As we venture ever-deeper into the second decade of the 21st Century, there are some among us who believe that the hard rock form finds itself in a sorry state of disrepair. Such folks contend that a legion of headline-grabbing rappers, along with a gaggle of preening pop princesses, have ostensibly hijacked the contemporary music landscape. They declare that these days, true rock music – especially the kind played with heart, intelligence and conviction – is almost impossible to find.
Just don’t try to convince Demir Demirkan of that.
As proven throughout his latest five-song EP, Awakening – the first of a promised trilogy, War III — this well-seasoned Turkish native has displayed an inherent feel for strident guitars, powerful vocals and insightful lyrics that few current performers can match. But don’t for one second think that Demirkan – a former member of the influential heavy metal band Pentagram — is just some late-to-the-party “shredder” whose principle desire is merely to blow everyone away with his stellar six-string skills. Oh yeah, he’s got those faster-than-light licks by the bucketful. But this guitarist/ vocalist/songwriter/producer also possesses a global focus and a finely honed melodic sensibility that together serve to add an abundance of style and substance to every song he performs.
Perhaps it is Demirkan’s unique background that has provided his music with its special fusion of cutting edge elements. Born in Adana, Turkey, from his earliest days he was exposed to a panoply of sounds, ranging from native Anatolian rhythms to the classic rock riffs emanating from over the hills and far away in the West. By the time he was 10, three of his older brothers had already emigrated to the US, leaving behind their highly impressionable youngest sibling, as well as a well-worn acoustic guitar. That instrument would quickly change the course of young Demir’s life.
Originally content to mimic the guitar notes he heard emanating from albums by the likes of Deep Purple and Pink Floyd, Demirkan was still in his early teens when he began to develop his own musical voice. An approach soon emerged that served as a convenient half-way house for a myriad of musical styles, sounds and ideas. A Clapton or Blackmore-inspired lick here would be tempered by a traditional Turkish melody there, all somehow coming together through song to form a seamless whole.
In the wake of his unconventional upbringing, Demir was further motivated to follow his musical muse when he ventured off to college in his homeland. It was there that he first encountered others equally interested in rock music, including Tarkan Gozubuyuk, the bassist for Turkey’s up-and-coming heavy metal band, Pentagram. Through such contacts, he was initially exposed to the playing of a horde of rip-roaring guitar prodigies – such as Yngwie Malmsteen and Vinnie Moore – who served to kick Demirkan’s own hard rocking ambitions into high gear.
“I had never known that people could play like that,” he said. “It was so inspiring to me. I started practicing the guitar for eight hours every day… and I did that for a year. But I didn’t want to sound like them; I wanted to create a style I could call my own.”
Things soon turned full circle when his old college friend from Pentagram invited him to join that band just as their Turkish notoriety was beginning to heat up. By the time they released their album Trail Blazer in 1992, the group had become one of the best-known heavy metal units in their native land… and Demirkan was being hailed as one of the finest rock guitarists his nation had ever produced. Just as events were reaching a fever pitch with Pentagram, however, an interesting twist-of-fate floated Demir’s way… he was accepted into the prestigious Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. It was an opportunity he could not pass up.
The move to Los Angeles proved to be one of the transformative events in Demirkan’s life. Not only did he begin undertaking an intense daily practice regimen that saw him playing guitar for up to 13 hours a day, but he was also now being directly exposed to, and motivated by a legion of amazing musicians at school. He would soon encounter even more superlative talent while attending local performances by everyone from Dream Theater to Mr. Big. Quite simply, studying, playing and listening to music became the focal point of his existence.
“My life became a cycle of study, practice and going to shows,” he said. “I was living with another student who was also a metalhead and shredder. We didn’t want anything or anyone to get in the way of our playing. Often we would just pull our curtains closed so we could practice without being disturbed.”
While the strident sounds of heavy metal were still very much in his blood, upon graduation from the Musicians Institute, Demirkan decided to stay in LA for a year to further expand his artistic scope. He gigged with musicians from all walks of life and all genres of music – everything from jazz, to prog rock, to West African – and each style began to slowly exert an influence on his writing and performing. Yet despite the incredible opportunities the ever-diverse LA music scene presented, Demirkan’s heart still yearned to return home. So in the late ‘90s, he packed up his guitars and trekked back to Turkey, where a job with his old band Pentagram was conveniently waiting for him.
The gig within that popular unit proved both challenging and rewarding, yet it did not deter Demirkan from continuing to explore his own musical horizons in a most ambitious manner. During the following decade, he released no less than eight albums, five EPs and a string of singles under his own name, while continuing to perform with both Pentagram and a variety of other artists. He even found time in 2003 to compose Turkey’s Eurovision Song Contest entry, Every Way That I Can, which proceeded to wow the international judges and win that prestigious contest. Over the next few months, the song sold over 400,000 copies and topped the charts in Greece, England, Sweden and Turkey.
His burgeoning success only served to further spur Demirkan’s musical growth. More determined than ever to find a way of melding the music of his homeland with the hard rocking sounds of the West, he continued to seek out new ingredients that could function as a logical creative bridge. He found what he had been searching for when he began introducing key elements of Eastern philosophies into his musical mix. Eventually, this heady blend of meditation, musical exploration, social awareness and shredding guitar riffs led him to create the music found on Awakening – which Demirkan states represents the first release in a trilogy of promised discs that together will form War III.
“I have always been exposed to a lot of different cultures,” he said. “I come from a land where people have different roots. Some are Arab, others are Armenian, Syrian and Jewish. We you try to bring all of that into a Western context it can be challenging, but it became second nature to me. That’s why my rhythms, my vocal phrasing or the melodies I write are just a little different. Then when I went to Thailand, Japan and China in 2007, new elements started to enter my music. It gave my music a new meaning.”
This unique blend of contrasting cultural philosophies and mingled musical attitudes can be heard throughout Awakening. As shown on such songs as Let It Burn, Money Is and Hold Onto the Innocence, Demirkan showcases the full gamut of his musical skills. From rugged funk strut, to pure metallic bravado, to surprising acoustic tenderness, the material featured on Awakening brilliantly displays Demirkan’s ability to craft songs that smoothly blend power and precision with more than a modicum of politically-inspired lyrical savvy.
Perhaps this approach is best reflected in Freedom, a song that boldly spits in the face of the rising tide of oppression that is encircling the globe, while never losing its firm hard rock footing. Indeed, upon listening to the entirety of Awakening – which features cover art by the legendary Hugh Syme, whose work has adorned albums by everyone from Rush to Iron Maiden to Queensryche — it is apparent that this is the work of a man in full control of the entire spectrum of his highly individualistic musical approach. Unquestionably, Demir Demirkan is an artist to be reckoned with… someone who knows that in the 21st Century the hard rock form is more than just alive and well. It is a style still longing to be guided to higher levels of acclaim by exciting new forces and stimulating new ideas.
“I don’t hold anything back,” he said. “There’s no A&R person. No one is asking me to do or not do anything with this music. And for the first time, I decided not to produce myself. I’d been producing my own albums since I started. But I partnered with Phil Galdston on Awakening, which was a great blessing because I trust him with my music. He helped me learn to let the music take me to where it wanted to go, rather than me directing it all the time.”
— Andy Secher, Feb. 2018