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East of Hell: Black Metal in Indonesia

Matthieu Canaguiers stunning film East of Hell is a stunning documentary of Indonesias black metal scene. It portrays a highly indigenized music scene in which western codes mingle with Indonesian beliefs.

Indonesian black metal band Sacrifice (Photo © by Amortout)

When most people think of black metal, they think of Scandinavia. But these days there are more black metal enthusiasts in hot southern countries than cold northern ones, more fans of corpse paint and blast beats in places like Indonesia than Norway. You read that right – in fact, millions more. But what does black metal mean to performers and listeners in a developing country far from its origins? How does it relate to everyday life and interface with local culture? East of Hell, a visually stunning new film by Matthieu Canaguier, offers no answers, but its gripping portrait of black metal in urban Indonesia illustrates how thoroughly indigenized black metal music and its related practices have become in that part of the world.

East of Hells concert footage is visceral and intense, displaying the total commitment of both performers and audiences. Audiences of the film may well be perplexed by this commitment, which Canaguier does not seek to explain, though at times he seems to suggest a link between black metal and traditional spirit beliefs that corroborates findings from my 1999-2000 field research in the black metal scene in Java and Bali. This affinity, of course, is hardly the whole story; other metal genres may lack black metal’s spiritual dimension, but as is clear from the T-shirts worn by participants at shows in the film, black metal fans have strong allegiances to the larger Indonesian underground metal scene. Thus black metal cannot be understood apart from the global conquest of heavy metal in general.

Though most non-metalheads in the West are completely unaware of the phenomenon, metal’s globalization has been going on for over three decades and has made metal music more globally ubiquitous than McDonald’s. And the most extreme types of metal are the most popular of all, especially in poorer nations. For its part, ever since Deep Purple first played Jakarta back in 1975, Indonesia has been a Metal Republic. Even Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s current president, is a die-hard fan.

Joko Widodo is Indonesia’s current president and a die-hard metal fan (Photo © Revolvermag)

To most Indonesian metalheads, then, the idea that metal isn’t really «Indonesian» because it’s a foreign import is nonsensical. So while black metal may seek to shock and transgress, in Indonesia it’s not nearly as shocking as one might expect if all one knew about Indonesians is that they tend to be more religious than Europeans, since for many Indonesians metal is a familiar, unspectacular part of everyday life. In addition to Indonesian bands whose looks and sounds owe obvious debts to veterans in the international black metal scene such as Chthonic and Immortal, East of Hell features Sacrifice [1], whose vocalist performs in traditional Javanese garb and sings/growls lyrics inspired by local mythology and the precolonial kingdom of Mataram – a Javanese-ancient-warrior answer to Norse Viking metal. For this unique-sounding band alone this compelling, confounding, cacophonous short film is worth catching.