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May 02, 2019

How Plague Throat Is Perpetuating Shillong’s Tryst With Death Metal

Illustration by Santanu Hazarika

The hill town in North-East India has famously been declared the domain of innocuously rebellious rock music. But Shillong’s contradictions are better represented through the cultural strains of metal, finds Silvester Phanbuh. He links up with Nangsan Lyngwa and Dolreich Bianglang Kharmawphlang (Malice), two members of local death metal band Plague Throat, to talk guitars, gigs and social issues….

Heavy metal continues to bring Shillong into a heady state of dark introspection; an articulation that is as physical as it is musical. Its artistes may not always receive the same attention that the more glamorous musical icons from here have been showered with, but the genre has persisted, and it is thriving among young, pissed-off teens and now-middle-aged 1980s cavaliers alike.

Death metal, an extreme offshoot of heavy metal, evolved within the garages of Tampa, USA, in the ’80s and has since spawned even further sub-genres. The guitars are heavy and distorted, the drums sound like an artillery barrage and the narrative is delivered in deep, aggressive growls. Describing its nuances would mean entering the rabbit hole of metal music — something better handled by headphones and Wikipedia. But one sure thing is that death metal has found a firm place in India’s North-East, and there is one particular band that is doing its legacy proud.

It is not all black t-shirts and scowls with Plague Throat. A young, bespectacled man of slender frame greets me as I turn into a lane in the busy Laitumkhrah locality. He is vocalist and guitarist Nangsan Lyngwa. When he speaks, you imagine that he would probably be able to pull off only a gentle ballad. His hair is bunched under a woollen cap, and he gestures with surprise as I mention our common friends.

The members of Plague Throat come from the Shillong middle-class. They attend weddings and funerals as all the good Khasi boys do. They run errands and get their regular shit done. Lyngwa still lives with his parents — it helps him stay financially stable and he is needed in the house. Their practice area is in a residential locality, in Malice’s (Dolreich Bianglang Kharmawphlang, the drummer) parents’ home. They call it ‘The Dungeon’. After all, these are self-respecting metalheads.

Lyngwa takes me to a frigid hilltop location in the woods, north of the town and one of his favourite spots. The silhouettes of pine trees against the ominous grey sky provide the perfect setting for a black metal video about murderous rage. But today it is just going to be the local IPA, some smokes and a long discussion.
The musician recalls the RSJ (Rock Street Journal) magazines his father used to collect.

“I would cut out the pictures, and my dad scolded me for doing that. They were precious. He was into bands like Led Zeppelin, King Crimson and The Beatles. And when my uncle gave me his old cassettes, I discovered Megadeth and Alice in Chains.”

Before the dawn of more organised gigs, Shillong’s locality fetes provided an important platform for many bands. For as little as 20 bucks, fans could catch local ‘rock stars’ playing their favourite tunes. Then there were the concerts around the winter season. We joke about having witnessed the fights that would inevitably break out towards the end of the shows. Heavy metal was an outlet after all, and the booze helped. “My father used to take me to these local gigs, and I watched bands like Airheads, Snow White and King Apple, who were friends of his. They would cover international bands like Iron Maiden and Megadeth,” says Lyngwa.

His formative years as a musician seem like they belonged to a different era. “Back then we just wanted to play. It didn’t matter what facilities were available. Just some beer, some Js, guitars, drums and a few friends…you’d want your friends to listen to your songs. Nowadays, I feel that bands worry about photo shoots before they even have any music out,” continues the vocalist, who is nudging 30.

Plague Throat was still discovering their sound when they first got together. “I met Laidon (the ex-bassist) in college and along with Malice, we joined together. The band was first named Against. I started off as a vocalist because we didn’t have an extra guitar. Our fourth band member at the time, Silrak, was someone who really opened our minds about music. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago.” Lyngwa specifically names Project Blend Limited, an acclaimed Shillong metal band from the early 2000s, as a major inspiration. “They were my neighbours at one time,” he adds.

When they played their first show in 2008, it was with mostly borrowed instruments — their practice gear was not suited for live performances — a basic guitar, broken cymbals and a drum set not meant for disruptive beats. Over the next few years, the band gained attention, playing across India, releasing an EP and appearing at the world-famous Wacken Open Air heavy metal festival in Germany after winning a nationwide contest. A full-length album, The Human Paradox, followed and 2019 was ushered in with a new EP release in February and plans for an Asia tour later in the year. Amidst all this, they are set to unveil a new bassist. They also have cooler gear now — ESP and Mapex.

Plague Throat drummer Dolreich Bianglang Kharmawphlang goes by the stage name Malice. Lyngwa recalls how he used to look up to him. “During the winter holidays, I would spend a lot of time at his house and helped him out with his band,” he says. “I wanted to play with him when I was in school, but my family was against it. I told them that once I finish my matriculation exams, I will start playing in a band.” And that is exactly what happened.

The band members consider the support they have received from home and their close friends to be monumental. “My mother and sister tolerated death metal music playing in the house constantly, which was very important!” chuckles Lyngwa.

Malice, who couldn’t make it for our beer session earlier, now opens up about his early years. “I had started learning guitar and two years later, my youngest sister enrolled herself in music classes. Dad bought her a drum set. I was intrigued by it so I asked her to teach me some basic beats. After learning those I progressed to playing some Megadeth, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest songs and the like. That’s how it all started.”

Short-haired, reserved and closing into his mid-thirties, the percussionist now has more responsibilities to manage. “Though it’s really tough to juggle married life with being in Plague Throat, I believe we can make it work. My wife and her family fully support my being a musician.”

However, Shillong remains a largely conservative town, and the band has been vilified by certain sections. “There are a lot of people who think that the genre is simply about evil. We have been looked at that way.” Lyngwa goes on to explain a particular reaction they received. “When Dying Fetus (an American death metal band) played in Shillong with us, there was this lady who wrote an article in a newspaper questioning their being here and how they were a bad influence on the youth. Plague Throat was asked to be careful with its lyrics. But we just write about what we see; the questions we want to ask society. If you don’t understand us, try asking questions and we will give you answers.”

While pub gigs are increasing in popularity, things are still more difficult for metal bands. “There is a lack of venues, apart from one pub, where we have a good relationship with the management. And metalheads are usually young — most of them can’t afford the drinks in a nice place. While venue managers may find the crowd intimidating, we are an actual community.

Metal brings out something within you. We have played gigs with non-metal line-ups and people would come up to us and say that they could connect, despite not understanding what we were doing with the throaty vocals, heavy guitars and the beats,” he reveals with a smile.

Amidst the perpetual uncertainty that surrounds heavy metal as a livelihood, Plague Throat enters their second decade with the same gusto and restrained anger that have allowed them to endure — a legacy built on flying hair, sweat and spittle; growls, ear-splitting drum beats and circle pits, rather than YouTube hits. They avoid being preachy when it comes to social commentary and instead package it in the ponderous prose of death metal. “What we stress about are social issues; we don’t write about personal issues nor target anyone directly. In Shillong, people let things slide. They don’t see how politics and religion can easily manipulate and divide us,” Lyngwa impassionedly describes the band’s lyrics. “The problem is that people are satisfied with whatever happens; fine with anything. We are not being productive, but that is also our fault. It’s just a lot of talk, and everything ends in conversations. There is no action. And when it comes to religion, we don’t believe that you should have to force people about anything.”

The kinship with fans remains an integral reason for metal’s endurance in Shillong, and Lyngwa is very thankful for that. “A lot of metal fans have a background of struggle, which is why we can easily connect and talk to each other; we have all faced similar problems. We also see more women at the shows now. Everyone is head-banging together. Fans, including school kids, come to talk to us and take pictures. It makes me feel good.”

Money is always an issue, acknowledges Lyngwa. Five years after they had formed, the band started organising its own gigs — Serene Atrocity — to provide some impetus for themselves and other musicians in the town. “Looking for sponsorship can be a problem. Some of the people we approach mock us, ‘What are you guys singing about?’ I mean, if you don’t want to help, sure, but don’t waste our time,” he chuckles sardonically. “At least after we played at Wacken, more people began to take note and became aware of what we were doing. We don’t live a rock star lifestyle; whatever we earn goes back into the band. That is why we tour. Lots of material is needed, and the quality and production have to keep up with the times. We can’t keep believing that only the guys in the big cities can do it — now we can, too.”

The band is excited about Evolutionary Impasse, their next release. “The idea for this EP actually took seed from an intro which we could not use in Human Paradox. The influences include progressive metal and technical death metal,” says Lyngwa.

Speaking on the talent in the region, he wishes there was more support. His thoughts echo his peers’ — they do not want to live the same dead-end lives as the previous generations did. Following a predestined path (get married, get a job you hate, have kids) and dying with the bottle as your best friend and worst enemy is a ‘Made in Shillong’ template that is rarely advertised but known by many.

Malice sums up the philosophy of Plague Throat: “We want to change the way people feel and think about the world.”

As Lyngwa manoeuvres his Maruti 800 over the dirt road leaving the woods behind, I still try to make the connection between this courteous human being rushing home to help his mum and the moshpit-rousing persona that has hit the stage in countless concerts. Why are we always compelled to look for the ‘image’? Beneath that veneer, it has always been about the music and the human beings involved. Musicians don’t need to posture off the stage when they can growl and shred and blast those skins. Metal has always existed as an endangered species, but it also has the strongest will to survive. Artistes like Silent Offensive (formerly Aberrant) and Dymbur provide stellar additions to this list — emerging out of the claustrophobic lanes and sleepy neighbourhoods of Shillong.

With a nod to the overlords in Florida and Sweden and across the world, Plague Throat’s music continues to thunder in this often exoticised corner of India, reminding society to rear its head from out of the sand once in a while.

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