For a band whose lyrics revolve around topics involving fantasy and death, you would have thought that the single 'Stalingrad' would have been by a Black Metal band. Instead it's by Egyptian Progressive / Folk Metal entity Riverwood and as frontman Mahmoud went on to explain, the single is drawing a comparison to the second world war and the current war against COVID-19. During his interrogation he confessed as to how the band came about, why Egyptian Metal is embracing a revolution and what venues metalheads should go to in the city of Alexandria.
For those who have not heard of Riverwood, could you give us a brief history of the band?
"The band was formed only 2 years ago under the name of Riverwood. Our first album was released in the same year and its called "Fairytale". With 1 million streams online "Fairytale" has been chosen as one of the top 20 Folk metal albums in 2020."
You recently released your new single 'Stalingrad', what was the idea behind this - why a song about WW2?
"The song basically tells the story about a timeline that is almost the same as the current one, as the world is at war now with the COVID-19 virus. That's why we have decided to release it as a stand-alone single since it will not be a part of our second full album."
Your debut album "Fairytale" is out now, what was the reception like and have you had people outside of Egypt download it?; will it be on CD / vinyl?
"It has exceeded my expectations. I've never imagined it will be viral in the middle east that fast and also never imagined that it will reach one million streams online all over the world. The album is on CD as well and its sold outside of Egypt. We've sold CDs in Germany, France, Poland, Spain and many more international countries."
Do you feel that there is a rise in Middle Eastern / North African tinged metal? (Myrath, Riverwood, Blaakyum, Scarab, Orphaned Land, etc); how would you describe your sound?
"Unique. That's how I would describe the sound as all of the mentioned bands including Riverwood are injecting the Arabian sounds and Eastern cultures into their music and stories."
What is the current state of the Egyptian Metal scene? Is it going strong? When did metal music first arrive in Egypt?
"It was pretty much dead since 2010, but since 2018 it's being brought back to life with a lot of shows and releases."
For metalheads visiting Alexandria, what sights / attractions and bars / venues could you recommend?
"Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Sawy Cultural Wheel, Jesuit Center... these are the top notch venues for metal heads."
What plans does Riverwood have for late 2020 / early 2021?
"Currently we are working on our second full length album. Just like "Fairytale", the album will be telling a story that will be visualized in a book. The album also will be featuring more than one artist, of which 2 of them are big names in the metal music industry."
Do you have any greetings or thanks you wish to send out to friends, family, fans etc?
"As we rarely use the word fans, I would like to thank our family and warriors for all their support through out the "Fairytale" journey, it never could have been done without you and until we see you again on stage please stay safe. Wash your hands! Much love!"
"It's better for us to stay underground, it might turn really hostile if we went big in our home town"
It goes without saying that alongside Crescent, Scarab are spearheading the Egyptian Metal scene on the international front, although they are definitely humble in their origins and yet pushing harder than ever to reach new heights. Having released their 4th album "Martyrs Of The Storm" back in March via ViciSolum Productions, it was only fair for GMA to interrogate their frontman Sammy Sayed about the band's humble origins, the challenges bands in Egypt face, the lack of a fully functional scene i.e. barely any venues, media or market as such, why the album being released on vinyl was a dream come true and something about a word made up by guitarist Al Sharif Marzeban - that word? 'Verminejya'.
What was the reception like for "Martyrs Of The Storm"? What was the feedback like in Egypt; was there any resistance?
"I think it's very contradictory because somehow people related to it as it was something a little bit different to what we are doing; songs are heavier, shorter and more complex. So some people didn't really feel it, maybe it takes a while for it grow on them, and on the other hand we have also been showered with an intense positive feedback. But I believe that it is mainly controversial and that's a good thing; it got people to think and that's a good thing, perhaps it's not just music the you can listen to it and enjoy it, you have to dig deeper into it I believe.
And in regards to any resistance in our home town... Not at all, because anyway this kind of music is underground and I don't believe there will be any kind of market for metal - we try to push for this to happen, but it didn't happen and I don't think it will happen on a major scale. But for the Egyptian Metal scene itself, so far I think people are really digging the album, especially in Egypt because the inspiration comes from here, it comes from what we're going through energetically and it just speaks to them I guess, so they can relate and feel it."
"Martyrs Of The Storm" was released through ViciSolum Productions, will you sign with another label in the future?
"That is not something we have in mind right now, what we have in mind right now is working harder. With the album, we believe that it's not just music any more and the message has to artistically expand in the sense of more material to come in order to support the release, more things that we should say in order to explain what this album may represent or what it may mean for us. I don't know about expanding, so far ViciSolum have been really good to us and that's all what we need and this is something I would leave for the future; basically we are very happy with ViciSolum anyway."
Would you say this is the most ambitious album Scarab has ever done?
"It is to me, not just because of how musically it would sound, but the process itself of creating the album was much different to what we've gone through... we've learned a lot through this album and it's like... we were trying to perfect something and I believe there is nothing like called perfection but it is as perfect as it can get, I believe this is the most sacred work that we have done so far and it's an evolution of anything that we have attempted to do in all ways shapes and forms. "Martyrs Of The Storm" is the purification of Scarab's past."
From "Martyrs Of The Storm" which is your favourite song and why?
"This is a very hard question because we come up with the concept and I interpret the concept later on after the work has been finished, because our way of working (Marz and I) in terms of writing and composing music, it's like channelling or something - so for me when I started to write the lyrics it was also a from of automatic writing. I would unite with the energy of the song and Marz would give me the song titles mainly and I would start to contemplate and follow synchronicities of writing lyrics for the song depending on what it feels like. In the end what I want to say is to choose one song is hard because to us and to me, it feels like the Egyptian tree of life where the leaves are our chapters and every leaf is so important, it's like the human body.
But if you insist on me choosing then I would go with the first song 'Martyrs Of The Storm', because I think it speaks of what the album is going to be about, what the other tracks would be about - like a good introduction."
Can you tell us what the word 'Verminejya' in the song title 'Circles Of Verminejya' means?
"Ha-ha it doesn't mean anything, the title and concept of the song came from Marz and he was like telling me about the 'Circles Of Verminejya', so OK it's not English, it's not any language, it's a made-up-word and so I was like OK so what does it mean? What the f**k does Verminejya mean? He's like 'Verminejya' means danger, it's a magical word, you get the point? It's not something that linguistically means anything but the energy behind it means something. So we started to interpret it and he's like I think it's about Africa, it's about the tradition, the religion and the magic of Africa. We don't like to stick to gimmicks in the sense of trying to act like we are something from 4,000 years ago, so with this song it's like a magical mix between Voodoo in Africa and Ancient Egypt, what it would be like if we mixed both into one thing... that's what Verminejya is, it's a kind of a realm where the magician or priest would hop into a dance ritual for the gods; it's like a magical war. That's what Verminejya is, it's dancing in magical wars furiously, manoeuvring dangerous. It can be taken as a mantra and that's what I think it means for us."
What do your parents think of Scarab's music? Are they very supportive?
"They are very supportive, no one interfered; I'm lucky, there is a lot of freedom when it comes to my family. They never had a problem with the idea of 'what the f**k are you doing, why are you singing like that?' or anything like this. From my father or mother or any member of the family, they always thought of me as this weird kid who was an artist and is crazy, just leave him be."
Do you feel that it's becoming ever more important for bands to reflect their national culture?
"I guess so, but I have to say that I'm not sure if we fell into this idea of acting, the idea of music not being honest would lead it turning into a gimmick. But at the same time I think it's very important for bands to reflect their culture through their music, but it's not an obligation - if you don't feel it, do what you feel. There is one thing that I really hate, how can I explain this, it's not kind of a product where you are going to manufacture and represent, you know this kind of thinking? I hate it because for me, music is very spiritual and if you feel it, do it. If you feel that you have a message to be spoken about, then go ahead and do that, don't think that 'oh because I'm from Egypt, what is it that would make me different from others, I have to stand out' and then sell yourself as a manufactured product... that way of thinking for me, I am really trying not to judge but it's too commercial for me. And it is easy to spot it, simply honest music will always reach the heart."
Over the years you've had a number of line-up changes, were these all amicable or were there discrepencies?
"A little bit of both. We've been together as the same line-up until 2014, so from 2006 until late 2014 / early 2015 we started to have different views, interests, things like this. You know when you have had a relationship for a long time, that's how it is. I think we needed a break and some people just needed to break-up from this thing and I wouldn't say musical differences, it's about losing an interest somehow. The people who left had lost the interest in the essence of what they're doing and lost love towards the entity of Scarab itself, so they left; only Tarek Amr took a break and returned back again.
The only hard thing to do was to replace them, for Scarab it's not business but more of a friendship; we grew up together and have been through a lot, it's friendship before musicianship and so it was really hard to find the right people to replace them; that is the hardest thing we've been through, it was only Al Sharif Marzeban and myself whom were left to serve the band and in terms of writing the music that's fine, but in terms of finding people that can give the right energy, dedication, chemistry, just everything - that's really hard to find until Stephen Moss from the UK (who is a very good friend of ours) helped to record "Martyrs of the Storm" with Al Sharif Marzeban, then he departed.
We're still friends until now, the only reason I think this is not happening between us any more is actually the distance, that's the main problem; but now we're fine, Tarek Amr is back as a guitarist again and we have a new bassist Ahmed Abdel Samad, after another great bassist from the UK helped to record "Martyrs Of The Storm" (Arran McSporran from De Profundis and Virvum) as a recording musician.
It took us from around 2015 until 2020 to find the right people that we could feel right to us, because being a Death Metal band in Egypt is like 'swimming against tides', 'going through the abyss', something like that."
With exception of say Scarab, Crescent and say Mythos, do you feel the Egyptian Metal scene has yet to be fully recognised on the international stage?
"I believe so very much because, speaking from my own point of view when it first started, when I first started in trying to perform, most of the bands were cover bands and very early on you would find some who would make their own music. But right now it's the other way round actually, which is a very positive thing, there are a lot of bands right now writing their own music, playing and recording their own music. Back in 2009 there was this disbelief about the idea that any band that plays metal music would be able to break through internationally anyway, it was not possible at that time because there was no one else that had done it as far as I know.
I don't know if we were kind of lucky but we worked hard and luck served us, and we won 'battle of the bands' in Dubai and therefore played Desert Rock Festival alongside Nervecell (The UAE) who are our long-time friends and on the main stage of With Full Force Festival (DE) 2009 and that was the turning point, because for us it was a dream come true and was unbelievable like what the f**k is going on, it's how it felt like 'what was going on, is this magic?'. At the same time, it was an eye-opener I believe for a lot of great bands in Egypt, because there is not only just Scarab, there are other bands that are really good at what they do... the eye-opener is that 'yeah it can happen.'
I wouldn't say that Scarab is the reason why, maybe we were just mediums for this to happen, it could have been anyone else, it was bound to happen anyway, but Scarab was ready and that is why it happened to us. Also there are two bands who I feel are very successful right now, they are Crescent (Black / Death Metal); back in the days they were playing Black Metal and then they changed their theme into Ancient Egyptian theme and are now their music is being distributed through Listenable Records and have also performed a lot abroad - big festivals...
Also Odious who are a Symphonic Black Metal band from Alexandria, they've also performed abroad and they do tours, and their music is distributed worldwide. This is a good thing and there are a lot of other good bands that are coming up and I think that the more of this happening, the more it will lead the scene to expand at least internationally, not here... maybe I'm pessimistic OK? But I believe that if this kind of music went big and there was a market here, if you could actually tour Egypt and things like that, I think it's going to be negative, I'm really sorry but I think this is what's going to happen for the time being.
It's better for us to stay underground, it might turn really hostile if we went big in our home town I believe so - that's my own opinion."
Given the COVID-19 situation, what are some of the plans that Scarab had that are still intact (if any?).
"Now that everything is cancelled for everyone, so no shows, no tours, nothing, I think what we will be doing is writing new material... but before writing new material we will try to serve the album and maybe do more video material for every track... that's mainly what we are going to be doing and trying to figure out how 2021 would go, and if we're going to be booking shows... I think that's what we will be working on, but mainly since there is a lot of time we will be working on more video material."
For those metalheads visiting Cairo or indeed Egypt as a whole under normal circumstances, aside from the Pyramids, would sights / attractions could you recommend?
"Well man that's the problem, there are no metal bars in Egypt, not as far as I know and metal shows happen every now and then; it depends on the luck or the research the person who listens to metal is going to visit Egypt in the hope of finding metal stuff, I don't think that's possible unless there's a show. There is Metal Blast Festival, I believe that's a great festival in Egypt because they host international acts like Swallow The Sun, I don't remember what else but they bring decent international acts and make local Egyptian bands open for them. So this is a very positive thing and I hope there is more of this. There are no venues, there is only El Sawy Culture Wheel, in Zamalek, Cairo and there is also, it depends but there is also the Cairo Jazz Club in Agouza, Giza which you can play at as a metal band.
I would recommend anyone to visit south Sinai to see Saint Catherine's Monastery as well as the beach on the red sea, and also would recommend them to go on to the complete otherwise in Siwa - there is a lot of magic there. I believe these are the the two places that really speak of the essence of Egypt."
Given the resurgence of vinyl, what are your thoughts on Scarab's music being pressed on LP?
"I'm very happy for it because for me I've always had this as a dream to have Scarab's music on vinyl or record, however cheesy that may sound, but it is to me, the band, Al Sharif Marzeban - Marz was like I wish "Martyrs Of The Storm" would go on vinyl. We didn't ask for it, actually what happened was that Thomas from ViciSolum, as soon as I sent him the final master he was like 'this has to go on vinyl' and then that's when I started to think, I wanted to make the vinyl a bit different than the CD and also the digital version.
The CD is like a seamless kind of run, it feels like if you are listening to one song; all the tracks enter each other, but with the vinyl it's 5 songs on Side A and the other 5 on Side B - the energy of the first 5 songs on Side A is lighter before it gets darker on Side B with the last 5 songs. Like Side A is rage and anger, Side B is evil. Metaphorically speaking Side A would be the sun, Side B would be the moon. Side B has more of this Black Metal touch to it hidden inside somewhere."
Do you have any greetings or thanks you wish to send out to friends, family, fans etc?
"Yeah of course I want to thank everyone who supported us throughout the years, and all the musicians that have their energy in some way or shape in the album, the guitarists that Marz invited - Karl Sanders, Joe Haley to name a few, and basically everyone that had their hands into this collaboration. All of our fans, their patience, believing in us, Thomas from ViciSolum for believing in us and being patient for 5 years for us to actually put this together during this hindrance and hardships that we were going through in finding the right members. I wish everyone will stay safe through this process of transition in 2020, wish them peace, growth and wisdom".
Scarab are arguably the leaders of the Egyptian Metal scene, and whilst they're purveyors of 'True Egyptian Death Metal', the sextet are always exploring new avenues in which to take their music down. Humbled by the past oppression seen across most countries in the MENA (Middle East/North Africa) region in terms of authorities viewing metal music as the 'devil's music'; watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDXqP49ZNE8, Scarab's origins start back in 2001 under their previous guise 'Hate Suffocation' from which became Scarab in 2006; carried on by three members (Sammy Sayed - vocals, Tarek Amr - guitars and Al-Sharif Marzeban - guitars/backing vocals); the original bassist Bombest left in 2015 and a year after that the original drummer Hatem El Akkad left.
Scarab are on the home run stretch in the completion of their third album "Martyrs of the Storm", Scarab spoke to GMA about the impending album, the current state of the Egyptian Metal scene, Rami Malek in the film 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and what to do when visiting Egypt.