Fifteen years ago, Marwan Hussein, Firas Al-Lateef, Faisal Talal and Tony Aziz were teenage headbangers in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, learning to play Metallica and Slayer off bootleg cassettes. They named their band Acrassicauda (after Iraq's ubiquitous black scorpion, Androctonus crassicauda) and joined a small but active heavy-metal scene in Baghdad.
Then, in 2003, the U.S. invaded, and life became a hellish cycle of checkpoints, explosions and murders. Marwan Hussein and Talal were almost killed by a car bomb, Aziz's house was damaged by a mortar, and the band's rehearsal space was blown up, probably by a rocket. "We've seen some shit, man," says Hussein. "You see stuff that makes you question your existence."
A few years later, Acrassicauda fled to Syria. Meanwhile, a Vice documentary, Heavy Metal in Baghdad, helped make them media darlings — and high-profile targets for extremist groups, who often attacked Western-style musicians. A flicker of fame turned Acrassicauda into permanent exiles.
Feeling responsible, the filmmakers who had made them famous helped them get refugee visas to the U.S. in 2008. The bandmates eventually wound up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and started grinding it out on the local metal scene, scoring an opening slot for industrial-rock vets Ministry (frontman Al Jourgensen called them his "favorite metal band in the world"). They finally made it into the studio last September to cut their debut, Gilgamesh, a Kickstarter-funded heavy-metal tour de force named after an ancient Sumerian legend.
"The Epic of Gilgamesh is a very weird story," Hussein says. "He was a lost soul until the very last, when he comes to terms with his mortality. In the end, it's a story about rebirth." The band worked to give the album a deeply Arabic sound, using complex Middle Eastern rhythms and traditional instruments like the darbuka, all while thrashing as hard as possible. "Our producer was Greek," says Hussein. "He was listening and shouting, 'Opa!' [a Greek term of affirmation]. If you're headbanging and saying 'opa,' we're good." (The album was produced by Nik Chinboukas, executive produced by Jason Clarke, and mastered by Roger Lian).
Making it as Iraqi refugees, it turns out, is even harder than making it as a metal band. Lead singer Talal remembers having to walk 40 minutes from the train to his Jersey house every night — none of them had a driver's license. Between gigs and tours, the bandmates have worked in bars, convenience stores and restaurants to pay the bills.
All the while, they have been cut off from friends and family back home. The risks are still too great to return, even for a visit. "I have no idea how things are going," Talal says. "Your family won't tell you a lot about the situation, because they love you. And when you watch the media, you don't want to believe a lot."
More than 2 million Iraqis fled the country between 2003 and 2011. The Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS have only made things worse. Nearly 200,000 refugees left Iraq last year, and more than 2.4 million are displaced internally. "It keeps brain-fucking you," says Talal. "You keep thinking, 'Why did it have to happen?' "
Yet Acrassicauda keep driving forward. A young Iraqi refugee named Moe Al Ansari stepped in to play lead guitar after original guitarist Aziz left the band. The members have become U.S. citizens and are hoping to tour in the Middle East this year. "Hopefully, people will come to the show because they love the music," says Hussein, "and not because they want some story about refugees. First and foremost, we're a band. We're musicians."