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Band of the week: Massive Scar Era

In 2012, feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot stormed Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior and performed in neon masks to protest the Orthodox Church leader’s support for Vladimir Putin’s election campaign. In March 2012, three of the group’s members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were arrested and charged with hooliganism. Their message was heard loud and clear, and they garnered a massive celebrity support campaign.

About a year earlier, in January 2011, a little-known all-girl band from Alexandria called “Massive Scar Era”, or “Mascara” for short, made their silver-screen debut in Ahmed Abdallah’s film “Microphone,” performing a unique blend of symphonic metal and Goth-pop with covered faces to conceal their identity.

While very few were able to go see the film then, as it opened on January 25 when nationwide protests against autocrat Hosni Mubarak broke out, it went on to gain critical acclaim, with the song in the film’s trailer, “Farthest Place,” continuing to resound today. And the band? Well, they’re still rocking and rolling despite the sporadic waves of attacks, insults and threats they’ve faced, particularly from Islamist groups, not to mention countless other misogynists in Egypt.

Formed in 2005 by Cherine Amr (lead vocals, guitar), who was soon joined by the band’s other core member, Nancy Mounir (backing vocals, violin), Mascara has come a long way since its girls-only beginnings.

“The all-girls thing wasn’t necessarily a choice in the beginning,” explains Amr. “Due to family restrictions, I wasn’t allowed to have male counterparts. But that changed over time, as we grew up, and for years now the band has been mixed gender.”

Mascara has seen various performers come and go, mostly Alexandria natives rotating in and out of the line-up. In 2010, their debut EP, “Unfamiliar Territory,” featured Mounir on violin (she was originally a classically trained violinist), Amr on lead vocals/guitars, Perry Moatez on bass, and multifaceted musician Youssef Altay (aka Abyusif) on drums.

Whether consciously or not, the EP is a punchy assault on all things conservative in Egypt, particularly gender misconceptions. They prove that women can be as aggressive as men, that women can dress in all black Goth-like attire, and that women can scream into microphones through gaping, snarling mouths. Their music features fast tempos, distorted guitars, loud volumes and heavy bass-lines, all polished off with Mounir’s powerful sforzandos and sudden violin accents, which give the songs some old-school poetry by mixing Eastern and Western scales. Meanwhile Amr switches between a crooning, Goth-pop delivery, maniacal growls and scream-singing.

Mascara’s second EP, “Precautionary Measures” (2011), is my personal favorite of the band’s growing body of work. Made in close collaboration with Youssef Altay, the EP falls more into their self-proclaimed “post-hardcore” genre.

I hope to hear the band continue in this direction, breaking away even more from the standard metal prescriptions of sharp, formulaic power-chords and rolling drums — I feel they have a deep-seated experimental side that’s just dying to come out and play through either guitar pedals or a synthesizer. Their textures that combine violin and hard rock are fascinating. If they choose to stay in “post-hardcore,” it could be fun to hear them play around with some elements of dub and funk, or even some rhythmic tempos found in dance-punk (Fugazi, New Order, Gang of Four).

And if the group didn’t start out with feminist intentions, then they are certainly finding themselves drifting even more toward gender-related content matter, which can be heard throughout their recent single, “My Ground” (2013). In the song, Amr growls along to power chords and screeching violins:

Grow that beard, don’t shake my hand

Try to cover my face, try to cover my hair

Shut me off like I wouldn’t care

I hold my head up high and scream out loud

According to Amr, in a male-dominated society like Egypt that is riddled with gender equality, “eventually, whether you intend to or not, any woman working in expression eventually hits a point where you must speak out against it.” The band had some particularly trying times with Islamists during the year Mohamed Morsi was president.

“It wasn’t as bad as the 1997 metal clampdown” she says, “but people and certain media were again resurfacing the infamous ‘satanic’ and ‘devil worshipping’ talk in regards to us in particular. It was tense.”

So while the band has yet to perform in as unconventional stages as Pussy Riot, their radical performance past is almost as impressive. Since 2010, they have performed under bridges (El Sawy Cultural Wheel), in house parties, in a major indie film, in long-dead local festivals like S.O.S, Los Angeles’ famous venue, “Whisky A Go Go” (2011), and a list of international festivals including Cornerstone Festival (USA, 2010/2011), Dubai Film Festival (UAE, 2010), and South by Southwest (USA, 2013).

In their most recent show last week at Vent in downtown Cairo, the group’s current formation — Amr on lead vocals and guitar, Maged Faltas on drums, Seif El-Bayoki on bass and backing scream vocals, and Nancy Mounir and Yasmine Samy on violins — proved yet again that while the members might continue to rotate, Mascara is, as a whole, utterly unrelenting.