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Akvan Brings Zoroastrian Poetry and Iranian History to Black Metal
The Beast
Sunday February 19 2017, 9:53 PM
Akvan Brings Zoroastrian Poetry and Iranian History to Black Metal

It’s understandable to flinch at the sight of the phrase “Aryan black metal.” Since its origins in early ’90s Norway, black metal has had a Nazi problem. At this point in the genre’s history, it’s a permanent stain, and one that has to be re-addressed with depressing regularity.

At the same time, black metal bands from non-Nordic countries have been adapting the genre’s sonic tropes for their own purposes for years. In California, the Black Twilight Circle (Crepusculo Negro), a collective of Latinx artists, has been making Mayan/pre-Columbian black metal, with lyrics in Spanish or Nahuatl and mixing native instruments with buzzing guitars and unholy roars. Taiwan’s Chthonic bring in traditional Chinese instruments, and sing about the history of their native country. And now Akvan—a one-man project from Iran—has emerged to function as an additional corrective, giving the phrase “Aryan black metal” a more historically accurate meaning.

Akvan is the project of a person who goes by the name Vizaresa, who mixes raw black metal guitars and blasting drums with traditional Persian instruments like the tar and setar. Tracks begin and end with readings from Persian history, or Zoroastrian prayers, and the lyrics tackle Iranian history and mythology. He has released three EPs since 2015, deeply considered meditations on his own culture and how it is misinterpreted—not only by outsiders, but by his own country’s leadership.

Vizaresa answered questions by email.

Akvan is the name of a demon in the Shahnameh [the national epic poem of Iran]; what inspired you to choose this name for your project, and what relationship does the name have to the lyrics?

I picked the name Akvan for a few specific reasons. As you mentioned, the Akvan div does make an appearance in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. Akvan is also another name for Ahriman, the main opponent of Ahura Mazda, the God of Zoroastrianism. It is a very black metal name and is directly linked to pre-Islamic Iran, which is a major theme in my work.

Unfortunately, the political situation between the West and Iran is not a pleasant one, and a very distorted and false image of Iranian culture has been imprinted on the psyches of Westerners. Thus, with a name like Akvan, I hope to inspire fans and curious passersby to conduct their own research into the ancient and epic history of Iran. Hopefully, they will come away with a more positive outlook in regard to this beautiful country.

What are the songs on your new EP about?

Like the majority of my music, the content of my lyrics are mostly focused on Zoroastrianism and Iranian mythology. “شاه شاهان” is a direct plea to the spirit of Cyrus the Great, the most celebrated figure in Iranian history, to awaken and return Iran to its former glory as the world’s greatest empire—an empire built on tolerance, equality, bloodless conquests, and scientific innovation—from the claws of a vile foreign ideology. In like manner, “میراث” explores the theme of an empire crumbling at the hands of a foreign ideology and the fight to return Iran to its Zoroastrian roots. Since both songs celebrate and promote a return to pre-Islamic Iran, they are intended as opposition anthems.

What is the text that’s being recited on “شاه شاهان” on your new EP, and what is the chant heard at the end?

What is being recited at the beginning of the song is a Farsi translation of the Cyrus Cylinder. The Cyrus Cylinder serves as the first declaration of human rights and stands as a testament to the character of Cyrus the Great. Since the song was about him, I figured it was absolutely necessary to include it. The song ends with a Zoroastrian prayer.

Your first demo was released in January 2015, but when did this project first begin, and what inspired it?

I began working on material about a few months before I released Born Ov Fire. I have had the idea for Akvan since I first started getting into metal. I was already a fan of traditional Iranian music and had plenty of exposure to it growing up in my home. I came to the understanding that perhaps one of the reasons I love metal is because it shares similar characteristics with Sonati (traditional Iranian) music, especially black metal…an overall dark and melancholy sound, drones, treble picking, emphasis on atmosphere, and unconventional song structure. So I figured that by including riffs and melodies containing the Koron/Sori (a note in Iranian music that is defined as a half flat or a half sharp), it would create a more sinister sound. And although I had the idea of writing music along these lines, it would take a long time before I was able to acquire the means to create it.

I was born and raised in the United States. My parents both immigrated to the U.S. from Iran before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Before I moved to the Middle East, I had a few problems getting Akvan started. The part of the US I grew up in was… how do I put this… a pro-Trump state. So very few people were interested in joining a black metal band, let alone an Iranian-themed one. I also had a difficult time getting my hands on traditional instruments. I have traveled many times to Iran since I was born, but never had the opportunity to bring any instruments back with me. It wasn’t until I randomly found an electric microtonal guitar while visiting the region that I was able to start working on music for Akvan.

Soon after, I moved to the Middle East in pursuit of this project. I found a job as a behavioral analyst and purchased a tar with my first paycheck. Almost a year later, my girlfriend bought a setar (not to be confused with the Indian sitar) for me as a gift. What drives the music of Akvan is my disdain for U.S. foreign policy, the current Iranian regime’s domestic policy, and the demonization of Iranians. Akvan is a means for me to rebel against all of the forces that belittle or threaten my ancestral home and people.

Did you play setar and tar first, or guitar first? What kind of training do you have in Persian musical traditions?

I picked up the guitar first. I minored in music while attending university and had some classical training there. Other than that I am mostly self-taught. I have absolutely no training in Sonati music. I’ve learned by ear and reading about the Dastgah system.

When did you first start listening to metal? Who were the bands that inspired you to start making your own music?

I was first introduced to metal by a friend at the age of twelve. The band was Metallica and the album was Ride the Lightning. Cliché, I know. Around the same time, I was also introduced to The Crown, Dissection, Kalmah, Children of Bodom, In Flames, Arch Enemy, and Lamb of God. These were the bands that inspired me to pick up the guitar and write music. As I delved deeper into the world of metal, I came across a plethora of various genres. I also became fond of groups like The Black Dahlia Murder, Behemoth, Necrophagist, Arsis, Obscura, and the list goes on. To put it simply, my taste in metal progressed towards more extreme bands. At the time, I was aware of black metal and bands like Darkthrone and Emperor. However, it wasn’t until I saw Watain perform live that I really immersed myself into black metal. The show was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It blew my mind. The music, the visual imagery, the message, all rolled into one giant life-altering experience. It was truly a work of art.

Are you a student of Persian history? What inspires the lyrics to a song like “طبرستان”?

Student as in, do I have a degree in Iranian history? No, not at all. But I have been lucky enough to travel to Iran on and off since I was a child. I’ve spent a lot of time there. I moved to the Middle East a few years ago to be close to my friends and family in Iran. The move gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the music and history of my ancestral home. Aside from playing music, I read quite a bit in my free time. I also like to pick the brains of the people I meet. To me, it’s all very fascinating. Naturally, we immerse ourselves in the things that interest us. I am also lucky in that I come from an educated family and have been encouraged to pursue information wherever I can find it.

In regards to “طبرستان,” a song that follows a similar theme lyrically in comparison to my other work, it is inspired by a sense of anger and sadness that overcomes me when I think about modern Iran. It comes from the fact that a place as amazing as Iran has been isolated and damned because of foreign and domestic politics. “طبرستان” in particular is based on the struggles of Babak Khorramdin and Maziar against the Islamic Abassid Caliphate. These two individuals are looked on with favor as national heroes by many Iranians as they were martyred in an attempt to prevent Iran from being swept up by Islamic conquest. The song serves as a metaphor for the current situation in Iran. Maziar made his final stand in the mountainous region of Tabaristan, written as طبرستان in Farsi. It was also one of the last regions of Iran to fall to the Arabs.

One of your albums is called Aryan Black Metal. I know you’re using the word “Aryan” in its traditional sense, but given that there’s a strong history of Naziism in black metal, are you concerned about the response you may get?

Not at all. By using this term, I aim to confuse the sheep and expose the consummate idiocy of ideologies based on racial supremacy, specifically those of black metal musicians who advocate for Aryan this or that. If you go up to any of these individuals and ask them how they feel about Iranians, they will probably respond with racial slurs and curses. They do not understand that this word they throw around without thought, Aryan, describes the very people they show contempt for. Iran means and translates to “land of the Aryans,” and has for thousands of years. If you ask any person of Iranian descent what racial group they belong to, they will state that they are آریایی —Aryan. Not to mention that black metal can trace its roots back to rock ’n’ roll, a musical style created by African Americans. So for a bunch of dudes who are angry because they didn’t pay attention in school and ended up working shitty dead-end jobs to spout such hypocritical nonsense, to me, is just simultaneously hilarious and sad.

Racism is stupid. If you read and know a thing or two about science, you understand that skin color and facial features are phenotypes that are shaped and developed by evolution as a means of adaptation to a certain environment. If you take two white families from Norway and place them in a climate that is 180 degrees different from their current environment, and wait a few hundred generations, you will start to see major differences in phenotypic characteristics. If you understand that, then you realize that spending your energy on saving the white race from other racial groups is a waste of time, especially if you can’t even save it from a specific climate. I’ll say it again. Racism is just plain stupid. The term Aryan comes from Iran, not some mustachioed German idiot. And being Aryan means something much more than blaming other racial groups for your personal shortcomings and insecurities.

Iran is regarded in the West as a highly conservative country—how secretive are you about your music? Have you ever encountered any problems with religious authorities, or people you know who disapprove of your work?

Well, considering that the only name associated with Akvan is Vizaresa, an alias, I’d say I try to be pretty secretive. But as I’ve become more and more familiar with this country, it’s evident to me that you can pretty much get away with anything as long as you are smart about it. There are obvious limits to what I can do. But for me, these limits help cultivate a more ominous association with Akvan amongst the conservative factions of the population. I personally like the idea of Akvan being spread by word of mouth, rumored as an evil, underground individual or group, through whispers by brave Iranian youth. It gives it a sort of urban legend/ghost story status. I’m also not really looking for attention or money. I mean… I play Iranian black metal, not exactly something you go into to live the Hollywood lifestyle. Thus, I stay off the grid without really trying to.

So far, I’ve had zero problems with authorities. Like I said, if you play it smart, it’s very unlikely anything will happen. As for people who disapprove of my music…I don’t really talk about my music that much, but when I do, the general complaints I get are the same ones you would get from “typical” people anywhere. “What’s with the vocals?”, “Why are you so angry?”, “This isn’t music,” et cetera. That’s about the extent of criticism I’ve received from anyone, including a few religious family members who work for the Iranian government. Nothing too extreme. My mom is a fairly religious conservative and she’s been supportive of my music, although she also says that she doesn’t really get the vocals. The Iranian people are generally very open-minded, secular, and sophisticated. I doubt the average citizen would want me jailed or tortured. But the fact that it is a possibility never escapes my conscience.

Is metal (black metal or otherwise) easy to come by in Iran? What’s the state of the metal scene in general?

It is not easy to come by at all. Even with the Internet. First off, metal and Western music is technically banned, even though you can find bootlegged copies of any current US Top 40 artist on every street corner. If you look hard enough, I’m sure you can find some shops that sell bootlegged metal albums, but it would prove an arduous journey. The Internet in Iran is ridiculously slow, especially if you try to download anything. Not to mention that it is heavily censored. But the Iranian people will always be one step ahead of their government and every now and then I’ll run into people who know what the hell I’m talking about when I mention black metal. For the most part, the general Iranian population (unfortunately) follows what’s considered popular and mainstream Western culture. As for the metal scene in Iran, there are a few talented acts in the underground, but to my knowledge there really isn’t an active metal scene, given the situation.

What are your feelings about the recent U.S. travel and immigration ban?

In regard to US President Trump’s travel ban, I would like to point out that although Iran is one of the countries included on the list, there have been zero acts of terrorism carried out by an Iranian national. Yet nations that are direct sponsors of terrorism or that have produced terrorists remain unaffected. As this ban negatively impacts the people of Iran and promotes the demonization of a noble culture, I firmly oppose and defy it. I stand with my people to the death.

—Phil Freeman

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