Alien Weaponry: Maori tradition meets Thrash Metal
By Saby Reyes-Kulkarni September 28, 2021
In the three decades that have passed since pioneering Brazilian thrash band Sepultura achieved international notoriety, heavy metal has become a global phenomenon embraced in almost every inhabited region of the world. Once considered a European / North American cultural heritage, although having demonstrable appeal as an export to other ‘markets’, the genre is now replete with examples of artists drawing inspiration from traditional sounds of elsewhere. Among them, the New Zealand trio Alien weapons provides yet another case for metal as an infinitely flexible art form that belongs to everyone. Formed in 2010, when co-founders Henry and Lewis de Jong were only 10 and 8 years old respectively, Alien Weaponry forged its own path by bringing the Maori heritage of the de Jong brothers to the fore, with the singer / guitarist Lewis writing and singing mainly in te reo, the language of the Maori people (pronounced MOW-ree with a rolled ârâ).
There is certainly charm in the image of a group of brave children making a fuss in their home country, but most listeners outside of New Zealand got their first glimpse of Alien Weaponry. in 2018 via the group’s first album, You. The limbs may not have been of legal age at the time of recording, but the sound was fully formed and mature: a striking hybrid of thrash, groove and prog, spiced with culturo-linguistic elements that would sound strangely unfamiliar, even for many listeners. of Maori origin. At the end of that year, after touring European festivals, toured the United States as Ministrythe opening act, and presented in a Vice-Asia segment hailing the de Jongs as the saviors of a dying tongue – the experience had erased any remaining trace of youthful amateurism. Nonetheless, if suspicions persist that novelty played a role in propelling Alien Weaponry onto the world stage, the band are set to quash those suspicions once and for all with their new second album, Tangaroa.
Quite appropriately, Tangaroa (named after the Maori god of the ocean) opens to the sound of waves and seagulls as a traditional paddling song weaves through a cycle of repetitions of Lewis return tones and rollers of Henry’s tam-tam, the first indication of the rhythmic act of the wire the group sustains for over an hour the playing time of the album. (Outgoing bassist Ethan Trembath and new bassist TÅ«ranga Morgan-Edmonds appear on the album.) If you’ve ever dreamed of music that echoes the progressive metal spirit of the late ’80s and early’ 90s without simply copying old blueprints, Alien Weaponry proves with Tangaroa that vintage influences can be approached with a new vision. The group is able, for example, to line up the Meshuggah-esque sawblade riff that drives “Hatupatu” with the verses of a menacing haka (war dance) composed by Henry, which intertwines its rhythms with soft keys. math-metal flair effort. It’s a flawless crossover; the half-shouted / half-spoken cadence of the haka blends in perfectly with the band’s squeaky attack, dissolving both in the main riff and in the nu metal style breakdowns that punctuate the structure of the song.
“We were taught the haka, waiata [musical oral history] and all kinds of songs to kura kaupapa [MÄori immersion school] like children, âsays Henry. âSo we were very exposed to Maori music. ”
Yet much of their appreciation for Maori music was instilled indirectly through the album. Bob Marley’s Waitata, a tribute album by Maori artists Ruia & Ranea that was often played at home. Additionally, the brothers were also encouraged to listen to a mix of styles, never feeling the pressure to identify exclusively as metalheads. This may explain the smoothness and mastery of the band’s dynamics as they change their approach in the middle of the song. On “Ahi KÄ” (“house”), the metal hits back to make way for a dusty recording of Queen Elizabeth II delivering her annual Auckland Christmas radio show in 1953. It’s one of the moments the most striking of Tangaroa, letting the historic irony speak for itself as the Queen tackles the subjects of the Crown, intoning in her ultra-correct English diction that she finds herself “completely and very happily at home” in New Zealand. The Queen’s delicate voice provides an eerie subtext to Lewis’s passionate tale of the British government’s bloody land grab campaign against the native inhabitants.
Disputes over land rights between indigenous Maori and English settlers have been a source of bitter discord dating back to New Zealand’s founding document, the controversial Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840. According to the most charitable reading in history, the terms of the treaty were incorrectly translated into te reo, giving rise to divergent interpretations by two parties who initially had radically different definitions. different from “ownership”. Unsurprisingly, the treaty failed to foster peaceful coexistence, and nearly thirty years of war soon followed, with the British military eventually resorting to burning villages as leverage against a Maori combat effort that managed to hold on despite his numerical inferiority. So when Lewis and his band mates shout “Tahu toku kÄinga / Tohu ahi kÄ â (“my village is burning / my house”) – or when they celebrate a 19th century Maori insurgent’s call to battle on “Titokowaru”, for example – they put a layer of realism on the fighting tropes of the otherwise whimsical metal.
Of course, the de Jong brothers were born several generations from the scenes of violence and tragedy they portray in these songs, which do not deal with the fact that before the arrival of Europeans, Maori tribes did not identify with each other. as one people and often engaged in war with each other. There is also an argument to be made that New Zealand is actually an example of how societies around the world can begin to heal – or at least recognize – the demons of their colonial past. Anyone familiar with international rugby competitions, for example, will recognize the haka, which the All Blacks national team has played a long time before matches. In a more recent development, Radio New Zealand broadcasts now systematically begin with in te reo greetings. And many locals commonly refer to the country by its MÄori-English name, Aotearoa New Zealand.
These types of gestures may seem cosmetic – symbolic bandages for an ugly legacy of discrimination and marginalization – but at the very least, they signal an intention not only to value and reintegrate the Maori presence, but to reimagine the country as a society. truly bicultural. The de Jong brothers, who have Dutch ancestors on both motherly and fatherly sides, are the product of intricate and intertwined histories. As such, they find themselves in a sticky position: they know the language and customs better than the average New Zealander of Maori descent, but they also have Dutch surnames and appear white, which means, as Henry describes it, that they “piss each other off on both sides”. It may be too obvious a leap to take, but maybe there is is something about the shuttle between two worlds that allows a person to oscillate between musical styles with such ease. It’s a group, after all, that doesn’t just scream and scream alone.
On the title track, Lewis exhibits an almost ballet-like quality as he rolls the syllables of “Tan / ga / ro / aaaaaOut of his tongue, his voice so full of melody it soars above the tonic thrash riff he plays below. The song, centered on ocean pollution, is part of a sacred lineage of heavy metal protest songs about the imminent death of the biosphere. The subject, however, has a particularly personal resonance, coming from the members of this group – not only do they hail from a remote island nation, but they’ve also spent their entire lives connecting with their roots in a culture forged by perhaps the most skilled sailors in human history.
âOne of the first things I remember,â Henry suggests, âwas learning to swim. The ocean, the water, has always been part of my life. He supports me and he surrounds me constantly. For me personally, it is extremely important that we all have this for generations to come. ”
Besides the Maori principle of tapu– the sanction against the use of scarce resources (and the precursor of the English word “taboo”) – aligns perfectly with the ecological conscience that prevails throughout New Zealand in general. You don’t need to know everything, however, to get carried away by the adrenaline rush the song so beautifully elicits. With Tangaroa, Alien Weaponry shows us that all this crazy talk about heavy metal as a universal language was actually true from the start. And as the group travels the world, the de Jongs begin to realize that their own perspective is more universal than they might have imagined.
“It’s really interesting to see [as we travel], said Lewis. âWe had a pretty deep connection with the Navajo Nation when we came to America. I don’t think we’ve been to America without stopping in Gallup, New Mexico and playing a show for the Navajo Nation. And that’s just to name one.
âThis kind of connection that other indigenous people feel with what we do,â Henry adds, âwas a little unexpected at first. We didn’t know it would have such an impact on people who weren’t Maori, but who shared the same [types of] experiences.”