Meet Saudi Arabia's Only Grindcore Band (That We Know Of)

What it takes to melt some faces in Riyadh.
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Creative Waste, a metal band from Saudi Arabia. (Orlando Crowcroft)

Qatif, the balmy oasis city in northeastern Saudi Arabia, is not a place you would expect to find an extreme metal scene.

But the city that has been the center of unrest during Saudi Arabia's Arab Spring uprisings is also home to the kingdom's only grindcore band, Creative Waste, fronted by singer and Saudi metal stalwart Fawaz Al Shawaf.

At 26, Fawaz is old enough to remember better days for Saudi Arabia's heavy metal scene, which consists of around 30 bands spread from Dammam and Al Khobar in the eastern province, through the capital Riyadh and the Najd, to "liberal" Jeddah on the country's Red Sea coast.

This in a country where so many of the themes associated, rightly or wrongly, with extreme heavy metal -- live shows, alcohol, and apostasy -- are forbidden.

"We always had to improvise to the best of our ability without alerting authorities, mainly the religious police," Fawaz recalls of the mid-2000s, when Saudi Arabia's scene was at its most dynamic, with gigs held at least once a year.

"We would band together with like-minded friends and organize do-it-yourself public gigs in private areas while still abiding by the rules -- no mixed-gender gatherings and no alcohol -- which helped build an extremely underground scene."

That all changed in May 2009, when a live show in Riyadh -- Saudi Arabia's strict Wahabbi heartland -- got out of hand, with hundreds of people showing up at an expatriate compound. When the police arrived, two organizers were arrested; one, a Syrian, was deported and his Saudi counterpart jailed for year.

There has not been a live rock or metal show in Saudi Arabia since.

"The promoters got reckless," says Fawaz, who had helped organize a number of shows in his native eastern province prior to 2009.

"They sold too many tickets in an attempt to cash in, and that ultimately led to the death of the live rock and metal music scene."

Creative Waste were not beaten by the change in fortunes for the country's metalheads, and instead turned overseas, contacting promoters in New York and eventually playing in Manhattan and Maryland in 2010 and 2011.



That was followed by a support slot with U.S. death metal titans Hate Eternal in Dubai in 2012, and in 2013, they got their biggest gig yet in a slot at the Obscene Extreme festival in Mexico, sharing a bill with grindcore legends Napalm Death.

Not that playing overseas is always hassle-free for the band. On the way back from playing with Hate Eternal in Dubai, Fawaz and fellow members Talal and Essam were stopped at the Saudi border. The police objected to the black t-shirts scrawled with white logos -- a trademark of death metal bands. Fawaz quite literally lost the shirt on his back.

"We tried to talk and reach an understanding with them, but we could only minimize the blow. We lost our band shirts and our only Creative Waste banner. But you really can't question the authorities here unless you're looking for trouble," Fawaz says.

Trouble is rarely far away in Saudi Arabia's eastern province, which despite being the site of the country's multi-billion dollar oil industry is also home to the country's Shia population.

Considered heretics by many of Saudi Arabia's Sunni conservatives, the Shia complain of discrimination and police brutality, and protests in cities like Qatif remain a weekly occurrence despite a brutal -- and largely unreported -- crackdown.

For Fawaz and the band, the unrest has become an unfortunate part of life, with their efforts focused on keeping out of trouble.

"There were many arrests and shootings during these protests in the early days of the movement but things have calmed down since then," says Fawaz.

"Now police checkpoints have been placed at the entrance to the city, and before the protests were going to take place, myself and many others received text messages from an unknown source blatantly threatening prison time for a number of years if you get caught participating."

Not that the band's latest album, Slaves to Conformity, shies away from addressing the issues that they face in contemporary Saudi Arabia. Fawaz's lyrics, screamed as he stalks across the stage, tackle issues of corruption and inequality in the face of vast unemployment -- which officials recently put as high as two million -- and a widening gap between rich and poor.

But they also deal with Saudi Arabia's conservatism, from the perspective of young, educated Saudis.

"Most of our country's problems stem from an old generation unwilling to let go of certain traditions that actually collide with the belief system they claim to follow," says Fawaz.

"Saudis are generally born into a conservative environment, but with more and more leaving the country to go to college, we're starting to see attitudes change. What we need to capitalize on in our country is communicating to people that different perspectives aren't necessarily bad things."

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Orlando Crowcroft is a freelance journalist based in London.

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