Pre-abrahamic belief systems have, over the past 30 years, been the subject of some considerable attention from within the extreme metal scene. Ever since Bathory’s embrace of The Eternal Fire way back in 1987, black metal maniacs have been looking to the ways of their ancestors for musical and spiritual guidance.
This embrace of ancestry hasn’t been without its pitfalls, with some black metal group’s ancestor worship, unfortunately, falling victim to bigoted hatred. However, another far more positive trend, enabled by the hyper-connectivity of the modern age, has been that of bands from outside of Europe infusing the musical traditions of their mother cultures into their music. It’s through this that the white supremacist notions surrounding black metal have been challenged – and the simplicity, but durability of the black metal template further solidified.
Akvan is a one-man black metal project, having begun as a more straightforward black metal act incorporating themes of Zoroastrian poetry and Iranian history, Vivasera infused in true folk metal style with traditional Iranian Sonati music. Akvan’s grasp of Zoroastrianism is an interesting one –Vivasera’s desire of a return to a pre-islamic belief system, romanticising the glories of the Persian empires of history. Through this, parallels to black metal’s second wave can easily be drawn. Vivasera’s rallying against the abrahamic power structures and his desire for a return to a pre-islamic Iran show obvious parallels to the nihilistic, sometimes murderous ideology on display in the 1990s. However, whilst Vivasera is caught up in a struggle between worlds, the aggression so commonly misassociated with black metal does not manifest itself, as Vivasera’s deep respect for the people of Iran is perhaps Akvan’s most prominent driving force.
We caught up with Vivasera for a deep, and incredibly informative discussion regarding Iran, influence and black metal struggle.
Having recently released ‘قلمرو آتش ‘ a track from your upcoming EP: ‘خون آریایی’ in April of this year, how do you think your sound has evolved since your first release ‘Born Ov Fire’?
With each new release, I get closer to the sound I want to achieve. If you listen to Akvan’s catalogue from its inception on Born Ov Fire to قلمرو آتش (Realm of Fire), I’d say it’s fairly obvious to see the shift in composition toward the inclusion and gradual focus on traditional instruments. When I first started writing and recording music for Akvan, I knew what I wanted to accomplish, but had very little knowledge of how to get there. At the time, I didn’t have access to instruments like the tar and setar, and I was recording with a microphone that was attached to a children’s tape recorder. My knowledge of the Dastgah system and musical recording was also very limited. But I feel that my understanding of both has definitely improved and is evident in my more recent work.
As far as the raw, lo-fi sound that is associated with the genre, I will embrace it until the end, at least for this project. I’ve upgraded the microphones I record with, but my setup remains the same. I use a Roland Cube Lite practice amp for my guitar and vocals, Shure sm57 mics to record the instruments with, a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 interface, and Audacity as recording software. Frankly speaking, I don’t see myself moving away from this setup anytime soon. It’s portable, simple to use, and honestly, reflects my abilities as a musician. I believe it creates a musical atmosphere that genuinely illustrates what it is to be an underground musician in Iran. I believe that’s why I am fond of black metal and Sonati (traditional Iranian) music in the first place. What is played is what you get. There are no filters or sugar-coating through cookie cutter machines. No compromise. Just raw, human emotion.
As we understand, you moved to Iran indefinitely to focus on ‘Akvan’. What has this decision to move enabled you to do with your music that staying in the US wouldn’t have?
I believe that environment certainly affects and influences human beings. Thus, I came to Iran because I want the music I create to accurately capture the spirit of this country. Even if I had access to traditional instruments back home, I don’t think the sound would be the same. The move wasn’t just for the sake of pursuing music either. Although I’m a natural born citizen of the United States and have lived there my whole life, I’ve traveled many times to Iran since infancy. So the narrative of the US media has had zero influence on my perspective regarding Iran. I’ve seen the place with my own eyes so the rhetoric won’t work on me.
Yes, there are terrible aspects to life in modern Iran. Yes, there are numerous human rights violations carried out by the current Iranian regime. But for me, all of this is immensely overshadowed by the noble and hospitable nature of the Iranian people. The art, the cuisine, the ecologically diverse landscapes, the history, the music, the literature…. Iran is simply one of the most amazing places on the planet. I don’t know about living here indefinitely, but for now, I’m quite content.
What have been some of your biggest musical influences? And are there any projects both traditional and not that fans of your would be excited to check out?
This is always a difficult question to answer because I listen to a lot of different artists from varying genres and am influenced by pretty much all of them. If we are talking specifically Sonati (traditional) Iranian music, my favorite artists and influences would include Shahram Nazeri, Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, Faramarz Payvar, Hossein Alizadeh, Mohammad Reza Lotfi, Sahba Motallebi, and Kayhan Kalhor. For fans who appreciate world music or the Sonati elements of Akvan, I highly recommend these artists and would also include Niyaz. Superb group of musicians right there.
I don’t think there is enough time in the world for me to list the metal artists I am influenced by. But off the top of my head, I’d say Dissection, Watain, Emperor, Darkthrone, Sargeist, early Behemoth, Death, the Black Dahlia Murder, The Crown, Kreator, Necrophagist, Spawn of Possession, Vital Remains (specifically Dave Suzuki’s lead work on Dechristianize)…this could go on forever. Metal is like a religion for me. I think fans of Akvan would enjoy Cosmic Funeral and Ohol Yeg from Turkey, Zebulon Kosted, Chasmlurk, and Mi’raj Aswad from Singapore. I also strongly recommend Vukari from Chicago. Excellent musicians. Again, right off the top of my head.
Other than yourself are there any other Iranian black metal artists operating in Iran that you know of?
All the ones that I know of have either left Iran or disbanded. As far as I’m concerned, there really isn’t a scene, per se. Beyond a few friends here and there, I don’t really know too many people that listen to this genre of music, let alone perform it. That isn’t to say there aren’t any talented musicians or bands here. Quite the contrary. But due to the restrictions implemented by the current regime, forming any kind of organization between fans, bands, and musicians has proven a rather arduous task.
Communication is another issue that hinders the establishment of a metal scene. Social media sites like Facebook are censored and the internet is very slow in comparison to what we have in the States. If you use a VPN to access restricted sites, your internet speed slows down even more, and the sheer frustration of attempting to post a link on Facebook or upload a video on Youtube is enough to deter even the most patient of people. The metal scene in Iran, if it can be called that, is quite scattered and isolated.
Is this a purely online commitment for you or have you played or considered performing your music to a live audience in or outside of Iran?
I honestly don’t know at this point. I love composing and recording music, but I haven’t really thought that far ahead. I’ve received invitations to perform from some of the unlikeliest places. I think it’s worth mentioning that a good chunk of Akvan fans hail from Israel. Which is pretty awesome. It’s a wonderful example of music’s ability to transcend boundaries.
The truth of the matter is, I never had the intention of Akvan becoming anything more than a personal pastime. I put my music on Bandcamp because it was the cheapest and most practical means to share my work with friends back home. In Iran, when you purchase an internet plan, it works the same way as data on your phone. Anything you download or upload is deducted from the total allotted amount. So, it’s much smarter to upload a song once instead of sending it to different people individually via email or messenger.
Performing in Iran is definitely not going to happen, at least with the way things are now. Would I perform in Iran if I could? Does that even need to be asked? It would be a dream to play in front of an audience here. But, unfortunately, given the circumstances, that would be impossible without risking the lives of audience members, and of course, my own. Defying the law and taking that chance for myself is one thing, but I would never deliberately put that on anyone else. I know it’s hard to believe for a lot of people, myself included, but what I’m doing is illegal and punishable by death here. I try not to think about it, and, knock on wood, so far, so good. But I guess subconsciously, the fact that what I’m doing is considered a crime so severe that it warrants a death penalty is the reason I continue doing it.
To catch a deeper insight into Akvan’s embrace of zoroastrianism, check out our extended feature in the upcoming second issue of our print magazine.
Research/Questions: Tom Kirby
Words: Richard Lowe