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31 May 2023

Metal Battle Unites Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkiye in Tbilisi

Armenian, Azerbaijani, Georgian, and Turkish bands were united during the Wacken Metal Battle in Tbilisi.

Metal Battle Unites Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkiye in Tbilisi

Text and Photos by Onnik James Krikorian

In pouring rain, I head towards an industrial estate in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, where an extraordinary musical event is about to take place. It's the Wacken Metal Battle Caucasia and Türkiye, and at the gate, Giorgi Kotchlashvili from Georgia’s Dagdagani and Nijat Hasanzadeh from Azerbaijan’s Pyraweed negotiate entry. Eventually, we're allowed inside the large factory space where bands from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Türkiye, share the same stage as well as their mutual love of metal, putting aside the complex histories and political tensions between their respective nations.

As we step inside, the soundcheck by Georgian band Enforcement reverberates through the empty hall. Only musicians and technicians are around as the stage is set for the competition that brings the bands together in the hope of winning the main prize – the chance to perform at Wacken Open Air, one of the world’s largest heavy metal festivals, held in Germany since 1990.
The South Caucasus Metal Battle has been an annual event since 2013 though this is the first year that Türkiye will participate in the Tbilisi contest.  This year’s organizer, music promoter Eric Hutchence, is aware of the contest’s significance.

“[It] has successfully managed to unite people in the region without relying on grants or political slogans,” Hutchence wrote on Facebook the night before the event. “This serves as a reminder that true unity can be achieved by focusing on common interests and connections, rather than relying solely on funding or political agendas.”

Despite the tempting prize, the bands agree. None seem concerned about losing.

“Never mind who will win,” Will Tiron, frontman for Georgia’s Enforcement tells me. “Today we are all brothers though I hope in the future we can just play in a festival and not a battle. It’s time to say that we are all Caucasian brothers and we don’t need politics or other bad things. We need to respect each other.”

İsrafil Zali, singer with the Azerbaijan’s ‘progressive death metal outfit Evil Decay, is already standing at the edge of the stage, observing the sound check for Perfect Legacy, an Armenian band which describes its sound as ‘ethnic groove/metalcore/deathcore’. In order to be heard as the instruments blare around them, Zali and the band’s lead singer shout into each other’s ear. After the spontaneous exchange, Zali leaves the stage with a thumbs up from his Armenian counterpart.

In Evil Decay, Zali is joined by his wife, Nargiz Shahmuradova. Both are bassists, though he focuses solely on the vocals now, leaving her to handle the bass line. They have also participated in the Metal Battle in other bands before – Zali in Live or Leave in 2014 and Shahmuradova with Silence Lies Fear in 2015. A lot has changed since then, of course, and Zali says that the rock and metal scene in Baku has particularly improved.

“Rock and metal are currently experiencing a renaissance in Azerbaijan,” he says. “We have world-class metal and rock bands and I would like Azerbaijanis around the world to show their support for our music. We have very high quality groups, which, with a little support, are ready to show their quality to the world and represent Azerbaijan.”

Recently, Evil Decay was one of several metal bands to perform at the Elektra Events Hall in a fashionable urban-regeneration quarter in the Azerbaijani capital. There is still much room for further development, however. 

“My message to all metal listeners, especially to Azerbaijanis, is to support local bands and go to their concerts,” he adds. “We need your support.”
“I really wish that, in the Caucasus region, many bands will play together,” Perfect Legacy guitarist Mihran Azraille Aghuzumtsyan tells me, suggesting that such events should take place more regularly.

But now, the moment of truth has arrived. Each band performs an individual set lasting 30 minutes and judges from all four countries assemble privately to debate and select the winner. After another half hour, the decision is known. And this year’s winner, that will represent the region in Germany, is Türkiye’s long-standing ‘southern groove metal’ band, Black Tooth.

In an unexpected but very genuine gesture, Black Tooth’s frontman calls bands from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to join him on stage. The musicians hug each other to rapturous applause from the crowd, a fitting symbolism to end this year’s event. Indeed, when I had earlier asked Zali who would win, he spontaneously offered perhaps the best answer of all:

“Music always wins”