Extreme Black Metal from the Heart of Sri Lanka

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Early yesterday morning I got an email from Nathan Birk on behalf of Invictus Productions about a “new” black metal release from the premier extreme label. Typically, I’d just kind of ignore this type of press kit because aside from some of the original/unique bands in the war metal/bestial blackened death metal/extreme black metal microgenre (like Revenge, DiocletianGenocide Shrines), most modern bands playing this style tend to be extremely interchangeable. However, the country of origin gave me pause, so I surfed on over to Invictus’ Bandcamp page to see what was up. If you press play on the embed below, ladies and gentlemen, what you’ll hear is a bestial black metal band from the tiny island nation of Sri Lanka. Let me introduce you to Serpents Athirst.

Heralding Ceremonial Mass Obliteration is the first EP from Colombo natives Serpents Athirst. Although the Invictus page lists a release date of 2015, the stream promoted by CVLT Nation was only posted yesterday, and Birk’s email said the release was brand new, so take that info for what you will. Far more important than the release date is the horrific black metal these four dudes are throwing down. The three-track EP opens with an ominous choral hymn juxtaposed against sounds of violence and panic. This moment, more than any of the extreme metal contained within, sets the the tone of the release and establishes the character of the music. To understand this, though, we need to explore a bit of Sri Lankan history.

Sri Lanka is an ancient island off the southeast coast of India. Evidence of human settlement dates back 125,000 years, and it has a rich Buddhist history that extends to at least 29 BC. It has been a critical nation in terms of both world trade and strategic positioning throughout global development, and the little nation of about 20-million people is currently one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Moreover, it ranks high on the Human Development Index, and by all outward appearances is a nation of peace, thoughtfulness, and culture.

Beneath this veneer, though, is a nation that has largely been ripped apart by civil war. After colonial oppression was relieved in the 1950s, a slow simmering racial and religious tension began to creep into the social structure of Sri Lanka. The majority Sinhalese were accused of aggression and intolerance toward the Tamil minority, resulting in terror attacks and violence against the Federal Dominion. Eventually, this spite boiled over into a full-blown civil war that lasted nearly thirty years and finally culminated in 2009 when the Federal military crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. All told, the civil war and other racial tensions cost the nation 40,000 Tamil lives and displaced 294,000 people, many of them Muslim minorities or aboriginal Vedda. The civil war was a terrible period in the history of a nation struggling to educate its populace, revitalize its rich heritage, and find peace after colonial meddling.

Hearing that history, you may be justified in thinking that the civil war has taken a great toll on the spirits of the Sri Lankan people. From personal experience, though, I can tell you that the young people of this nation are some of the friendliest, most patient, and most understanding people I know. I’ve had the great fortune to befriend a number of students and faculty members from Sri Lanka the last few years, even getting to participate in their new year festival last year, and I am constantly in awe of their peaceful and hopeful demeanor.

The dichotomy, then, between the horrors of the past and hope for the future seems to be the defining characteristic of this EP as so properly captured in the introductory segment of “Heralding Ceremonial Mass Obliteration”. The black metal that follows that portentous manifesto is raw and extreme, full of murky production, endless blast beats, pollutant riffs, and vocals that sound like the singer is gargling refuse. The music, though extreme, is lent a greater weight through understanding its cultural baggage. It sounds like a rejection of the institutions that caused so much sectarian bloodshed and reckless hate. By vocalizing the fear, violence, and rage of people who lived through decades of oppression and war, Serpents Athirst, like their countrymen in Genocide Shrines,  seem to be exorcising their national demons, and that’s definitely something worth discussing.

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