Bombay Death City

Demonic Resurrection and the cult of Indian death metal

Daniel Rego (left), Ashwin Sharayan, Sahil Makhija, Viru Kaith and Jetesh Menon are Demonic Resurrection. COURTESY DEMONIC RESURRECTION
01 October, 2012

VIRU KAITH, 31, works at a call centre for V2 Solutions near his house in the Mumbai suburb of Vashi. He reaches work at around 8.30 pm each day, and then starts answering technical support calls about residential solar panels. The callers are Americans from sun-soaked states like North Carolina and Arizona who use the black-mirrored panels for energy and tax breaks. Most of the callers are nice to the distant, accented voice on the other end of the phone, but others are not so nice. Bleary-eyed, at around 5.30 am, Kaith heads off to the train station. After three transfers and two autorickshaw rides over one-and-a-half hours, he finally shows up for his second job—playing drums for the death metal band Demonic Resurrection.

Kaith’s alternative life revolves around what used to be a one-car parking garage at vocalist Sahil Makhija’s parents’ home off Juhu beach. The studio/practice room is tiny, with padded brown walls that dampen the deafening noise that is produced within. On a typical recording day, Kaith shows up shortly before 7 am, earlier than anybody else, to beat his Mapex drum kit and Zildjian cymbals and lay down tracks for work that is in progress. The rest of the band files in around 9 am: Ashwin Sharayan, 23, the bassist, Daniel Rego, 20, the lead guitarist, and Jetesh “Mephisto” Menon, 29, the keyboardist. As they eat and listen to half-finished tracks, the guys tease each other like 12-year-old kids. It’s like watching an Indianised version of Beavis and Butthead. For Kaith, the company of close friends is a happy end to a long night. Depending on whether he feels like he can survive the commute back to Vashi without collapsing in his clothes, he either sleeps it off in Juhu, or gets home in time for lunch.

Jetesh “Mephisto” Menon, DR’s keyboardist, is the longest serving member of the band after founder Sahil Makhija. COURTESY DEMONIC RESURRECTION

“I really hope I’m still doing this in ten years,” Kaith said of drumming. He is tall and soft-spoken, with a goatee and hair parted in the middle. “The one thing that would stop me is my body physically breaking down.”

The morning after DR’s The Road to Bloodstock concert in Mumbai on 22 July 2012, a night intended as a tune-up for a series of performances at Bloodstock Open Air, UK’s biggest heavy metal festival, which was scheduled for August, Kaith’s strong body did break down. His back went out and he had to cancel an appointment he and I made for tea that day. The band can’t afford roadies, so before and after the performance that night, Kaith had hauled the band’s heavy equipment in and out of Blue Frog, and he suspects that may have caused the injury. But it could have just as easily been the physical strain of keeping up the rapid-fire assault needed to make his drums sound as brutal as they’re intended to sound.

With three albums over ten years (and a fourth expected to come out this winter), two major European festival appearances, and seven times more ‘likes’ on Facebook than the new Indian president, Demonic Resurrection is arguably India’s biggest death metal band. They call themselves “symphonic death metal” or “blackened death metal”, but for the outsider with a rudimentary understanding of metal music and its litany of obscure genres, it is simply death metal. In a nutshell, that means the band combines fast, heavy instrumentation with low, growled, subhuman vocals, occasionally flushing out ghoulish keyboard melodies that might evoke images of bloodthirsty zombies.

Metal has been around in India since the cassette tape-trading, pot-smoking, and cough syrup-downing days of Bangalore bands like Millennium in the late ’80s, but it wasn’t until the birth of homegrown extreme metal bands like Demonic Resurrection and Bhayanak Maut that the genre took on the more punishing sound that characterises it today. Since the early 2000s, India has developed a more devoted death metal fan-base than any other place in the developing world with the possible exception of South America, despite the relative unavailability of the music in stores here. The cult of metal is visible here—nearly everyone who grows up within an urban upper-middle-class milieu knows someone who has been through a serious metal phase. Still, it’s fair to say that most Indians would not understand why Kaith sacrifices his body and sleep to play music that, to them, probably sounds like angry trolls gorging on human flesh.

SAHIL MAKHIJA, the band’s songwriter, guitarist, and chief growler, formed Demonic Resurrection at a time when extreme metal was unknown to the sub-continent. Albums by bands like Cradle of Filth and Cannibal Corpse had to be downloaded at a snail’s pace from dial-up chat rooms in the late ’90s and early ’00s. India’s exposure to metal and hard rock was limited to the mainstream acts showing on MTV, like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses. Makhija wanted to launch his own brand of metal, but DR was too weird for record labels here. So Makhija, who dropped out of college in 2002, started his own: Demonstealer Records, after the metal moniker he, then 19, had given himself and still uses today. While starting a record label is generally regarded as a very ambitious venture, in Makhija’s case it was entered into in a spirit of DIY, with the first edition of the band’s first album, Demonstealer, put down on Kodak Gold CDs that he purchased for Rs40 a piece. His mother helped him assemble the CD sleeves and casings so that he could peddle them at the Strawberry Fields festival held at Bangalore’s National Law School.

In the absence of a clear audience for death metal in the early ’00s, Makhija had to build one from scratch. This meant not only promoting his band in an environment that was never particularly hospitable to indie acts, but having to take on the difficult process of introducing the world’s most brutal music to a public with very little understanding of it. “Metal was mostly a cover band scene when we first started,” Makhija said. “I was the only one doing originals back then.” And of the original DR lineup, he’s the only one who persevered—none of the other musicians who played on DR’s first record is playing metal today.

Neysa Mendes, 29, a Mumbai-based music publicist who runs a self-founded company Little Big Noise, calls DR “the heart and soul of India’s metal scene”. Mendes works with music acts from across India, and acknowledges that it’s somewhat tougher for metal bands to gain visibility here. “The scene doesn’t get any mainstream attention. A folk band gets more attention, even. But I guess that doesn’t matter,” Mendes said. I asked her why and she was quick to respond. “Because metal has the most dedicated fans. These kids will come to any place the band plays. And that makes it different from anything else here.”

Nearly all of Demonic Resurrection’s fans are young men—younger ‘metal heads’ that play in their own bands and want to be just like DR someday. The gender profile at a gig resembles that of an army recruitment centre: if you didn’t know where Blue Frog was on the night of The Road to Bloodstock, you could have found it by following the 15- to 25-year-old boys with chin beards and black t-shirts. One such kid, 16-year-old Anirudh Manoj who wore an Iron Maiden shirt, was part of a group of friends that wanted to get their picture taken with Makhija. When I asked him if he’d be willing to talk for this article, he could barely contain his happiness.

Demonic Resurrection perform at The Road to Bloodstock concert at Blue Frog, Mumbai, on 22 July 2012. ROYCIN D’SOUZA FOR THE CARAVAN

Manoj, who plays in his own band and hopes to be a doctor one day, discovered Demonic Resurrection through YouTube. The video sharing site presents an easy way for this generation of teenagers to get deep into musical niches fairly quickly. For Manoj, that niche was death metal. “I’ve been into it for a little beyond two years,” he said. Manoj is a devout Hindu, and said that he’s not particularly disturbed by the Satanic references in the music because he sees it as being just for fun. In fact, he embraces it all—from Norwegian black metal to stripped-down death metal from the American Great Plains. But the connection Manoj made with Demonic Resurrection went far beyond music. “When I saw an Indian band doing this stuff—Indian guys,” he said, emphasising the word “Indian” more passionately each time. “I said wow. You know? An Indian band doing it—as well as anyone else.”

In addition to being the face of a rabid local scene, Demonic Resurrection is increasing its influence in a global online niche where metal albums are traded, pirated and then rated on blogs haunted by sleepless fans. They won Metal Hammer magazine’s coveted Golden God award for Global Metal in 2010 and are the only domestic act to have achieved that level of visibility in the West. Their first trip to the UK had been scheduled to coincide with the 2011 Sonisphere Festival in England where they were to help open the stage for what metal heads reverently call “the big four”: Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Metallica. But when then they ran into visa trouble and got stuck in India, all the gigs were cancelled. Band members woke up to messages online about kids waving Indian flags in support of a band that never showed up.

Demonic Resurrection receives the Metal Hammer magazine’s coveted Golden God award for Global Metal in London in 2010. WIL IRELAND / METAL HAMmER MAGAZINE / GETY IMAGES

The hard truth about this new era of metal is that it creates a free-for-all, shared landscape where even some of the most famous bands don’t really earn enough to sustain their music. The money Makhija earns from DR and his self-made record label, Demonstealer Records, is, on its best days, only slightly more than he needs to sustain his many creative projects. On the band’s recent trip to England to play at Bloodstock, for example, Makhija claims to have lost money. But on the positive side, he has cultivated an audience of social outcasts throughout the world.

Unlike America, for example, where the death metal audience ranges from eccentric art school students to young, white working class men who toil at gas stations, Indian death metal has a more uniform class dynamic of young men from upper-middle-class families.

“Metal is not for the common man here,” Makhija said. “Most people don’t even have access to Western music.” Fewer still can afford the equipment needed to create it from scratch. Relative to the Indian mean, these guys live enviable lives.

“You have to understand that almost everyone we grew up with would rather go out for a fancy dinner than to a metal show,” Makhija laments. “So, the pull is always out there. Anyone in the band could just give up metal and rejoin that world at any time.”

Demonic Resurrection has survived since 2000 in large part because of Makhija’s stubborn refusal to join the world of “fancy dinners”, as he calls it. Regardless of what you personally think of his taste in music, it’s difficult not to be impressed by his self-sustained professionalism in a world without clearly defined professional boundaries.

Makhija’s unusually ferocious work ethic is mirrored in his stage persona. Just by taking off his glasses and letting his hair down, the usually gentle young man can very suddenly seem like a new person. When he growls on the mic, the vocals seem to come from some dark, animalistic place inside him. But when the show is over, he goes right back to being his somewhat nerdy self—pleasant, self-deprecating, and slightly quirky. He’s an entertainer, a showman whose personality is at odds with the impression of metal musicians as gloomy devil worshippers.

“I think people who associate metal with Satanism and so forth don’t really get it. The lyrics aren’t really important,” he explained. “They’re no different from, say, the Lord of The Rings trilogy or something like that. I just make up stories about ancient kings and demons or whatever else. Even bands like Cannibal Corpse, with their lyrics about dismembering bodies, find their equivalent in the Saw movies.” The Demonic Resurrection song ‘Dismembering the Fallen’ from its album The Return to Darkness (2010) ends with the following lines, which, depending on your point of view, could be the depiction of a stomach-churning gore fest, or something much campier, like an Evil Dead movie.

“Torn limb from limb/The bodies are piled/The stench of death and/Vile, filthy, dirty, rotting flesh/Charge! Attack!/The time is now/To raise the blade/And send them back from whence they came”

When Makhija isn’t playing metal he runs an Internet cooking show called Headbanger’s Kitchen. The format is simple: he cooks something for the viewer. Sometimes he has guests. Then the show ends. His passion for adding the right amount of seasoning to a summer salad can be simultaneously perplexing and disarming for someone who found the show while doing a Google search for Satanic anthems.

While Makhija is a respected figure on the Indian metal scene today, audiences weren’t so welcoming when he started out in 2002. For starters, they didn’t understand why he would call himself the “Demonstealer” because they weren’t familiar with the self-mythologising Norwegian acts that he was trying to emulate.

Jetesh Menon, the longest serving member of Demonic Resurrection apart from Makhija, remembers the frontman as being a kind of laughing stock then—“a bit of a joke” he recalled, teasingly. “People used to make fun of him,” Menon said. “Sahil used to call himself the Demonstealer, you know, and talk a lot of shit on message boards. That sort of thing. People didn’t get the whole international style he was going for…. One gig he’d have one line up and then next gig he’d have an entirely new one,” recalled Menon. “People used to say Sahil was crazy.” But for Makhija, it was the only way he could do what he loved. “I was just trying to play as many shows as I could back then so if someone couldn’t play I’d just find someone who could,” he said.

Menon, who joined DR in 2002, was an unlikely convert to Makhija’s music. His mother was an English teacher at Model English School in Dombivli and he said he “had to keep in line” as a kid. Part of a regular middle-class household in Mumbai, Menon grew up listening mostly to Bollywood, apart from the occasional Guns ’n’ Roses album. He even trained in Indian classical music as a harmonium player until his high school graduation. He didn’t discover aggressive metal until a friend at his college, South Indian Education Society, turned him onto the iconic American thrash band Slayer. Menon, a chemistry student, connected right away with the visceral anger. “It was the right thing for the right time,” he said, wistfully. Menon bought a keyboard of his own because he felt it was the only way he could translate his harmonium training into a job with a metal band.

“I taught myself to play [metal] on a little keyboard, the kind that had demos of ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Jingle Bells’,” he recalled. “Merry Christmas type songs.”

In Menon, Makhija had found someone who was willing to make a serious commitment to metal. When he met Menon, the latter had already given himself the name “Mephisto”, which suited his long hair and chin beard. (Before the Road to Bloodstock gig, for a change of style, he finally shaved off his hair.) Menon has worked several serious advertising jobs in the past, despite his nearly decade-long commitment to death metal, and though recently he began a prolonged leave of absence to focus on music, Makhija still worries that Menon will succumb to the world of ‘fancy dinners’. “With the money he stands to make in advertising, even five years down the road,” Makhija said, “DR doesn’t have a chance to pay half of that.”

Jetesh Menon, Sahil Makhija and Ashwin Sharayan during their trip to UK to participate in Bloodstock Open Air festival. COURTESY DEMONIC RESURRECTION

He also worries about Kaith, the second-oldest DR member after Menon. Drummers are hard to come by on the Indian metal scene because not many people can play the instrument; the ones that can, can’t play fast enough to keep up. Makhija, who is painfully aware of the situation, taught himself to play drums in the event of an emergency since finding a back-up guitarist, he thinks, would be a lot easier. (Makhija even plays drums for a retro cock-rock act called Hellwind.) But the band still knows they have a rare player in Kaith. Having joined DR during the making of its 2007 EP Beyond the Darkness, Kaith brought stability to the most fragile position in the band, and along with it his vampire-sleeping schedule and willingness to sacrifice. “One thing about Viru,” Menon said with admiration, “he never quits a band he’s in. He was always the last one to leave when things were falling apart.”

Makhija, however, sees this as both a positive and a negative. Kaith also drums for the hardcore/metal band (and Demonstealer Records label mates) Scribe. From Makhija’s perspective, Kaith is too generous in spreading his coveted talent around. “He won’t quit our band,” Makhija said wryly. “But he won’t quit any other band either.”

Like both Kaith and Menon, Makhija too requires additional sources of income to sustain his career in death metal. He works for Furtados Music as an Arts Relations and Events Manager, a post he’s held for several years now. Furtados sells musical instruments, and acts as a magnet for guitar freaks that come in to sample the merchandise. One such freak who came in was a young guitarist named Daniel Rego, whom Makhija recruited as a replacement for the vacated post of lead guitarist in 2010. Rego was just an 18-year-old kid, riffing out in Furtados. “He was playing metal when I met him,” Makhija recounted. “He was playing some Demonic Resurrection songs, actually.”

Daniel Rego was just eight years old when Sahil formed the band. A year later, at age nine, he was already playing guitar. Rego’s parents divorced early in his life, and his father moved to Oman for work. A big hair metal fan with a particular attraction to the campy British rockers Def Leppard, Rego’s father used to send his son guitar tablatures from Oman to encourage him to play music. Rego discovered Iron Maiden’s comeback album Brave New World through MTV, and began a lifelong love affair with the more technical side of heavy metal. He discovered the Quebecoise death metal band Cryptopsy when he read a blurb about them in a magazine, and got deeper into darker, more obscure bands. “I was attracted to the aggression. I was a bit of an outsider,” Rego admitted shyly. I asked him whether that had anything to do with his parents divorce. “I guess it’s possible,” he said, smiling.

Rego joined the band in time to play on 2010’s The Return to Darkness, the album that earned the band their Golden God award. When he played his first gig with the band, only about five minutes from his family home in Borivali, Rego invited his entire family to watch, aunts and uncles included.

Rego wears short hair and glasses and has a slight beard. He looks like a geek more than a metal guitarist, an impression enhanced by his encyclopaedic memory for bands and albums. The first time I met him, I mentioned a death metal band from the US, called Disma. “From New Jersey,” he said without blinking and went on to describe the band’s dingy, guttural sound in detail. Apart from DR, Rego also plays in a band inspired by American country music, and before that, he was with a Christian rock band called Gsus (pronounced “Jesus”). “There were several months of overlap when I was actually playing Christian rock in Gsus and playing death metal for Demonic Resurrection,” said Rego, laughing.

Rego is a freelance guitar teacher and a sessions’ guitarist and ends up taking random gigs throughout India, adapting rapidly to the needs and sounds of each job. He recently played guitar in a Michael Jackson tribute band that performed across the subcontinent. On another occasion, he played Justin Bieber songs at a promotional event for Mattel toys in a local mall—an assignment that got him a lot of good-natured flak from band mates. “Please make sure you put that in your article,” Makhija, who treats Rego like a younger brother, told me during one of the bands playful ribbing sessions.

The other young member of DR, Ashwin Sharayan, also came to the band as a fan of their music, earlier this spring. The 23-year-old stepped in earlier this year to replace longtime bassist Husain Bandukwala, who remains active as the band’s manager. Sharayan and Rego, as youthful additions, share an enthusiasm that keeps the band vital. Makhija, always the realist, puts things more bluntly. “The younger guys still have a few years,” he said, “before real life catches up with them.”

The first time I met Sharayan, he was late for a recording session in Makhija’s bedroom, and the band’s unquestioned leader was ragging him for being a stoner as the rest of the band and I picked over the remnants of a veg pakora order from the beach restaurant downstairs.

Sharayan stands out, and not only for his dreadlocks—on the day I met him, he was the only member of the band not wearing black, opting instead for a South Park shirt featuring an image of Cartman along with the catchphrase “Screw you guys”.

“He smokes up,” Makhija informed me.

“Fair enough,” I said.

“Not all the time,” Sharayan said.

“We always have one in every lineup,” Makhija said.

Demonic Resurrection, it might surprise you, is a fairly  sober band. My first impulse was to assume that, at the very least, pot was part of the creative process that resulted in songs with titles like ‘Where Dreams and Darkness Unite’, but Sharayan’s occasional intoxication is actually the exception and not the rule.

“I mean in all the music we listen to,” Sharayan said coyly, “wasn’t everybody high?”

When Sharayan and I spoke at length for the first time, it was over coffee at the Phoenix Mall in Lower Parel, a short walk from Blue Frog, where he was just about to play his first ever gig with the band. He works and studies sound engineering at Digital Academy in Andheri East, which he hopes will prevent him from having to, in his words, “work in a bank”. At age 23, he’s already the veteran of several transient metal bands from Mumbai. Makhija discovered him when they collaborated on a side-project act called Reptilian Death.

Jetesh Menon, Sahil Makhija, Viru Kaith and Daniel Rego before Demonic Resurrection’s set at Bloodstock Open Air. COURTESY DEMONIC RESURRECTION

Sharayan joined the band at an ideal time—just before the UK tour and the big Bloodstock appearance, arguably the band’s most important concert to date. The festival was to be headlined by rock legend Alice Cooper. “I’m damn excited,” he told me. I told him how impressed I was that he was playing with Cooper, but Sharayan didn’t really know much about him. I recounted an anecdote about Cooper firing pistols with Elvis Presley at Graceland. Sharayan was unmoved. Just playing with Demonic Resurrection, it would appear, means more. He has grown up in the world of Indianised metal, with its own venues, its own rules, and its own heroes. And for a young kid growing up in Mumbai, the name Sahil Makhija might just be a more familiar one than Alice Cooper.

Their indigenous brand of metal was on full display at Blue Frog this past July, when I saw Demonic Resurrection live for the first time. It was Sharayan’s first performance with the band and he was nervous, but he didn’t look like a newcomer. His dreads shook like octopus limbs as he head-banged through the breezy hour-and-ten-minute set. The music at the gig sounded exactly like it does on the record: polished, airtight and fierce. Makhija is the only member who interacts with the crowd and he does it mainly to get them charged. “How many of you are seeing us for the first time?” he yelled. More than half the crowd raised their hands. “Well, okay then.” And then it was onto the next song. Hard, fast and clean. The band closed with the song ‘The Unrelenting Surge of Vengeance’ and in the frenzy of screaming, Makhija accidentally smashed his lips and teeth against the microphone.

The dedication Mendes speaks about in Indian metal, the willingness to travel and to sacrifice in order to keep it going is apparent in fans as well as bands. “It’s always fascinating to see the [upscale and electronic] Blue Frog scene turn into Razz,” Mendes said, referring to the club Razzberry Rhinoceros, located in the Juhu Hotel, that was once a hub of live rock in the city. Many of the young men who make up the crowd at DR shows have bands of their own. Makhija identifies with the struggles of younger metal bands trying to make it on the treacherous and daunting Indian scene. At The Road to Bloodstock, Demonic Resurrection gave a much younger act, Dark Helm, a deathcore band from Pune, an opportunity to open for them. Pune doesn’t have a lot of places to play gigs outside of the festival NH7, which makes a trip to Mumbai that much more important. The Road to Bloodstock was as good an opportunity as these guys could hope to get.

“We left with two cars carrying seven people from Pune at about 12 pm and arrived in Mumbai at 4 pm,” the Dark Helm vocalist Ravish Salelkar told me. “I don’t even remember what time we got home.” The gig ended late on a Sunday night and Salelkar, a student of psychology, informed me that most of the band had work early the next morning in Pune. But they were delighted at the chance to play with reigning heroes of the local scene.

I asked Makhija about the white domination of the global metal scene, whether it bothered him at all that some people in the UK crowd might resent an Indian band taking the stage. He said he didn’t think twice about it. “There’s always going to be people who say who are these Indian kids, who do they think they are,” he said. “But I think if you put on a real kick-ass show, well, you’ve done all you can.”

A look at Demonic Resurrection’s YouTube clips and the comments that follow makes it clear that a majority of death metal followers are looking at Demonic Resurrection as serious challengers to Western metal. “NOW I’m proud to be an Indian,” reads one comment on the thread for DR’s video, ‘The Unrelenting Surge of Vengeance’. “Fuck this Paki wanker,” reads another.

Viru Kaith, who plays the drums for Demonic Resurrection, is widely sought after in the Indian metal circuit. COURTESY DEMONIC RESURRECTION

PHOTOS POSTED BY THE BAND of their gig at Bloodstock show a vast, screaming audience, not unlike the kind you might see at a more mainstream pop show. It makes clear why they go through the sacrifices they do—in the world of death metal, because of the festivals and the fans, you sometimes have a shot at being received with a passion reserved only for the richest and most elite pop stars, even if it means a trip back to dull, predictable normality just a day later. But to reach there from Mumbai you have to be harsh, bleak, technically pure, and twice as passionate as any local garage band in the West. It explains the willingness of Demonic Resurrection members to be defined by a love of the dark and the obscure. It explains Makhija’s relentless efforts to replenish his band with talent and promote them with all his resources. And it explains big, quiet Viru Kaith coming home alone from band practice to sleep for a few hours—just before another night at the call centre.