Studying musical theatre seemed like the right thing to do when Djamila Azzouz was 18 years old. While growing up in London she realized she had a natural talent for singing, and her family steered her towards a career in the performing arts. So when the time came to start university, she dove in headfirst and traveled 200 miles north to study her craft at the University of Leeds. The budding performer spent her school days practicing pitch-perfect scales and how to cheerily project to the cheap seats — until she realized that her dream of belting out show tunes had become a waking nightmare.
"I got halfway through it and was like, 'Fuck … this is dumb! I cannot believe I'm paying all this money to get up every morning and go and sing the fucking Sound of Music. What am I doing?'"
Azzouz promptly dropped out, saying "So Long, Farewell" to the performing arts — but not to performing altogether. These days she's fronting London metalcore quintet Ithaca, who aim to evolve the vernacular of the genre with their debut album, The Language of Injury. The title track alone possesses its share of fist-through-a-wall mosh moments, progressive-metal time shifts, and a mixture of discordant scrawls and distorted melody, courtesy of guitarists Sam Chetan-Welsh and Will Sweet, drummer James Lewis and bassist Drew Haycock (current bassist Red Sismey joined after the record was completed). Azzouz, for her part, imbues the piece with equal amounts of forest-leveling screams and reverb-milky layers of ethereal harmony.
Speaking over Skype, after wrapping her workday as an accounts manager for a London-based craft brewery, the vocalist assures Revolver that her transition from musicals to heavy music is not as unexpected as it may seem. And in fact, her interest in metal and hardcore stretches back to her childhood. Around the turn of the 21st century, for instance, her older brother brought home a copy of the metalcore-leaning soundtrack for 2003 horror team-up Freddy vs. Jason. Azzouz fondly recalls gravitating towards the sounds of In Flames, Killswitch Engage and Hatebreed, but completely obsessing over "The After Dinner Payback," the contribution by Long Island, New York, post-hardcore crew From Autumn to Ashes. "I could go on about that band for forever, they're one of my favorite bands of all time," she says. "That was the first time I'd ever heard that song, and it blew my mind. Holy shit, it's like metal but also hardcore … and there's cleans [vocals]!"
Ithaca's full-length debut is a similarly dynamic effort, in no small part owing to Azzouz's impressive vocal range and the band's foundation-rattling grooves and furious riffs. But as focused as Ithaca are on making a sonic impact, they're just as driven to make a sociopolitical one. The group actively fosters an inclusive, diverse atmosphere within their community. They recently contributed a track to a compilation for the Worldwide Organization of Metalheads Against Nazis (WOMAN) and use their social feed to champion LGBTQ causes, race equality and feminist discussions. With the last in mind, Azzouz recalls loving the music and "very violent" vibe of the first hardcore show she attended at 16, but also remembers feeling disenfranchised by the male-dominated scene. "You feel like you've stumbled on something incredible. This is your thing! You found your tribe," she says. "But at the same time, it was not a very welcoming place for women … there wasn't the representation that there is now."
"We're interested [in politics] because we occupy quite an interesting and significant space in our scene," Azzouz continues of the group, whose multicultural lineup includes members of Arab and Indian descent. "We are a band that beseeches people from the varying scale of gender, and also people from different ethnic backgrounds, and varying sexualities as well. That's unfortunately a rarity, but I guess we [the hardcore community] are working on that."
While Ithaca's outlook is political, Azzouz's lyrics are unabashedly personal. Thematically, The Language of Injury centers on communication breakdowns and the aftermath of people not being direct with each other — the frontwoman penned her lyrics as a toxic relationship was collapsing in front of her. "There are a couple of songs on the album specifically that are very emotionally raw," she says. "I feel that there is a … catharsis about it, but every time we go back and play the songs, I am very much revisiting that [period]. I'm putting myself back in that position that I was in at the time, and revisiting that pain."
Nowhere is that more clear than on the LP's penultimate number "Gilt." During a brief reprieve from the song's metallic chaos, Azzouz quietly, but confidently, muses above a gently plucked melody: "Nothing stops me." Hopefully, the same can be said for her band.