These days it takes a lot to excite me, but I was intrigued by the prospect of a Los Angeles-based seven piece band predominately of Armenian descent and commonly described as Gogol Bordello meets System of a Down, with a passion for human rights and community issues.
Viza (formerly known as Visa) played their first London gig at the Borderline on 1st August to promote their fifth album, Carnivalia, which their singer K’noup described to me as their “most colourful and humorous record” as opposed to the previous album, Made in Chernobyl, which was “a lot more socially involved.”
Indeed, as their oud player Andrew told me, the video for the song Carnivalia, “is kind of like this whimsical story… where you have a cast of crazy characters, which is our band running into the circus boy and there’s a story of his transformation after he meets us and what happens to him through his adventure.” Most intriguing….
The night started with what appeared to be an Irish folk band taking the stage – Drunken Balordi comprised a singer/acoustic guitarist wearing an Irish pub t-shirt, bass guitarist, violinist, accordion player and drummer. However the catchy violin riffs were far more Eastern European inspired than Irish.
The songs had a driving beat, no doubt due to the heavy bass and drums, but it was early in the night and nobody danced despite the lead vocalist’s pleas. In fact at times the bass was so high in the mix and so dubby that combined with the gruff vocals, the band sounded like a gypsy version of crusty anarcho-punks Radical Dance Faction.
If the musical style of the first support band had been unexpected, that of the next band, Jurojin, was even more so. Although during the first few songs, they came across as your standard four-piece doomy metal band with powerful vocals and formulaic song structures, when their turbaned tabla drums player joined the stage things became interesting and I abandoned my plans to go to the bar.
The tabla and the Indian style guitar chords had that slightly discordant feel which blended perfectly with the melancholic stoner rock style. Jurojin became even more intriguing when they played a cover of 19th century Northumbrian folk song, “Blackleg Miner”. Although the song has been much covered, most notably by Steeleye Span, one rarely expects to see pro-trade union songs sung by a young metaller.
The singer was vocally strong and note perfect throughout the set, but to my mind it was during this song that he really excelled as he sang with the passion and conviction of a striking miner. During the later songs he appeared to be lost in a musical trance and grasped his mic stand in a vicelike grip.
My only criticism was that his emotional involvement in the songs seemed fairly internalised and I would have liked to see him totally lose the plot, eyeball the audience and maybe even fling himself into the crowd, but I suspect that some of the headnodders in the audience would disagree with me. As a reality TV host would say, he definitely had the likeability factor.
As Viza made an entrance, the crowd has swelled and was ready to dance. I had wondered how they would blend the two seemingly incongruous musical styles, but headbanging hard rock choruses combine surprisingly well with gypsy tunes – both have a beat that makes you want to bounce up and down. In fact, at times, it got so bouncy that it all went a bit ravey, especially during their latest single, an excellent version of ‘Alabama Song’,” with percussionist/backing vocalist, Chris jumping about and dancing all over the stage like a tattooed circus freak version of Bez.
I questioned Chris before the gig as to whether the song indicated a liking for the hard liquor and in his words, “It’s always fun to have a couple of drinks of whiskey or whatever it is, it kind of lightens the mood and gets everybody loose and everybody does their best. And the crowd always gets into it too, so it’s a good time. Yeah we drink!”
Of course a musical number with a Soviet marching band style also works well with gypsy rhythms and fast heavy metal drumming, so everyone clapped in time when they played ‘Viktor’, the recorded version of which is a collaboration with Serj Tankian (lead singer with the aforementioned System of a Down).
Lead singer K’noup has a commanding stage presence. A storyteller of twisted tales and ringleader of a diverse collective. One of the guitarists is reminiscent of a younger, thinner Alexei Sayle in a bowler hat, their oud player Andrew has wavy hair dyed in orange and black stripes and their drummer Hiram has the appearance of the lovechild of the Hair Bear Bunch and Animal from the Muppets.
But there is a serious side to Viza and they have been involved in raising awareness of the Armenian genocide, the extermination of over a million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I.
The topic remains controversial with some countries still refusing to recognise the events as genocide. During his election campaign, Obama won support from many of the Armenian community in the States through support for the cause, but failed to use the word “genocide” during his commemoration speech earlier this year.
I asked Andrew about his feelings regarding this and he told me, “Well there was a lot of disappointment when he didn’t recognise it, because Obama made an unprecedented level of promises, more than any other presidential candidate in American political history so when he didn’t recognise it explicitly there was a big let down. However he has done more than any other president. It’s still disappointing but he did more than any other president; he used the Armenian traditional word “Metz Eghern” which means “great catastrophe” and he used a very high specificity of language when talking about the intent and the extermination that other presidents have not done.
As an Armenian American of course I was really disappointed personally and other communities were as well, but there’s always a chance to do the right thing if he’s elected again but it was also a chance for Armenians to get involved in the political system and be more civicly active so the recognition itself isn’t, well it’s kind of the goal but everyone needs to be civic minded and more active as people conscious wise.”
So do they think that music can change the world? Chris told me, “I think it could. I think it allows people, it gives people an outlet. It gives people I guess the right to think freely or express themselves more freely in different ways. They can explore themselves and use different styles and sounds and I think it’s a part of what we try to do as well, just kind of bringing different cultures.
“Everybody’s from different parts of the world so we have like four different dialects of Armenian in the band but everybody brings something to the table and I think it’s an enlightening experience and I think, you know, the closest thing to peace might be music nowadays”
Andrew added, “Throughout history, art has always been at the forefront of any kind of political change and I think people sometimes undervalue or underappreciate how powerful that is because through art, whether it’s visible or auditory, it’s a very compelling medium through which communication and education can result, so that’s something that we always keep in mind to when we’re performing our music, recording, writing”.
On stage all seven members of Viza have a strong chemistry. They project a clear enjoyment of their music that is contagious to all around and they emanate fun and positivity. By the time they performed their inevitable encore, there was a substantial moshpit in progress, but folk dancing, pogoing or raving would have been equally acceptable. There wasn’t a sad face in the house. If you weren’t there, do not fret. They told me that they loved London and are keen to return.
Did I also mention that they have done benefit gigs for orphanages? One way or another, Viza are here to make everything all right.
Images: Carl Byron Batson
Editor’s Note. William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain is a highly readable travelogue touching upon the Ottoman genocide of Armenians mentioned in the interview above, and contextualises much of the religious and social pressures of the region, still being felt in current-day Syria.