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SIDI KACEM, Morocco (Reuters) - Hundreds of Moroccan heavy metal fans met on Saturday for their biggest festival in the north African country since a group of hard rock enthusiasts was jailed five years ago for "Satanism."
Braving the opprobrium of Islamists and heavy rain, young men in black jeans and jackets, goatee beards and dreadlocks trudged to a cavernous concert hall in Sidi Kacem, a market town in a farming region of northern Morocco.
As the first group Hammerhead began tuning up, a small Fiat drew up outside the hall and two police officers stepped out.
"It's OK," said organizer Yassine Ould Abbou, 22. "They're just here to check the security arrangements."
A clang of grinding guitar feedback signaled the start of the concert and prompted startled glances from veiled women and men on mopeds passing by.
"Most people in this town have never seen an electric guitar," said Yassine. "We had 500 people at our last concert in 2005 and this time we're expecting about 1,000."
The concert began with only a few dozen spectators leaping and whistling in the hall, but organizers said attendance peaked at between 600 and 700.
"Going to war, give 'em hell, there's no escape, that's for sure," shrieked student Hamza, Hammerhead's 21-year-old singer.
Next up were Xenophiliya, students from Meknes who say they take their inspiration from U.S. band Megadeth.
The atmosphere became more anguished, the words almost incomprehensible behind jarring guitar riffs.
Outside, local boys and girls clustered near the door, transfixed by the cacophony within.
Many of the musicians agreed it was an uphill struggle being a hard rocker in a Muslim country, where the king wields paramount power.
"The big problem is finding somewhere to practice," said Xenophiliya's Khalid Lamnour. "People stop us playing sometimes. They think we are Satanists but they don't know our music."
Eleven young Moroccans were convicted in 2003 for distributing material which "undermines good morals" and makes "people listen, with bad intent, to songs which contravene good morals or incite debauchery."
Three were given a year in prison for "employing seductive methods with the aim of undermining the faith of a Muslim," sparking protests from rights activists.
"These people weren't Morocco's first metal players but they were sacrificed by the government to set an example," said Anas Tabouti, 19, from Sidi Kacem. "The rap scene went through similar problems in the 1990s and now it's mainstream."
Tabouti's group Damned Creation were up next. The wall of noise became more urgent and the crowd massed near the stage jumped and jostled. The humid air thickened with smoke.
Moroccan conservative politicians regularly rail against music concerts as encouraging alcoholism, drugs and mixing of the sexes.
But there were few signs of drinking at the Sidi Kacem festival. While drinking is permitted in Morocco, it tends to be discreet. The crowd near the stage was overwhelmingly male but a smattering of young women looked on or chatted among themselves.
"It's Saturday -- after a week of studying you need to let your hair down a bit," said organizer Ould Abbou.
Behind the entertainment, many of the bands said they try to convey a more serious message.
A young man who called himself Dead showed off the cover of his group's latest album Bastard War -- a grid of images depicting the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, Osama bin Laden, U.S. President George W. Bush and former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, ex-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and a crossed-out Nazi swastika.
"We called our group Ephemeral Promise to highlight the short-lived promises the government always gives to make things better in our country," said Dead.