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By Phil Freeman
Published March 13, 2007

It can legitimately be argued, at this point, that metal is a folk music. Working out of sheer devotion to craft, with extremely long odds of commercial success, the metalheads of each country put their own stamp on the genre. Probably because of the grip religion has on the region, the Middle East has spawned relatively few metal groups; Rabies Caste (from Israel) and Necrophagist (from Germany, but led by a Turkish Muslim) are fairly traditional-sounding, and could have come from anywhere. Assyrian/Armenian singer/guitarist Ashmedi and his band Melechesh (formerly of Jerusalem, now based in Amsterdam), are real innovators, though.

As early as “Dance Of The Black Genii,” from their 1996 debut CD As Jerusalem Burns...Al’Intisar, the band was melding Middle Eastern percussion with snaky, fuzzed-out electric guitar lines. “The Arrival Ritual,” an instrumental from 2003’s Sphynx, featured saz, oud and other traditional instruments. Melechesh also incorporate another important element of Middle Eastern music, one rare in metal: improvisation. “Extemporized Ophtalmic Release,” the hidden final track on their fourth and latest CD, Emissaries, is completely improvised in the studio. “Naturally I do demos and then the guitars and drums get organized,” Ashmedi says. “However, in the studio we add many ad hoc elements, the group chanting alternate [vocal] lines, and most guitar leads were actually composed on the spot. There are no rules; it is a perfect balance of order and chaos.”

Ashmedi’s from a Christian, but non-religious, family. Still, as he puts it, “playing black metal did not sit well with them.” Nor the neighbors; “Melechesh's first rehearsal room was in the old city of Jerusalem, a five-minute walk from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In East Jerusalem, we were cast out. I was once even wanted by the police because a local newspaper lied and said I had a Satanic cult rather than a black metal band. I now live in Amsterdam, and the black metal scene there is boundaries are too petty for me.”