by Rich Hobson

On August 4 2020 the world shook – quite literally. The Lebanese city of Beirut had just suffered one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, an event which literally changed the landscape of the city itself and could be felt as far away as Cyprus. Causing hundreds of deaths (not to mention property damage to the tune of billions of dollars, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless), the event represented a shocking humanitarian crisis that galvanised people around the world. Aid was pledged on a mass scale – both domestically and internationally – to help mitigate the aftermath of the explosion, but as the smoke settled a question burned at the heart of the event: how the hell did this happen in the first place? The exact cause remains unknown (and is still being investigated as of September 2020), but as the story developed an ugly picture emerged – of a government rife with both corruption and incompetence, of the expendability of crew, cargo and the public, of negligence that crossed borders and seas. To many it was a shocking wake-up call, but to musician Anthony Kaoteon – and countless other similarly disenfranchised Lebanese people who have long protested against those who hold Lebanon in a political chokehold – it was yet another travesty marring the face of a country he once called home. 

“After the explosion I kept asking myself ‘What could I do to support my country?’” Kaoteon says frustratedly, speaking from his home in the Netherlands. “But it’s not just the explosion; we’ve had 30 years of corruption after the civil war and a year of financial meltdown where all Lebanese people lost their savings. Eighty five percent of the currency became devalued and with capital fees even if you did have money, you couldn’t touch it. It’s the third biggest economic meltdown in the world, in such a tiny country… I felt helpless. I knew I could donate money or post about it, but music is where everything really hits home and is for me the best medium to raise awareness with what’s happening in Beirut. So I decided to take one of the tracks [from the upcoming second Death Tribe record] and develop a video with these Argentinian brothers [Dronicon Films] who helped change the music video and include things about the explosion, fitting it in to a wider movie I’m making for this second record.”

Born in Beirut, Kaoteon formed the thunderous black metal project Kaoteon [from which he takes his nom de plume] in 1998, plugging away diligently both within Lebanon and surrounding countries. In 2001 he was joined by longtime collaborator Walid Wolflust, the pair releasing a demo two years later via Unsung Records (in the USA). In 2011, the band finally put out a debut record Veni Vidi Vomui – their only effort written and recorded within Lebanon itself, distributed by French independent label Osmose Productions. The subsequent seven years would see both emigrate to find better lives for themselves – Wolflust initially to Qatar, Kaoteon to Dubai – before ultimately settling in the Netherlands. In 2018, Kaoteon put out their second record Damnatio Memoriae, planting them firmly on the radar of global metal fans and press for its cacophonous combination of death metal and black metal stylings, helping the band to win the Global Metal Award at that year’s Metal Hammer Golden Gods event. 

Not one for resting on his laurels, Kaoteon also created his own solo project Death Tribe, releasing a debut record in February 2019 that featured guest performances from Middle Eastern musicians he met whilst living in Dubai. He chased this release with a third Kaoteon record at the start of 2020, before immediately setting out to work on a follow-up Death Tribe record -this time featuring musicians from around the Netherlands. Following the Beirut explosion, Kaoteon decided to dedicate one of the tracks from the upcoming release to help raise money for relief efforts for those affected, the appropriately titled ‘Thawra’ (the word associated with the protest movement that began in 2019). 

“There was a revolution in Lebanon in 2019 – young people took to the streets,” he explains. “It was like Hong Kong but more intense – and barely anyone paid attention [globally] because we are such a small country. There were riots in the streets, people demanding the government to resign because the same parties have been in charge since the 1970s, same leaders since the 1980s. The news said the government had resigned [in response to the Beirut explosion] but it was just the people in parliament. Worse, those same people can be assigned again which is freaking insane; it’s why I left Lebanon.

Kaoteon’s distaste for those in charge is shared among the protestors, a sentiment that stretches even to the organisation of the actual protests. “We don’t follow any organisations really – the youth of Lebanon are connecting as one,” he says. “But this is a negative point too because there is no organisation for the protests. Some days you might have a million people on the street, others just a couple thousand. People have lost faith in organisations and institutions, so anyone trying to set something up will likely find the people are then against them. There’s a saying in Lebanon now – ‘everyone means everyone’ and that’s what we’re all behind.”

This sense of community sits at the heart of both the protest and the relief efforts Lebanon has undertaken since the blast. Much of the money pledged to Lebanon internationally was sent through Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), sent directly to the people. Additionally, homegrown rescue teams, blood drives and civilian groups worked together to help people and clean the streets following the explosion, showing that even in the darkest times some light can still shine through. “I was grateful to see so much support after the explosion,” Kaoteon admits. “I have faith in humanity that we’re not all blind [to things happening around the world] and unsupportive. You can’t imagine the world will stop just because this happened – before this there was war in Yemen, bad things happening in Palestine, cleansing in Southeast Asia… there’s a lot happening. My South American friends tell me about the corruption on their side of the world. Some people think it’s fiction, but from my own experiences I know it’s not. It gives you hope that the world still stands up for a couple hours realising something isn’t right, even if it’ll be forgotten in weeks.”

The abundance of information available on the internet serves as both a blessing and curse. On one hand, the spread of information means it is easier than ever to be clued in on things happening around the world. By contrast, the spread of misinformation dilutes (and downright distracts) from these issues and the sheer abundance of information on offer makes it extremely difficult to focus on specific issues in the long-term. It also doesn’t help when anyone who raises awareness of said issues – athletes, actors, musicians or even schoolchildren – are publicly derided as social justice warriors, or performatively woke. In metal this often manifests as complaints that the music should stay out of political issues (as though Black Sabbath didn’t open their second album 50 years ago with an anti-war, anti-politician song; thus kickstarting the whole genre with political sentiment). Kaoteon has something to say to that, mind.

“There are a lot of bands that are talking about important topics these days, so it’s important that we raise awareness” he starts. “Rebels and misfits are supposed to stick it to ‘the man’ and do the right thing, but if we all get it wrong who is getting it right? We have kids like Greta [Thunberg] shouting for change, but it shouldn’t just be them – it should be a bigger movement. Metal is about shouting for the right thing and we should be doing the right thing. To me, metal and rock has always been an open society – fighting for freedom of will and equality. Of course we have national socialists and Nazi black metal – all that stupid shit, but that’s not what metal is about. Metal is the common denominator for so many people, but somewhere along the way it became about drinking more and not conforming – people acting like ‘fuck you! Why do you have a clean haircut, or a good job?’ Like those things somehow make you less of a metalhead.” 

The latter is sure to make Kaoteon prickly. After all – his moving from Lebanon has largely been thanks to the work he does, his job opening doors that may otherwise have been closed. “Even being out of the country for ten years, I still lost all my savings [in the financial crisis] because I had to keep my money in Lebanon,” he says. “I still need a job to sponsor me to go or live anywhere outside of Lebanon. If I lost my job I would have one month before I was sent back  – and that’s a big reason why I can’t take the usual musician career path and tour; I need to be so good at my day job that my talent stands out across Europe, I can get hired and sponsored to live elsewhere.”

Even with the demands of a full-time job, Kaoteon has still managed to work on no less than four records in two years. Switching between writing the new Kaoteon release and this latest effort from Death Tribe, he has also committed to creating a movie to coincide with the music on this new record. “I’m so happy to be working with the Dronicon guys on this; I’m pretty sure they’ll be huge in a few years, so then I wouldn’t be able to afford them!” 

With both Kaoteon and Death Tribe, he continues the great tradition of extreme music being used to shock, and challenge conventions. Unlike so many other black and death metal acts, the shocks his bands deliver are not derived from cheap B-movie nastiness, nor being performatively contentious (“Oh, you cut off somebody’s leg and ejaculated into it? Boring – I’ve heard it before!” he quips) but from a place of true struggle, from demons both personal and societal. In spreading awareness of the issues in Lebanon whilst also raising money to help those affected, Kaoteon is putting his money where his mouth is and focusing on something close to his heart. “Music can touch on any subject; it’s a way of elevating a subject and exploring the ‘what ifs’ or if we could do better,” he says. “Art is about taking reality and twisting it until you get it right – how can we aim to be better without that? Even if I influence just one person, I have a responsibility.” 

It’s been many years since Kaoteon left Lebanon, but that doesn’t mean he  feels any less passionately about the things happening back home. “The negligence is unbelievable,” he spits. “I can’t imagine how these guys sleep at night knowing they’re getting things so wrong. How can they be so blinded to think they’re doing right? The world comes and talks to them – the French President comes and shouts at them – and they still don’t get the message. I have hope in people, but I’ve lost hope in the idea of change in Lebanon because we’ve had change, and revolutions, and bombings, and civil war, and nothing changed. Nobody wins and nobody really gives a fuck because Lebanon is so small, people just don’t have to care.” 

These frustrations are also complicated by Kaoteon’s personal circumstances. Moving to Europe offered opportunities both musical and professional, but also create a greater disconnect from his homeland. “I’ll be nationalised in Netherlands if I stay here for five years and can speak a certain level of language,” he explains. “But I also have to let go of my original passport. I’m not sure what I’ll do when it comes to that, but I don’t believe in borders so I don’t care too much. Lebanon will always have a special place in my heart, but borders and nations are man-made and the planet is too small to split it like this. ”

‘Thawra’ shows that Kaoteon remains one of the brightest talents in extreme metal. Embodying the sense of perseverance that embodied guitar-based music  – starting with the blues exactly a century ago – he possesses enough intellect and heart to shine a path forward for another hundred years to come. His efforts to make the world a better place are a reflection of this, both helping to raise critical funds for relief efforts in Lebanon and may inspire others to take action and offer aid in their own way.

“For the relief effort, it’s mostly about donations to NGOs – listed on a number of sites,” he explains. “More than that, you can’t really do much. We need 15 billion US dollars just to get us back to where we were… and we weren’t in a good situation then! We are grateful for everyone helping to raise money, but every little contribution helps and that’s why the money for ‘Thawra’ will go towards that.”