2019 Nov 11
“I did not know that people still listened to heavy metal”.
Words uttered by a seventeen-year-old who has not even been alive for most of the life span of Sri Lankan heavy metal.
Rest assured, this music genre is still alive and kicking in Colombo, causing chaos and mosh pits around the city. The Sri Lankan metal scene was born in the eighties and has remained underground for a period of time. The music and its cult-like following are bold, expressive and loud.
The decline of Britain’s post-war economic boom continued from 1960 to 1980, which led to unemployment, inflation and labour strikes. Birmingham was severely affected, which resulted in the birth of Black Sabbath, considered by the majority as the pioneer heavy metal band. Their music was starkly dark and ominous and captured the frustrations of the unemployed youth and their lyrics and themes have been the cause of controversy, addressing taboo subjects. Although minimalistic in form and execution, Black Sabbath set the stage for heavy metal in terms of power and intensity.
Hard Rock and Heavy Metal rose in popularity at approximately the same time in Sri Lanka. It began in the 1970s when the first rock festival, organised by popular Sri Lankan rock singer Kumar Navaratnam, took place at Havelock Park, Colombo. Originally starting as a bass player, later switching to lead guitar, he was one of the first musicians to introduce hard rock to the Sri Lankan audience.
At the time, Sri Lanka’s music enthusiasts enhanced their musical tastes by listening to radio programs or vinyl records at the British Council and American Center to experience the progressing sounds of the 1970s. A group of college students then brought their own equipment and instruments and started to create their own music, inspired by their idols. Although the bands had different levels of success, they all commenced their journey into rock and heavy metal without any sophisticated equipment such as effects pedals, synthesizers, public address systems or recording studios.
Before long, bands such as The Unwanted Generation, Graveyard, Cancer, Rattlesnake and Coffin Nail (featuring musicians like Prins Jayaratnam, Chris Dhasan, Nimal Gunawardena, Ramesh Weeratunga, Imtiaz Hameed and Kumar Navaratnam) were playing at grand rock concerts, introducing a wave of curious and rebellious young individuals to the underground sounds streaming in from the Western world. Cancer also recorded and released original music in the 70s. Regardless of drawbacks, these bands helped keep the rock identity alive in Sri Lanka.
The rock movement returned with force in the early 1990s with a local alternative rock band called Independent Square. Although the genre was not heavy metal, the band released two albums and became a source of inspiration to other musicians to get back into the genre and compose their own music. Rock began evolving into heavy metal in the early 1990s with bands like Venom.
This resulted in a movement that continues to present day. Sri Lanka’s first-ever ‘Sri metal’ band Whirlwind (metal music with Sinhala lyrics) formed and stood out as a dynamic six-piece band owing to their unique sound. As they progressed, they were influenced by Black, Death, Melodic and Doom, which are sub-genres of metal music. Whirlwind was formed with intentions of breaking boundaries and to resuscitate Sri Lanka’s rock scene with a new era of uprising music.
The band has also built a large fanbase of young and old individuals by performing at Colombo’s most popular nightclubs. Stigmata, Whirlwind, Paranoid Earthling and Independence Square were the first few bands to make and release original music, with Whirlwind and Stigmata both releasing original metal albums ( Wedana and Hollow Dreams respectively) in 2003. These bands also helped start the original metal culture in Sri Lanka. Since then, a lot of local bands are now combining elements of Sri Lanka’s existing musical traditions with the harsh sounds of heavy metal.
In the present day, Sri Lanka has a blossoming metal and hard rock community, which is rapidly becoming popular amongst teenagers and young adults. It also remains in the fond memories of the generations before them. The birth of other bands during the 1990s has also succeeded in expanding the underground heavy metal community. While Colombo remains the central point of these hard rock bands, the country’s hill capital, Kandy, has also produced some grunge influenced bands like Paranoid Earthling.
Majority of band members who have pioneered the heavy metal movement in Sri Lanka agree that the subculture is viewed negatively in the country. Stigmata front man Suresh De Silva expressed that the negativity affiliated with heavy metal took a considerable period of time to eradicate when they first started their musical careers. Suresh also acknowledges the fact that rather than long hair, tattoos or piercings, the black colour code and gruesome artwork on metal tee shirts and torn clothing that led to this perception, further stating that when pioneering something that is new and unconventional, there will always be a formidable level of adversity and obstruction. Initially, there was a lot of negativity in the start because people feared what they did not understand and not a lot understood it. However, this perception is gradually changing in a positive manner as Suresh states that the wider perception in the country has really changed as venues, brands, commodities and services now support and advocate the music which has credibility as a proper art form.
Man Till God frontman, Vimukthi Karunathilake, who has been involved in the metal community for 10 years and has recently started his own band agrees that the perception has changed but attributes it to the technological advancements in the country and the local community’s increased exposure to different cultures in other countries. He believes that as the new generations take over the world, the restricting systems formed by the older generations will diminish.
There are new bands popping up all over the city as well, working hard to keep heavy metal alive in Colombo. On December 14th, Sri Lanka’s biggest heavy metal festival Colombo Open Air is set to take place, also while hosting the Sri Lankan leg of the Wacken metal battle. Five bands (Dhishti, Dispute, Constellation, Sacrament and Blind Effect) are set to compete to win a chance to perform at Bangalore Open Air, a Heavy metal open-air music festival held in India. The winners are given the opportunity to perform at Wacken Open Air in Germany. The event will also feature performances by heavy metal veterans Whirlwind, Paranoid Earthling, Genocide Shrines and Mass Damnation and Kryptos, a heavy metal band from India.