- Interview by Faye Coulman
A PERFECT STORM: Egyptian death metal masters Scarab talk chaos, cosmic upheaval and epic new full-l
From brutal bouts of famine, drought and flash flooding to the devastating international pandemic that’s presently decimating hundreds of thousands of lives across the globe, the terrifying fragility of our own mortality has, in the year 2020, never appeared more keenly clear and apparent. Yet for all the unimaginable horror and destruction these savage elemental forces are capable of inflicting, there’s no denying the pivotal moments of civilisation-altering change, revolution and enlightenment born in these violently turbulent throes of suffering and catastrophe. And as an act that owes as much to deliciously brutalising aggression as it does to profoundly observed musings on the mysteries of the universe, Egyptian wrecking crew Scarab are only too expertly versed in grappling with such darkly destructive cosmic forces.
“I apologise for the background noise outside, I'm afraid that’s very much the general ambience here 24/7,” chuckles Scarab frontman, Sammy Sayed, raising his voice in order to be heard over what sounds like an angry mob running riot in the street just outside his home in the hectic urban heart of Giza, Egypt. Politely excusing himself for a short moment, he ventures to his window to investigate the fracas a little further before cheerfully reporting back, “It’s all good. I think it’s just a gang fight. I’m sure it’s going to calm down soon because it looks like they don’t have weapons or anything like that, but I think I’ll just close the window now so we can have a little bit of quiet,” he adds with all the casual, unflappable calm of a genteel old schoolmaster returning to his class after breaking up a minor skirmish in the playground.
Suffice to say, then, that this potent prevailing atmosphere of ever-brewing disorder and unrest has long been a familiar fixture for this talented collective of musicians. Indeed, listening to the Egyptians’ violently energised blending of hyperblasting brute force and searingly intricate technical detail, it could be argued that such darkly turbulent energies are a vital, perhaps even innate, defining feature of Scarab’s uniquely crafted sonic identity. Having figured prominently in the mix from the very moment the five-piece first erupted into being back in 2006, it’s clear just how integral a role these darkly chaotic impulses have played over the past couple of decades.
“In the beginning, the energy that was coming to us was the energy of just pure rebellion,” Sammy affirms. “Anger and rebellion. Not to be judgemental or anything like that, but in a childish sort of way, and there is an archetype that may represent that and it’s called Horus as a child. He was just angry and wanted to fuck shit up, until he grew up and became a wise warrior, but what I mean is the idea of an aeon of rebellion. This is what our debut album ‘Blinding the Masses’ right now would be about, hence the name ‘Blinding the Masses’. Like, you feel like there is something controlling you and you just wanna break the chains and break the idea of…you want to subvert any form of power that you feel is controlling you. And then, ‘Serpents of the Nile’ is, after you have subverted and broken all the chains, created a disaster, suddenly you realise that what you’ve done is just nothing but chaos which is good because chaos is the origin of everything. Then you start to understand, throughout the album of ‘Serpents…’ that you have to change from within yourself because you have been blaming and pointing your fingers at everything around you, but you have forgotten the idea of individuality and the path of individuality. This is the true rebellion, to become a master of yourself from the inside, not to blame other aspects of your life and not even to blame yourself but to understand that you are in control of everything. The idea itself that you can become aware of that and finally become awake and actually start to take responsibility for your own life.”
Indeed, it’s evident that the exceptionally troubled modern era in which we find ourselves has serviced Scarab with no shortage of bleakly inspiring creative fuel over the course of their illustrious decade and a half-long career to date. With these earthly struggles playing a pivotal role in the spiritual growth and enlightenment of this deeply introspective circle of musicians, this seemingly logical progression from directionless naivety and chaos to a state of elevated self-awareness was, quite surprisingly, anything but intentionally planned or premeditated. Channelling these violently energised impulses into an intensive new creative phase that would take a full five years to finally bring to fruition, 2020 follow-up ‘Martyrs of the Storm’ saw Sayed and co.’s characteristically spontaneous approach to the songwriting process serve them exceptionally well in the weeks and months that followed.
The composer elaborates: “We sort of channel energy very much in the spur of the moment and then we start to analyse it more, meddle around with it and edit it until we’re in the studio jams in the rehearsal space. Then we start the recording and before I write the lyrics we first come up with the titles of the tracks on the album and that’s about it. Our guitarist Al-Sharif Marzeban, he’s the one who comes up with most of them and then I’ll be interpreting the energy of the track and what it may represent in a very much automatic writing matter. Basically, I just will myself to unite with each song individually and it’s kind of a ritualistic effort where I write down the lyrics automatically. It may make no sense initially but then I’ll start to make sense out of the nonsense and then we have the lyrics. So basically after the album is recorded, we start to analyse it bit by bit and write down concepts based on what we have analysed from the album itself, so it’s the other way round. We don’t start with a concept, we end with a concept. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but the whole album is about the idea of nature rebelling against humanity and the idea of the shadow aspect of the self coming to the fore to face the conscious mind of the human being as a personal experience. So it’s a major and a personal experience, like a cosmic upheaval and it’s, at the same time, a cosmic upheaval within the psyche of the individual itself.”
From the civilisation-altering outbreak of COVID-19 and its violent ravages on an entire world population, its composite countries, states, districts and communities filtering right down to the private anguish of individuals battling to preserve some semblance of sanity in these unprecedented times, it fast became apparent that ‘Martyrs…’ was destined to channel something on a scale more grandiose than its creators could ever have imagined. Surrendering themselves utterly to the darkly compelling cosmic energies that would be instrumental in directing the resulting shape and form of this multi-faceted monster of a long-player, Sayed and co-writer Al-Sharif began the intensive process of piecing together their latest musical vision in painstakingly meticulous detail. From a recording and engineering process that took place in a bewildering multiplicity of different stages to the varied wealth of guest musicians carefully selected to contribute their unique respective talents the resulting record, it’s hard to imagine a cohesive whole emerging out of such a vastly expansive assortment of different sonic elements. And yet, despite the record's genre-transcending scope and complexity, it appears that each and every one of these distinctly separate musical personas, influences and traditions plays its part in the scheme of something altogether greater and more broadly all-encompassing.
“I believe that ‘Martyrs…’ is even bigger than us as a band or as individuals,” Sammy asserts with audible passion and conviction. “We wrote the music and everything, but it all feels a little bit beyond us somehow and the fact that we invited musicians from all around the globe was Al-Sharif’s idea. In the beginning I wasn’t wholly convinced but I believe I was a little bit…” he hesitates in contemplation for a moment. “I didn’t want something new to happen, I wanted to stick to my band members. But this experience itself felt like… I would write emails to the bands just expressing the energy of what this music may or not represent and somehow they interpreted every track just perfectly and the resulting album is like a powerful statement of unity. Music can become beyond the ego and I don’t want to be pretentious, but it feels that there is something larger than ourselves that is taking action here.”
With both music and lyrics finally in place, writerly duo Sayed and Al-Sharif turned their attentions to the far from simplistic matter of sourcing a cover art concept capable of capturing this mind-boggling plethora of musical energies down to the most meticulously observed fine details. Exquisitely rich in the defining characteristics of each uniquely distinctive track while, in the same breath, interconnecting every individual piece and component with a seemingly effortless seamlessness of design, ‘Martyrs of the Storm’ finally found richly symbolic representation via the work of no less than five different artists.
“That’s true, altogether there are five,” Sammy confirms. “As I was trying to explain to you, this record is a real breaker of egos because every time we think only one person is going to be working on it and finish a particular aspect of the process, it never works like that. For example, we thought that we were going to finish the album when we recorded the guitars, but no. Then we recorded drums and then the vocals elsewhere and then this place where we recorded the vocals is where we mixed and mastered the music and obviously all the musicians recorded their instruments in their respective home towns and cities. And the exact same thing happened with the artwork, the person who did the front cover, her name is Fiona Garcia, and basically I had some references in my mind that I was telling her about. Like the ancient Egyptian calendar, it is an eight-pointed star and looks like the chaos sphere, so we wanted to do the same thing with an octagon-like star and around this chaos sphere there is the storm and it’s like the extremity of the elements - fire, water, air and earth. And inside of the chaos sphere is me and Al-Sharif because at the time, when we were working on ‘Martyrs…’, it was just me and him. You can say that inside of the chaos sphere is the totality of the energy captured or compressed into this small chaos sphere; that’s why there’s so much detail and every single detail relates to the individual details contained within each song.”
With each of these individual narratives, musical influences and traditions comprising a meticulously plotted network of constellations within the greater galaxy of the album as a complete and fully cohesive body of work, there’s no doubt that Scarab have here crafted something truly monumental in scope - universal yet intimately personal, brutal yet darkly atmospheric, chaotic yet calculating and purposeful. Born of a freely enquiring and experimental creative mind, it’s unsurprising that Sayed has long been a passionate advocate of artistic freedom and its potential for enabling the very finest creative output imaginable.
“We don’t like to abide by rules. Art is about freedom so we can fuck around with things if we want to and make our own thing out of it. We’re not trying to reinterpret history, but we’re channelling art so all these things are connected anyway, and as far as mysticism goes, we’re mainly speaking about the same thing: the idea of oneness. There’s a lot of people from different places who have their energy in this album somehow; different continents, different countries. It’d be interesting to map all these countries and see what shape it would create on a map - most likely an inverted pentagram or something,” he playfully quips in closing.
'Martyrs of the Storm' is out now via ViciSolum Productions