene develop and grow.
It's hard to say if the members of Demencia are aware of Dying Fetus or not, but there's definitely that old familiar Maryland slam and groove lurking in their sound. Straight out of the sun-drenched coast of Matanzas, the four-piece has managed a pair of five-track demos since forming in 2002. Their sound is most succinctly described as primitive brutal death with compressed guttural vocals.
Joe Henley is keeping his ears to the ground on Twitter.