The Propaganda Machine is a battle cry delivered in the language of extreme metal. On Sahil Makhija’s fourth solo album as Demonstealer, he takes aim at the right-wing politicians, racist nationalists, disinformation artists, and religious extremists who manipulate and exploit the masses, in his native India and all over the world. He doesn’t mince his words; just about every lyric on the album could easily be printed on a protest sign. Makhija admits that he could never have made The Propaganda Machine two decades ago when he was introducing India to death metal with his pioneering band Demonic Resurrection.
“I was a rather privileged kid living in Bombay City. I had no real interest in politics, as most kids don’t,” says Makhija, recalling the early days of his musical career. “So it was not even something that really crossed my mind, despite listening to metal bands that were political, like Sepultura with ‘Refuse/Resist’ and songs like that.”
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Makhija’s awakening was gradual. He started incorporating social commentary into Demonstealer as early as the 2015 single “Genocidal Leaders,” and real-world issues penetrated his last two albums, This Burden Is Mine and The Last Reptilian Warrior. But The Propaganda Machine is by far the most explicitly political record he’s ever made. One need only to look around to see why. Trump, Brexit, highly visible instances of police brutality, resurgent neo-Nazism, a global pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the list is familiar and depressing. What’s perhaps less familiar to Western listeners is the parallel chaos that’s been happening in India since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014.
“We had a massive political issue with this thing called NRC [National Register of Citizens] and the CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act], which was like an identity certificate they wanted to do, which was going to displace a lot of people,” Makhija says. The CAA, not unlike Trump’s racist Muslim ban, sought to limit Muslim migrants coming into India while permitting members of other religions to enter more freely. “There were a lot of protests, and I had gone to those protests. And then those culminated in the right-wing extremist groups actually going and attacking kids in college, shooting at protestors. And all that stuff led to some major riots in New Delhi, where a lot of Muslims were killed by Hindu extremists.”
“And then we went straight into the pandemic, where you suddenly had the government just pulling the rug out from under people with their lockdown,” Makhija continues. “We had migrant workers stranded in cities that they were not from, and they couldn’t get planes back, so they ended up walking hundreds of kilometers to get to their villages. Many died on the way.”
With all that darkness weighing on him, Makhija went into his home studio and started writing the songs that would become The Propaganda Machine. He wanted his lyrics to reflect what he was experiencing in India, but he also wanted to make it easy for listeners to connect the dots to the rest of the world. “I saw the same stuff happening everywhere,” he says. “Make the minority the big villain that the majority should fear in any country, and you’ve suddenly got control. It’s all the same tactics; it’s just that the country changes.”
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Musically, Makhija uses Demonstealer as a laboratory to explore whatever ideas pop into his head, and he tends to write with an almost stream-of-consciousness looseness. On The Propaganda Machine, he found himself composing some of the most richly detailed and densely layered songs of his career. The album’s mix would almost be claustrophobic if not for his commanding, confident clean vocals and the symphonic flourishes from former Cradle of Filth keyboardist Annabelle Iratni cutting through the proggy, death-thrash din. Makhija finds the right balance by trusting his instincts.
“I have phases where I sit down, and I’m like, ‘You know what, the next album is gonna be the most brutal album I’m ever gonna write. It’s just gonna be blast beats and the most chunky riffs and growling all across,’” Makhija says. “And then I actually start writing songs, and suddenly there’s this beautiful melodic thing I come up with, and I go ‘This is going in here!’”
Demonstealer is technically a solo project for Makhija, but guest musicians have been a crucial part of its sonic character ever since Nile’s George Kollias drummed on This Burden Is Mine. The supporting casts for Demonstealer albums have steadily grown ever since, and The Propaganda Machine is brought to life by a dozen additional players. The credits list Iratni on keys; four drummers, including Hannes Grossmann; an additional four bassists; and three lead guitarists. Makhija isn’t prescriptive about their roles. Each musician brings their personality to the material. “For me, if I’m gonna work with such prolific musicians, there’s no point in me programming or giving them a strict ‘Here, please play this and this only,’” Makhija says. “It defeats the purpose, I think.”
“It’s very easy to sample replace all the drum parts, and they’ll all sound exactly the same,” he continues. “But what’s the point then? The whole idea is that you’re capturing the musician and getting their performance. So you will hear the drum sound change across the songs on the album. You will hear the bass dynamic also change.”
The album still coheres, thanks not only to Makhija’s inimitable songwriting but the consistency of his ideology. As an artist working in a volatile country under the rule of a right-wing populist, Makhija could be forgiven for hedging a bit. The BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai were recently raided after they aired India: The Modi Question (2023), a documentary that explores the prime minister’s role in a series of deadly riots in Gujarat in 2002. Bollywood productions are regularly interrupted, vandalized, or shut down by extremists’ threats. Makhija himself faced censorship in 2009 when he called out a politician and a crooked cop with his satirical rock band, Workshop. If Makhija is afraid of the consequences of writing songs like “The Great Dictator” and “Crushing the Iron Fist,” he doesn’t show it. At multiple points during our conversation, he brought up his privilege and his responsibility to use it in the fight against oppression.
“People like myself can sit back in my apartment and be like, ‘You know what? This isn’t my fight. I can sit back and live my casual life because I’m not in trouble,’” Makhija says. “But there’s a whole bunch of people who are going to be trampled upon, and I’m pretty sure none of them are going to sit back and just let their lives be destroyed. They are going to fight back at some point.”
“I think through the power of protest, the power of information, we can actually make a difference,” he continues. “There are a lot of people who are fighting the good fight, in whatever way possible. And hopefully, more people will, over time, open their eyes and realize the privilege they have or the fact that they need to speak up. And we will see better days ahead.”