Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Malaysia vs Metal: A Brief History (Updated April 2019)

Here's a pithy and flippant guide to how Malaysia became the premier source of forehead slapping throughout the metal world.

Malaysia vs Black Metal (2001)

Believe it or not, Malaysia used to have a thriving black metal scene. Demos from local bands regularly made their way to Metal Maniacs, and bands like Langsuyar had sizable followings in the region. Of course, all those kids in black shirts couldn't help but rub someone the wrong way. Like the church-burning panic surrounding the black metal scene in Norway, the black metal ban in Malaysia was rooted in tabloid articles with lots of accusations and little evidence. A local newsrag seized on the idea that teenagers in the northern (read: ultra conservative) part of the country were going into the jungle to engage in Satanic rituals inspired by black metal. It seems ridiculous that anyone would buy into this; but if there's a common theme to the recurring "heavy metal leads the impressionable youth into devil worship and crime" story, it's that people are stupid and will believe anything.

Strangely, even Malaysian metalheads took the claims at face value. When I returned to Malaysia in 2003, the heshers I hung out with would tell me that it was stupid for kids to drink goat's blood and burn the koran for the sake of black metal. It never dawned on them that the whole thing was made up to sell newspapers. [Why drinking goat's blood is taboo when mutton is a regular part of Malaysian cuisine was never sufficiently explained to me.]

Regardless, the Malaysian government seemed to think that it was a serious enough issue to ban "black metal" (music which neither they nor the local media had any understanding of, and a term both would go on to misapply over and over again). Coming after a devastating economic crisis, you'd think people would have more important things to focus on. Or maybe that was the point.


Malaysia vs Megadeth (2001)

The first big band to suffer from Malaysia's newfound intolerance of black metal wasn't black metal at all. While struggling to maintain relevance during their The World Needs a Hero period, Megadeth made news worldwide after it was announced the band would be not be allowed to play Malaysia. Reportedly local retailers were ordered to remove the band's discography from stores; they must have been relieved to have all that extra space for Limp Bizkit and Slipknot.

It's worth noting that Dave Mustaine is himself a far-right religious nut. Since neither side in this brouhaha is known for being particularly self-aware, I'll assume that the irony was lost on both.


Malaysia vs Mayhem (2005)

Things seemed to calm down for a few years - Impiety even played a well-publicized show in KL - until Malaysian authorities caught wind that Mayhem would be "bringing hell to their door". Song titles like "Deathcrush" and "Carnage" were trotted out as proof that the band promoted "unacceptable values", when what Mayhem has really promoted throughout their career is overrated 80's death/thrash. And honestly, which is the bigger crime?

Of course, no one said that on again/off again Mayhem frontman Attila Csihar couldn't visit Malaysia on his own and do a little metal karaoke with some local bands:


Malaysia vs Black Metal, Redux (2006)

The Mayhem incident brought the dangers of black metal back to people's minds (which is kind of amazing, considering how non-threatening black metal had become at that point). Not only did it spur the National Fatwa Council to issue a list of 228 bands that were banned in Malaysia, it precipitated a crackdown on the local scene. A show in Seremban (an hour or so away from Kuala Lumpur) was stopped by the police, and the participants were rounded up and dragged off to the police station to be drug tested. The reason? Cops "had information" that the organizers "planned to end their performance with a satanic worship session and sex." Which is a pretty dramatic change from the message board lurking and Dungeons and Dragons playing that black metal fans actually engage in. [Whoever this police informant was, maybe he should have been drug tested first, because those are some far out ideas, you dig?]

The authorities' grasp on the meaning of "black metal" remained tenuous at best: Among the bands arrested during that time were a Singaporean ska band. I can only imagine the faces of these kids in their yellow shirts and pork pie hats when they were told that they were a Satanic black metal band. But the brittle dignity of religion was protected by thugs with guns, so it all worked out.


Malaysia vs Lamb of God (2013)

It became big news that Lamb of God were denied a performer's permit because they allegedly "were found to infringe on religious sensitivities and cultural values of Malaysian society"; ie, the verses from the koran used as an intro on the Killadelphia DVD. That's right; the band was denied a permit to play Malaysia because they used something on a live album that you can hear broadcast through speakers 6 times a day throughout the country.

The band for their part were diplomatic in their response; laudably so. Not everyone was so mature...

Malaysia vs Kreator (2014)

This one hits home the hardest, because it's one I actually had tickets for.  This was the second time the band was scheduled to play Malaysia (they played in 2005 with a terrible sound system but no outside interference). Since the band had made it through once before without a hitch, it seemed a pretty safe bet that they would be able to do so again. All looked well until the night of the concert when my friends and I arrived at the venue, where we were treated to the Malaysian version of accountability:

The actual reason for the cancellation is up for debate. The promoters claimed that the authorities forced them to scrap the show because it was "black metal", before threatening to raid the venue and arrest all in attendance if the show went on. [Some pendantic nerd should have explained to the cops that Kreator are more of a speed/thrash metal band.] DBKL (Kuala Lumpur City Hall) responded that the actual reason was because the venue's license had expired. It seems strange that in a district known for its clubs and bars, including several that are well known fronts for prostitution, the only venue that received this amount of scrutiny from the authorities was the one hosting a metal show. I'll let the reader draw their own conclusions.

Malaysia vs Carcass (2015)

Oh boy, this one's still ruffling feathers. Despite having played Kuching in Eastern Malaysia (Borneo) in 2014, a Carcass show in Kuala Lumpur scheduled for May, 2015, was cancelled without a reason. Local gossip is that the concert was "ratted out" by a rival promoter that lost the bid (and if what I've been told is true, the cost of bringing Carcass to Malaysia is exorbitant by Malaysian standards). The band responded through social media with an acerbic message that reads as classic Jeff Walker, accompanied by an inverted Malaysian flag. Local heshers (who, as pointed out by my friend Epul, have no problem when crucifixes or other symbols are turned upside down) lost their shit over the apparent disrespect, and posted hundreds of barely coherent, poorly written responses on the band's Facebook page. The local media played up the latter, fulfilling their function as government mouthpiece/lapdog.

Not sure anyone comes off looking good in this: Not the overpaid death metal band, not the thin-skinned "fans", not the petty small-minded promoters, definitely not the country. With the moral watchdogs now turning their sights on K-Pop concerts and comedy, maybe we can look forward to a period where metal bands can play to their fans unharassed by religious fanatics and their jackbooted lackeys. But I kind of doubt it; if my experience in Malaysia has taught me anything, it's to expect nothing but disappointment.

Malaysia vs Black Metal, Part 3 (2019)

Devouror, a newly formed black metal band led by Shyaithan of Impiety, had a gig scheduled for Easter Sunday cancelled - this time at the behest of Malaysian Christian groups, who took issue with the event name "KL for Satan" (and the band's other hyperbolic anti-Christian sentiments).

It's worth noting that the gig's cancellation was supported by Teresa Kok, the Minister of Primary Industries - who is also a member of the Democratic Action Party, the closest thing Malaysia has to a progressive party. Questions remain unanswered why "a practicing Christian" would call for the censorship of an artist they find offensive instead of turning the other cheek.

Further reading:

Freemuse.org has a pretty good overview of the ban and its effect on the scene.

This article written by local musician Azmyl Yusof is good overview about how "moral panic" and media sensationalism in Malaysia fueled the so-called "black metal bans" of the early 2000's.