After watching the enthralling 2007 documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad it was near impossible to keep yourself from wondering just how the four Iraqi musicians in Acrassicauda were doing lately. After all, these were four musicians so dedicated to their art that they were willing to risk everything to write music and perform, whether it was living in the heart of the war zone in Baghdad (their rehearsal space wound up being destroyed by a missile), living on the run as refugees in Syria and Turkey, and dealing with the endless paperwork that eventually brought them to America in late 2008. It’s been an arduous, painful journey, but now that they’re on somewhat solid footing for the first time ever, work on their music can finally begin in earnest.
In the film, when you see the band perform an awkward instrumental of Europe’s “The Final Countdown” at a rare concert in Baghdad, it’s more than evident that they have a lot of work to do towards simply gelling as a band, let alone writing their own material. However, unlike a bunch of sniveling suburban American kids with all the technical chops who would only bring themselves to cover Europe as a joke, Acrassicauda’s passion is absolutely palpable in that clip. Metal isn’t just an after-school or weekend hobby for these guys, it’s a matter of life and death, and considering that they hail from the most dangerous place on earth, where any trace of Western culture was enough to seriously put your life at risk as well as your family’s, it’s enough to convince anyone that they would eventually realize their dream of following in the footsteps of their heroes in Metallica and Sepultura.
Acrassicauda’s early demos were likeable enough, a good start, but it wasn’t until they finally made it to the States where they started to make serious strides, and the end result of their entire ordeal is a four-song debut EP that will not only have people cheering for them even more, but actually turns out to be a good first record. Of course, it never hurts to have the metal community take you under its wing, and the foursome found a terrific mentor in Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick, who not only produced Only the Dead See the End of the War, but played a significant role in getting the band to tighten their sound, and it doesn’t take long to notice that Skolnick’s guidance has paid off tremendously.
The band’s approach is simple to the point of being unabashedly derivative, settling into some robust post-thrash grooves reminiscent of Metallica’s Black Album and Sepultura’s Chaos A.D.. The stuttering double-kick cadences and double-time breaks by drummer Marwan Hussein drive “Message From Baghdad”, with lead guitarist Tony Yaqoo letting loose lithe arpeggios as guitarist/vocalist Faisal Mustafa emits an effective growl as he paints a blunt portrait of his battered home city. The dirge-like “Massacre” is appropriately menacing, in the vein of early Machine Head, right down to Mustafa’s shifting from coarse growls to strong clean singing, the song coming to a harrowing climax as he sings, “My child is crying, my child is starving / his mother’s heart inside is burning / they stole my land, they stole my home/ they ripped my flesh, they stripped my bone.”
The seething rage and blunt approach of “The Unknown” walks a line between 1990s nu-metal and straightforward hardcore, from the shouted “gang” vocals to its rather simplistic breakdown, but Yaqoo ties it all together neatly with a terrific, expressive guitar solo before the foursome launches in to a headbang-inducing outro. The best song on the CD, and most likely the best indication of just where Acrassicauda can go from here, is the excellent “Garden of Stones”. Starting out as a mid-tempo stomper not unlike Metallica’s slower, heavier material, Mustafa’s vocals are front and center, his inflections Hetfieldian but convincing, his vocal melodies catchy. Meanwhile, the band launches into a very cool solo break that clearly draws inspiration from their homeland, Middle Eastern melodies, percussion, and chanting making their way into the latter half of the song.
Skeptics will say that there’s not much to this music, and they’re right, but compared to a bunch of kids trying to be the next version of Suicide Silence or the Faceless, there’s a level of sincerity to Acrassicauda’s music that’s irresistible. They don’t just sing about war like every other metal band out there; they’ve been there. And there’s no doubt that if we’ve experienced what they have gone through over the last eight years, we’d be just as driven as they are.