ew bands have sparked as much discussion about their ethnic identities as Melechesh. The band is originally from Israel, yet takes pains to point out that none of its members are Israeli. Vocalist/guitarist Ashmedi is Armenian/Assyrian. Guitarist Moloch is Assyrian—or is he “Syriani/Palestinian”? Drummer Xul is Dutch. Bassist Al’ Hazred is Ukrainian—or is he Jewish? The numerous revisions in the band’s Wikipedia entry and the online debates about these terms mirror larger-scale conflicts in real life.
The band styles itself as “Mesopotamian metal.” Not only do they sing primarily about Mesopotamian/Sumerian polytheistic mythology, they also incorporate Middle Eastern tonalities and rhythms into their mixture of black, thrash, and death metal. Melechesh aren’t the first metal band with such influences. However, they’re the first to focus on them so exclusively. Israel’s Orphaned Land has worked Middle Eastern sounds into death metal, yet lyrically remains in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Poland’s Behemoth uses some of the same Phrygian/Arabic scales, and singer Nergal takes his name from the Babylonian god. But while their lyrics have touched on Sumerian mythology, they also draw from Satanism, which Melechesh wouldn’t do—not now, anyway. Strangely, their logo includes upside-down crosses, which perhaps nod to their black metal origins.
Melechesh began in Jerusalem playing Bathory-inspired black metal. Their 1996 debut album, As Jerusalem Burns…Al’Intisar, led to mischaracterization in the press as a Satanic cult and harassment by city authorities. The band left Israel, scattering to France and the Netherlands and adding Proscriptor McGovern from Texas’s Absu on drums. Despite these distances, Ashmedi kept Melechesh unified by writing most of their music and teaching it to his bandmates via webcam. Djinn, from 2001, established the band’s present fusion of influences, which Sphynx honed with better production and occasional traditional instrumentation.
Xul’s death metal chops add more blastbeats to Emissaries, but otherwise Melechesh’s sound remains intact. The main change is in the songwriting. Except for two meandering instrumentals (one of which features the buzuq, a lute-like instrument), it’s much more assured and memorable now. “Rebirth of the Nemesis” has spicy, warbling riffs, epic chants, and the band’s trademark Mediterranean beats, which curiously resemble Jamaican dancehall rhythms. Eerie chants also punctuate “Double Helixed Sceptre” and “Deluge of Delusional Dreams.” Underneath its embellishments, the latter is a furious thrash tune, as is “Touching the Spheres of Sephiroth.” “Leper Jerusalem” is muscular and sinuous, with a big tom booming out downbeats. It hails the occult energy in Jerusalem, calling it by its original Babylonian name, Uru-Salim: “You are for none, you are for all / Untouchable, this city remains.”
Though Melechesh is an amalgam in every way, its power is archetypal. Its musical linchpin is the flatted second, which drives Jewish, Arabic, Spanish gypsy, and flamenco music. The sound is exotic to Western ears. Any Westerner who’s been to a Muslim country can attest to the hair-raising thrill of the muezzin’s call to prayer. While Melechesh’s lyrics mainly provoke Wikipedia searches on Sumerian mythology, in a time where even the word “Muslim” raises hackles, their summoning of more primordial sonic forces is quite electric.