Jul 082010

Today we present Part 2 of our three-part series on North African metal. Yesterday we explained that we started down this dune-swept road by looking for Egyptian metal. Somewhere along the way, we stumbled across bands from some other North African countries, including the subjects of today’s post — Sawlegen and Barzakh.


Sawlegen is a Moroccan band. The first of their songs I heard was an instrumental called “Streets of Agrabah”, and it dropped me in my tracks like I’d been shot through the skull with a nail gun.

I tracked down the rest of the songs on Sawlegen’s sole album (2007’s Stories From An Old Empire), and I’ve never heard anything quite like them. “Streets of Agrabah” remains my favorite, but the whole album is a fascinating mix of contrasting styles, and on the whole it’s a riveting experience.

If I were to attempt a high-level description (which I guess I’m now doing), I would say it’s an amalgamation of folk metal and symphonic black metal, but with an infusion of exotic oriental melody and song structures that build to ever-more feverish crescendos. Staying at a high level, and relying on Western idiom, I would also say this album fucking rocks.  (more after the jump, including a song to hear . . .)

One way to understand the album is as a progression. The first track (“Mustears”) is an instrumental intro where piano is the dominant instrument and an entrancing melody swells with growing emotional force from beginning to end.

The second track (“Darkness Be My Bride”) also features a piano melody, with a harmonizing synthesizer, a clean guitar lead, and a clear, strong, beautiful female vocal. As the song moves forward, the bass and the drum pick up the pace, and the synthesizer-driven melody builds in intensity.

If the first two tracks were as far as you got, you’d think Sawlegen was a folk-metal band with an oriental twist. But the third track (“Melancophoria”) is a wake-up call and a sure sign that things aren’t quite what you thought they were. On this track, the beautiful melodies and the clean female vocals are joined by grinding riffs, shrill, swirling guitar leads, double-bass pummeling — and serrated black-metal howls. At almost the 3-minute mark, the band punches the accelerator, and the song begins to spin with growing abandon.

In the songs that follow, the contrasts continue, as do the vibrancy of the music and the remarkable variety of the instrumentation — grinding riffage, swirling keyboards, jackhammer drums, piano arpeggios, blazing guitar solos, and what sound like traditional instruments but could be simply special tuning of the guitars or synthesizer mimicry.

The mix of feral black-metal shrieking and the beautiful, clean contralto vocals also continue. For me, that took some getting used-to, but what hooked me completely on this album, from the first listen, were Sawlegen’s instrumental jams (with and without vocal accompaniment). Most of the songs put me in mind of dervish dances, whirling faster and faster with building intensity and power — just as the album as a whole can be understood as a mounting surge of musical frenzy.

“Streets of Agrabah” is perhaps the purest example of Sawlegen jamming like a motherfucker — because it has no vocals at all. In a word, the song is inspired, and in my book its only flaw is that it ended. If you don’t get carried away by the music, I’ll eat my fez.   Check it out:

Sawlegen: Streets of Agrabah

Oh, hell, let’s go ahead and put up the long song that follows “Streets” on the album, so you can get the full deluge of Sawlegen craziness, including those mixed vocals.

Sawlegen: De Profundis Clamavi

And if you like this swirling intensity, the good news is that you can download all the tracks on Stories From An Old Empire, except the bonus acoustic versions of “Streets of Agrabah” and “Melancophoria” that come with the album, at the band’s Last.fm site.


Barzakh is a band from Tunisia, and as in the case of Sawlegen, I was first struck by what I heard on their MySpace page. But I had more trouble finding out current information about the band than any of the others featured in this series despite a crapload of web sleuthing.

Of course, it’s possible that my inability to read French is part of the problem — but as best I can tell, it does appear the band has been on a hiatus of sorts.

What I can tell you is that Barzakh produced a 2008 demo called Noor, and their MySpace page features a couple of songs (“Alive” and “Forsen”) that appear to post-date Noor.

There’s also a player at this location that allows streaming of four Barzakh songs, 3 of which aren’t on the band’s MySpace page (the most interesting ones on that player are “Wa9tech” and “Final Day”.)

And, according to a post on the band’s Facebook page, they’re working on new music for release in September or October, which may explain the appearance of “Alive” and “Forsen” on their MySpace.

OK, so much for telling you what I know about the band — onward to the music. Starting again at a high level, most of the songs are mid-tempo progressive- and power-metal with exclusively clean, soaring vocals (in Arabic), spiced up with some traditional-sounding percussive instruments.

One song (“Borken”) is more a soft alt-rock ballad than anything else — until about the 3:50 mark, when a respectable arena-rock guitar solo takes over.

The Noor-vintage songs are well-written, memorable pieces — but most aren’t exactly our style. The two new songs are a different breed of cat.

“Forsen” launches with traditional drumming that produces a sound like a conga, and that’s quickly joined by chugging riffs that jolt you with an infectious beat. “Alive” is the song that first grabbed our attention. It’s an instrumental number and, like “Forsen”, it features traditional percussion — plus some hammering double-bass, a fiendishly infectious headbanging rhythm riff, and a guitar lead that spins out an eastern melody. It’s a cool, catchy head-bobbing song.

We’ve struck out in our efforts to find a way to buy or download Barzakh’s music, but we did find one track we can stream directly via a link on this site. It’s apparently a song that members of Barzakh created when they were in a previous band called Madside, but it’s similar in style to the new songs up on the Barzakh MySpace page.  The stream comes from a web site and forum called ZanZana that covers Tunisian metal bands. Check out the song, and then go listen to “Alive” and “Forsen” on Barzakh’s MySpace.

Madside: wa9tech


  1. Dammit, where’s that nail gun? I think I need top stop visiting daily, since you keep finding some awesome stuff to listen to while I’m trying to get through some other tunes at the same time. No fez dinner for you today!

    Both bands have that Middle-Eastern/Oriental vibe that some of their fellow bands to the east have, among them Amaseffer (which I’m not sure you’ll like, but worth checking out), Orphaned Land (same, but very highly recommended) or Distorted (which Miri – the female singer in System Divide – was once a member of). Of course, there are other bands that have these elements, and they aren’t all Israeli bands like these bands I’ve mentioned are.

    With Sawlegen, “Streets Of Agrabah” is certainly the best track, with “Darkness Be My Bride” a close second. Here they do remind me most of Orphaned Land (who are easily near the top of my faves list, sometimes at #1, depending on my mood and what I’ve been listening to lately). The other songs do have some of that in there, but don’t sound nearly as refined. Unfortunately, the songs from last.fm suffer the same fate as anything else I’ve downloaded from there; they aren’t as loud as they should be and I think the quality isn’t quite as good as the bitrate (128 kbps) would suggest. Still, it’s decent enough to get a good idea of what to expect.

    As for Barzakh, “Wa9tech” sounds exactly the same, so maybe they just carried it over. I like all four tracks from the page you linked to, but I was most impressed by “Final Day”. Truly fucking awesome.

    Given what you’ve dug up for us in the past couple posts, I look forward to part 3, even if it means even more tunes to distract me from what I’m trying to get done.

    • Not familiar with Amaseffer but have been meaning to check out Distorted and to see what all the hub-bub is about on Orphaned Land. I didn’t get the Sawlegen songs from Last.fm but found a good-quality download. SInce the band itself is still making the music available for free, and I can’t find any way to buy it, I didn’t have a problem getting it that way.

      Not sure what you’ll think about Part 3, but I have a feeling it will be the toughest for you to like, if I’m gauging your interests correctly.

      • Distorted has clean female vocals and harsh male vocals. Not sure if you’ll like how much Miri or Michel have to sing or how they’re placed in the mix, but it’s not like they were the only singers; I guess you could say this fits with the beauty and beast style, just with less beast. Michel has since left the band and they have a new female singer, but I haven’t heard anything with her, as she joined a few months ago. Listen to a few songs before passing judgment.

        Amaseffer might not be to your liking, but if you can take powerful clean singing, it’s some of Mats Leven’s best work, if not at the top of the list. I found the music to be pretty awesome (nothing too heavy, but there’s enough there to make it work) and the album sounds epic (or as I said when writing about it, it’s the heavy metal soundtrack to “The Ten Commandments”), as it should be, since it deals with the Exodus. Slaves For Life is only the first album in a planned trilogy. I haven’t had time to see what progress they’ve made on part two, but it looks like it’s nearing completion.

        Then there’s Orphaned Land, a band often considered at the top of Israel’s metal heap, and for good reason. A lot of people hate them as well, and it’s not just because of the music, but rather their message of unity among the Abrahamic religions. How many bands can say they have Jewish fans singing in Arabic or Arabs singing the Hebrew parts and everyone just getting along and having a good time? Their older stuff is more of the death/doom persuasion – check out “Whisper My Name When You Dream” if you can find it (it should still be on Holy Records’ site). The more recent material is more on the progressive side, with a strong Middle-Eastern/Oriental feel and folk elements. While they do use clean singing (from leader singer Kobi Farhi and female singer Shlomi Levi, the harsh vocals haven’t been completely left behind and are used more than for a line or two for “flavor”, as some bands may do. Probably an acquired taste kind of band, but sometimes it doesn’t take long to get into a band, and that’s how it was for me with OL.

        And while we’re in the area, I should mention another band from Israel who took a more extreme route with their music – and generated a bit of controversy along the way. Salem. They’ve been around for quite some time and along with Orphaned Land are probably the best known of Israel’s metal bands. They’ve broadened their horizons a bit (like with the Strings Attached album), but they’re probably more in line with your tastes.

        Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot of great stuff from Israel, along with the other countries in the area.

        Anyhoo, enough with that tangent.

        These two bands might not be to your long-term liking, but they are to mine, and I must thank you for making me aware of them. So far, I’m liking Barzakh more, but Sawlegen is certainly worth listening to.

        • I really appreciate the time you put into the comments, and even though I know our heads don’t always wrap around the same kind of music, I also know you’re a discriminating listener, so I’m definitely going to check out all the bands you’re writing about. Also, I understand why an Israeli band singing about unity among Abrahamic religions would be controversial, and it’s probably total pie-in-the-sky fantasy — but as an ideal, how can you not support it? Unless you really get off on the idea of more decades of bloodshed and hatred.

  2. By the way, I hope you realize you’ve also invoked Exception To The Rule again with Barzakh. But this stuff is way too fucking awesome to pass up.

    • Oh yeah, big-time Exception to the Rule. And to be clear, I would not go back and listen to most of their songs again — just not my thing. But I do particularly like Alive, Final Day, Wa9tech — enough that I’d be curious to hear new songs, which I hope will actually happen by the fall.

  3. This is one of the rare times where your tastes and mine veer off the path.

    Sawlegen had me until the clean singing in “Melancophoria”. To me it seems forced and doesn’t do the music any justice. I would have like to have seen them either: 1. find a diffrent vocalist to sing the vocals that high; or 2: drop them down to a manageable range. The instrumental “Streets of Agrabah” is an awesome song. The thing that really brings down their songs is the style of their clean vocals. It just doesn’t work for me.

    As for Barzakh, I didn’t make it through the Forsen. Once again, it just didn’t work for me. I didn’t feel “it”, whatever “it” is when I listen to something new and it clicks with me.

    Both of these bands, technically speaking, are very, very good. Hopefully they will go on to be successful groups.

    • Well, no secret that I have trouble with metal that includes clean singing, and like I said in the post, it took me a while to get used to the mix of clean singing and growling in Sawlegen — and that doesn’t mean I liked it a lot. My preference would be to subtract them from the album, though I do think whoever was doing the clean singing has a nice voice. As for Barzakh, I basically never ever listen to bands that sound like this any more, and probably wouldn’t have even given this a chance except that “Alive” was the first thing I heard, and I thought it was cool. I understand why you’re not feelin it.

  4. Hi,

    We thank you for your interesting about our music.
    If you would like more specific information about band and our music, don’t hesitate to contact us at barzakh.contact@gmail.com



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