Indian metal bands go West

Even as music festivals and metal hubs such as Bengaluru open up new avenues, made-in-India bands are charting their own DIY routes to find success abroad

November 03, 2023 05:29 pm | Updated November 08, 2023 11:50 am IST

Gutslit at the 2019 Obscene Extreme festival in Czechia

Gutslit at the 2019 Obscene Extreme festival in Czechia | Photo Credit: Rafal Kotylak

It is a loud night of metal at Fandom at Gilly’s Redefined, a venue that occupies the first floor of a pub in Koramangala, Bengaluru. Everyone, from a Gen-Z bassist who’s added iron-on patches of his favourite bands to his denim jacket to the midlifers in black T-shirts tucked into jeans, is there. Between band performances, the speakers blast out a classic that has the crowd headbanging — ‘The Trooper’ by Iron Maiden.

In March of 2007, British heavy metal legends Iron Maiden made their India debut at Bengaluru’s Palace Grounds, performing to a reported number of 40,000 fans. A few months prior, Deep Purple visited the city (they’re slated to return — albeit with a different line-up — at the upcoming Bandland festival on December 16 and 17) and in 2011, the city went on to famously host Metallica. From veteran acts Slayer and Mayhem to Gojira and Lamb Of God, to modern bands such as Periphery and Animals As Leaders, the city has always been a hub for heavy metal. There are tribute nights — like the one Girish and The Chronicles just played, honouring 1980s rock and metal at Hard Rock Café in Whitefield — and a mainstay festival like Bangalore Open Air, which will host its 10th edition in February 2024.

Girish and The Chronicles with fans at Bengaluru’s Hard Rock Café

Girish and The Chronicles with fans at Bengaluru’s Hard Rock Café

The city’s reputation among metalheads even has bands relocating. Darjeeling-origin technical death metal band Obliterating Vortex have been around for a decade now, but moved to Bengaluru last November in what guitarist Aditya Darnal calls “a random gamble in this game of life” to score more gigs and reduce touring costs by being in one of the metal hubs. “The change has been great so far, including new opportunities and gigs, meeting new people and attending metal gigs,” he says.

Obliterating Vortex

Obliterating Vortex

But, as true as it might be to call Bengaluru a metal hotspot, the city and other hubs such as Kolkata, Mumbai, Kochi, Hyderabad, Guwahati and Chennai — that host metal gigs regularly as well — aren’t enough to sustain the genre in the country. The music is still niche and the fans, while many, are limited. Instead, made-in-India metal bands are looking abroad, to Europe, the U.S. and South East Asia, with their decades-old festivals, and touring and label ecosystems, to find success.

Bengaluru heavy metallers Kryptos toured twice in 2022, both times booking their months-long run of shows themselves. Delhi band Bloodywood capitalised on years of building an international audience for their folk-metal sound and played sold-out tours in Europe and the biggest metal festivals, including Graspop Metal Meeting in Belgium and Hellfest in France this year.

Kryptos

Kryptos

Eyes on Europe

Kryptos, which recently completed 25 years on the circuit, began playing international shows around 2009. By then, frontman Nolan Lewis had already realised that having fans in India alone can only take you so far, especially since they leaned more towards extreme metal with their 2012 album The Coils of Apollyon, the first via German label AFM Records. Since then, they have moved steadily towards a 1980s-inspired heavy metal a la Judas Priest on their albums Burn Up the Night, Afterburner and Force of Danger, all released via AFM.

“We just had to get out. The Indian audience at large prefer the more extreme type of metal [deathcore, black metal]. Traditional heavy metal has not been popular here in recent times,” Lewis says. From playing one of the biggest metal festivals, Wacken Open Air in Germany (twice) to supporting the likes of Exodus and building a solid European fanbase through agencies such as Seaside Entertainment, Kryptos toured extensively last year. “Now we’re in a really good place, which is why next year we’ll probably head to Europe maybe three times.”

Kryptos’  frontman Nolan Lewis

Kryptos’  frontman Nolan Lewis | Photo Credit: Mohit Sharma

In Europe, the majority of their fans are over 35. “But the cool thing is because they’re older, they bring their families with them,” Lewis adds with a chuckle. The crowds they’ve seen at events in India, especially their recent 25th anniversary shows, have been youngsters, watching them for the first time.

“Since metal isn’t a genre that was invented in India, it’s only obvious that it will have a bigger fan base abroad,” says Gutslit’s bassist and founder Gurdip Singh Narang. “Even the sub-genres have their roots in multiple countries in the West.” He recalls their early days, trying to break into a new market.

It started with word of mouth, then cold emails with demo releases, and tight-knit Orkut communities (a defunct social networking service). “The admin would go through your profile and accept your request to join. We also had a lot of Internet radio and websites that would feature us.” Once established through these channels, they found European and American touring artists with the same experience level, which led them to putting together joint tours.”

Gutslit’s members

Gutslit’s members

Gutslit’s strongest contact has been with Czechia’s Obscene Extreme festival and Vladimir Prokoš from the indoor festival Nice To Eat You Deathfest, where they have performed multiple times. “He [Prokoš] saw how we commanded the stage and how we weren’t just another band out there to get drunk and fool around,” says Narang. They are one of the few Indian death metal bands commanding thousands of streams from all around, and he sees their digital presence — including music videos — as assets to help them grow and convert into touring opportunities.

5,000 metalheads at Mahindra I-Rock
There are several rock and metal festivals in India, such as Mahindra Independence Rock (which ends today in Mumbai, with 2,500 fans turning up each day), Outrage Festival (January 13, 2024, New Delhi) and Bangalore Open Air (slated for February 2024). There are aslo gig series such as Spectral Decay, SlaughterFest and DethStock (all in Bengaluru) and Aggressive Tendencies (Hyderabad). And yet, many feel it’s not nearly enough, that India needs more events and better touring infrastructure.
Next month, Bengaluru is looking forward to Bandland, BookMyShow Live’s new IP. “It will celebrate the culture and vibrancy of Bengaluru,” says Owen Roncon, chief of business in Live Entertainment. “The inaugural edition of the festival, which is devoted to live music bands, will have both homegrown and international ones.”
New Delhi is also seeing a slight uptick with the revived Outrage Festival. Karan Mehta, the founder, put together a comeback edition in August after six years away. “We made a conscious decision to only host Indian bands at the January edition because we feel that in order for any scene to be successful, we must be able to self-sustain and support local homegrown talent,” he says.

Persistence pays off

Bloodywood is another success story. They’ve broken into the international market in a big way, and that’s largely because of their Punjabi dhol-meets-rap- meets-metal sound, coupled with uplifting themes that occasionally turn socio-political. Their YouTube viral fame, which brought views from metal listeners all around the world, led to tours and festivals being booked. The trio conquered Europe and the U.S. first and then capitalised on global fame by performing on big stages in India, including Lollapalooza 2023 in Mumbai.

But it’s still a long, hard road. English-singing metal bands such as Girish and The Chronicles (GATC), Inner Sanctum, Godless, Amorphia, Systemhouse33, Obliterating Vortex, Dreadhammer and Dirge are trying out a combination of international networks, streaming, and just stick-to-itiveness to keep the metal flag flying high. Their song themes have remained more or less true to heavy music’s chief concerns all over the world — from fantastical worlds to personal anguish, conflict, overcoming them, and just having a good time.

Gutslit’s new album Carnal, released earlier this year, digs into the psyche of history’s infamous serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer, and Narang doesn’t see them toning it down. “Serial killers have been amongst us since forever. These are people living parallel lives with you.”

Sikkim-origin, Bengaluru-based GATC — who performed yesterday at Mahindra Independence Rock 2023 in Mumbai — had labels flock to them after independently releasing their 1980s glam metal-inspired song ‘Rock The Highway’ in 2019.

GATC at the Pine Tree Festival in West Bengal

GATC at the Pine Tree Festival in West Bengal | Photo Credit: Tshering Choden Wangdi and Disha Malviya/courtesy of Lensbug

But now, frontman Girish Pradhan says, he sees a lot of hope for Indian bands playing rock and metal because of Kryptos’ deal with AFM Records. “Kryptos really inspired me and I thought, ‘We can do this if we want.’” In three years, GATC have released three labels in multiple label deals and toured Europe. Their most recent milestone became the most massive: opening for Guns N’ Roses in Abu Dhabi. “We got to know that it’s always the band who decide [which act] will open for them. That means a lot to us,” he says.

Buy, listen, thrash
Streaming hasn’t been a big draw with Indian metallers; most artists prefer Bandcamp, the online audio distribution platform, because it encourages listeners to buy the music instead of just listening to it. But they are slowly seeing the worth of the digital presence that streaming affords them.
Although he’s not on any streaming platforms as a consumer, Kryptos’ Lewis — who still buys and plays CDs, vinyl and even cassettes of his favourite bands — understands how “inevitable” it is for artists to look to streams. “In one way, it’s cool because since we are on Spotify and all these streaming websites, a lot of younger people get to know about us. They then come out to our shows and once they see us, they buy CDs or merch,” he says.
Merchandise such as T-shirts and CDs still go towards being an important revenue source for metal bands. Gutslit notes that they can invest more in merchandise now, simply because they have guaranteed show fees (which they can command because they are pulling in crowds in Europe). “You need show guarantees or enough pull to pack venues. Then you can sell merchandise and make back the money spent on touring expenses,” says the band’s founder.
Metalheads at a concert

Metalheads at a concert | Photo Credit: Mohit Sharma

Metallers love to DIY

The Guns N’ Roses gig came through Bengaluru-based company Gravity Talent, while GATC themselves have released three albums through Italian label Frontiers Records.

While there is not a big enough number of Indian bands to warrant dedicated agents, they do have “angels” — well-wishers such as Gravity Talent who put in a good word every now and then. And while sponsors for Indian metal may be few, too (except at bigger festivals), because of its niche place in the industry, many bands prefer the DIY route as it cuts out intermediaries. And it’s taken these acts as far as Japan, Europe, North America and West Asia. “We’ve grown multi-fold when it comes to the audience. There is so much love and loyalty from the people who make us what we are,” says Gutslit’s Narang.

Turns out, there’s a good amount of supply of that kind of loyalty even within India. Kolkata’s thrash metal band Dreadhammer, who released their debut album Sovereign earlier this year, are steadily trying to make their way out of hometown gigs to build a national touring network in 2024, while working on their second album. “It was always a dream to be in a band and put out music that people would listen to and connect with,” says vocalist and guitarist Rishav Bhattacharya. “So, as long as I am able to do that with Dreadhammer I consider myself to be very lucky and privileged.”

Dreadhammer 

Dreadhammer 

For now, the album lives and reaches international audiences through YouTube channels such as New Wave of Old School Thrash Metal, which has about 75,000 subscribers. While Bhattacharya is clear that they’re not ready to burn money just to score a few gigs with no returns, whether within or outside India, he is very hopeful about the future. “I believe that we are soon going to be playing in other cities as our fandom gets even stronger around the subcontinent and our music is able to cover the expenses of travelling and everything else a band needs to have a successful tour.”

The writer is a Bengaluru-based independent music journalist.

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