Israeli heavy metal band Amaseffer has won an award for best progressive CD, for its new album based on the Biblical story of the Exodus. Amaseffer musician Erez Yohanan talked with Israel National Radio (INR) about Mizrachi metal, fan reactions and the soundtrack to the movie Altalena.

Israeli band Amaseffer's album Slaves for Life has been voted Best Album of 2008 by USA Progressive Music, in addition to awards it received from several European web sites. Drummer Erez Yohanan first thought of the Exodus album concept ten years ago, but only began writing material in the past couple of years. He told INR's Ben Bresky about the CD that has been wowing heavy metal fans in Israel and abroad since its 2008 release. "I never felt ready to deal with such a spiritual and demanding concept until now," he said.

Yohanan grew up in a secular home in Tel Aviv, and spent five years playing in bands in New York before returning to Israel. His band mates Yuval Kramer and Hanan Avramovitch are both guitarists from in Jerusalem.

Commenting on the years it took to release the disc, Yohanan says, "It's a very hard story to deal with, both musically, lyrically and personally." Although some verses are taken from the Passover Haggada, most of the lyrics and music are original. Grinding guitars give way to mysterious sounding strings and wailing vocals punctuated by the sounds of soldiers on horseback and the cries of a baby Moses.

A sample of the lyrics: "Two brothers stand; their eyes are caught with fire / They know no fear from the tyrant on the throne/ A simple wish not granted / to worship for their G-d / There's no compassion inside the Pharaoh's heart of stone."

"The first chapter speaks about the beginning of the Book of Exodus up to the slavery period," says Yohanan, "then we move on to the birth of Moses, the Midian story and the burning bush." The CD ends with the Ten Plagues.

A second CD, which will deal with the story of the Jewish people's Exodus from Egypt, will be released some time next year, and a third album will complete the trilogy.

If you think guitars that crunch as hard as matzah mixed with Sephardic style vocals, darbouka hand drums and Middle Eastern string instruments is unique to Jewish music, then think again. In fact, Yohanan feels that the album is better appreciated abroad.

"European fans find it more appealing because all the oriental and eastern elements are very new to them," he explains. "Israeli fans take it as it is because they are used to this kind of sound on many other albums in Israel and other metal bands."

One entire track is devoted to Moses's wife and is simply entitled Zipporah. Yohanan said the lighter-style song is intended to lighten up the sad first chapter of the Jewish people's enslavement. The ballad-like ethnic piece includes Hebrew vocals from Maya Avraham, famous for her work with Israeli star Idan Reichel.

Other tracks feature Kobi Farhi, the lead singer of Orphaned Land, another Israeli metal band that mixes in Middle Eastern and Jewish sounds. Orphaned Land has previously released an album called Mabool, which recounts the story of Noah and the Flood.

"I don't think it's a true heavy metal album," says Yohanan. "We have so many motifs, such as the philharmonic orchestra, Jewish traditional singing and choirs with the support of heavy guitars and drums. I would say it's more like a movie soundtrack to the Exodus story."

Video Games and Movies, Too

The soundtrack description is an apt one as the songs, like a movie soundtrack, are filled with both sound effects and spoken word segments in English, Hebrew and Aramaic. This is not surprising, as Amaseffer is also a soundtrack production company that creates music for video games and movies. Their most recent work is the full score for Altalena, a new docu-drama about the Israeli ship sunk in 1948 by fellow Israelis resulting in at least 16 deaths, some Holocaust survivors. The movie was recently screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

"We chose our projects very carefully," says Yohanan of their film work. "When we were approached for Altalena, we thought it would be a direct connection to Jewish and Israeli history and we felt it would be a good contribution."

Although Amaseffer performs regularly both in Israel and abroad, the band refuses to perform any of their Slaves for Life material. "We don't want to perform just a part of the story. We want to wait until the whole trilogy will be released and then we will tell the story from beginning to end in a big extravaganza. All the actors and singers and choirs and philharmonic orchestra will be on stage." Yohanan says he envisions a 3-hour production. When fans hear the reason why they won't perform the new material yet, they understand, he says.

So with all this cool, rocking Jewish music, what will the Yohanan family be singing at the seder table this year? Not Amaseffer songs, says the drummer. "Sitting at the table and singing Amaseffer's songs instead of reading the Haggada? I think that would be problematic. It's not like regular tradition." Nevertheless, he he says his family loves the album, and judging by the positive responses on web sites and in magazines, so do fans across the world, both Jewish and Gentile.

Ben Bresky is the host of Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast, heard live on Arutz Sheva - Israel National Radio.