Like a cat, my curiosity was well and truly aroused. This is a band that combines death metal with Arabic sounds, scales, and influences. It has been done before – Orphaned Land is a notable example – but Arkan seem to take it a step or two beyond.
Death metal storms into Morocco; crushing riffs meet traditional instruments like the mandola. The result blasts through the desert sandstorms. I just had to find out more.
In May 2005 Foued Moukid, former drummer for French dark metal band The Old Dead Tree, joined forces with singer/guitarist Abder Abdellahoum, ex- Dawn Of Decline. Between them they shared a passion for the combination of brutal metal and Arabian music and together they formed the Paris-based Arkan. To the mix they added the growls of Florent Jannier and Samir Ramila and Mus Elkamal on additional guitars.
I was a bit blinkered to the possibilities of such a combination. But northern Africa was historically bound to Europe through Phoenician traders with Rome’s Carthage on the north coast of Tunisia at its center, so why not do what those ancient travelers did centuries before and combine the music of both continents? Certainly the musics of, say, Morocco or Algeria, are full of tradition, atmosphere, and ambience. These traditions have long been plundered by European musicians who have successfully brought this rich heritage into the mainstream.
Can death metal do the same? Arkan went on a mission to find out and their debut album Hilal is the result. The answer? Well I learned recently that death metal is an all-consuming passion, a way of life, for its followers. If you are in that category then this album has to be explored.
One moment we are walking through a bustling market place with throngs of local traders, a scene that hasn’t changed much in centuries. The next, a huge mountainous riff shocks us back to the now.
The desert is scorching hot during the day, dropping below zero at night. It is one of the world's most inhospitable places, where only those who respect and understand it survive. It's a classic dichotomy of light and dark, and Arkan uses this exotic counterbalance brilliantly.
On opening track “Groans Of The Abyss”, an Arab voice quickly gives way to full-power death metal. With a riff big enough to crack open a pyramid, the tension and power are threateningly dramatic. The counterbalance, when it arrives, is all the more effective particularly when the instantly recognizable traditional sounds come in.
It's how the two elements meet that drives Hilal. At times it comes at you like a sandstorm straight into your eyes, or in this case, ears. But there are also surprising moments of subtlety as both ends of the spectrum fuse together like those Eastern spices. This album connects East to West, North to South, past to present, and the now to an altogether different now.
Arkan's intent was first revealed on 2005's self-released track “Burning Flesh”, a virulent rejection of suicide bombings. Having established their own stance they could move on to Hilal without inviting any ill-judged conclusions. And move on they do. Hilal is, without doubt, a mighty leap into the territory they marked out to explore.
The production on Hilal captures the atmosphere and tension between acoustic and metal expertly. The power is contained like a genie in a bottle before being unleashed in just the right degree.
This album should be explored by anyone out there into death metal. It will be interesting to see where else Arkan can take this journey next time out.