Black metal, Politics and Provocation

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[Editor’s Update: After discussion on Twitter regarding Stuart’s mention of Orlando in the context of this article, a clarification has been added at the bottom to explain the writer’s intentions. There was no intention to portray the attacks in Orlando and Sacramento as equal, or that the Sacramento incident was an isolated case.]

A show by Norwegian black metal band Taake in Sacramento on 13 June was marred by pepper spray being let off into the crowd. Allegations are that it was done by one person, supposedly a member of the local Antifa (Anti-fascist Action) chapter, which had called for boycotts and protests of the show. The reason for this boycott and protest? Because Taake vocalist Hoest once performed with a swastika daubed on his chest. [1]

Black metal has a long history with controversy. Its second wave largely positioned itself as a reactionary movement against the death metal of the early 90s, objecting to how (supposedly) acceptable and mainstream it was becoming. This rejection of death metal is evident in both the direction many bands took – such as Darkthrone, who moved from death metal on début Soulside Journey to raw black metal on follow-up A Blaze In The Northern Sky – as well as its politics. Whilst popular metal bands of the 90s such as Napalm Death and Sepultura had overtly left-wing political messages in their music and interviews, several 90s black metal acts moved towards the right, with nationalistic statements and rivalries [2], as well as the far-right leanings of some musicians (most notably, Burzum and Mayhem‘s Varg Vikernes). Given the shocking way that the second wave was introduced to the mainstream, with press reporting on church burnings and the murder of Mayhem guitarist Euronymous by Varg Vikernes – and his resulting trial – as well as further controversial statements by key black metal bands such as Darkthrone [3], it is little surprise that black metal is often viewed with suspicion by those with a passing knowledge of the genre.

Things become even murkier in the underground. Darkthrone’s apology (which attempted to explain that “Jewish” was Norwegian slang for “idiotic”, an interesting example of how language and institutional racism combine, the implications of which are beyond the scope of this article) and Varg’s imprisonment were not the end of controversy in black metal. NSBM (National Socialist Black Metal) has become a subgenre in its own right, comprised of bands united as much by far-right politics as by sound. Even outside of this scene, bands making controversial statements in interview or in their music are still far from unheard of – take Ad Hominem, signed to Osmose Records, for one example. Even if the band reject the NSBM tag, an album entitled Dictator – A Monument Of Glory certainly shows far-right leanings that are unpalatable not only to the mainstream at large, but many other music scenes – it’s difficult to image the hardcore punk or alternative rock scenes being comfortable with such bands and statements. Going further underground, labels such as No Colours Records, or Darker Than Black (run by members of Absurd [4]) who have considerable rosters of NSBM or bands making far-right statements become more common, as do bands making use of more controversial or Neo-Nazi imagery [5].

black metal

Satanic Warmaster frontman Werwolf

There are also various incidents where black metal artists and bands have made statements, performed songs, or use imagery that is, at best, ambiguous. The original venue for Satanic Warmaster‘s Glasgow show in February 2016 pulled out, citing concerns over Satanic Warmaster’s links to NSBM bands and lyrics to songs such as ‘My Dreams Of 8’; in contrast, Satanic Warmaster mainman Werwolf has maintained that the band is not NSBM, and his only ideology is Satanism and black metal [6]. Likewise, in 2014 Inquisition were at the centre of controversy when rumours arose that they “clapped and cheered” when a tour bus driver showed them his swastika tattoo [7], as well as their association with No Colours Records and white supremacist Antichrist Kramer. Inquisition frontman Dagon denied that the band hold fascist or Nazi beliefs. In a wider sense, fascist symbolism can be seen in albums such as Panzer Division Marduk and the war metal scene. The admiration and desire to return to an idealised pagan, pre-Christian world that is so common to much black metal can also be compared to modern neo-Nazi desires, though it is important to remember that paganism and a longing for the past does not make one a neo-Nazi or fascist [8].

However, flirting with – or embracing – fascist and Nazi imagery is not unique to black metal. It was not uncommon for 70s punks in the UK to wear clothes or accessories with swastikas, including Sid Vicious, Siouxsie Sue, and Johnny Rotten [9]. This was done not because of far-right sympathies, but in an attempt to shock people, especially at a time when the memories of World War II were still fresh in the minds of older generations in Europe (after all, punk only rose some 30 years after the end of the war). David Bowie flirted with fascism [10], and Lemmy was well known for collecting Nazi memorabilia [11]. But, following apologies and explanations, no one would now strongly accuse any of these musicians for holding fascist beliefs. It is one thing to use fascist imagery for shock value, but another to hold such views. Given that black metal is, by its very nature, a genre that rejects mainstream society and is confrontational, it is unsurprising that such controversial imagery is often used. Additionally, whilst many bands may embrace a Nietzschean philosophy, that does not mean they embrace fascism – the relationship between Nietzsche and the far-right is a very complex one, with Nietzsche himself being very critical of several key tenets of far-right belief [12].

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Sid Vicious, 1978

Furthermore, there are many prominent black metal musicians who have rejected NSBM, looking down upon the movement. These include members of Watain, Gorgoroth [13], and Dissection – not bands who are noted for their left-wing stances (especially Dissection, whose main member, Jon Nödveit, was imprisoned for a homophobic murder). It’s interesting to note that many of the bands critical of NSBM reject it for similar reasons as they reject Christianity, arguing that it encourages herd-like behaviour and restricts individualism. There is also a recognition of the vital role of South American bands such as Sarcófago in the development of black metal, both in sound and aesthetics. And whilst the underground has its far-right scene in NSBM, there is also RABM – Red & Anarchist Black Metal, a much smaller and looser scene with no large labels or prominent sound, centred instead around the RABM Blogspot site, which aims to promote bands with far-left or anti-fascist views [14]. There are also movements such as The Dark Skies Above Us Collective, who put together anti-NSBM black metal compilations, where the proceeds from sales go towards left-wing causes [15]. And as well as overtly political left-wing black metal bands, such as Seeds In Barren Fields [16], there are also bands such as Caïna or Young And In The Way who may not make overtly political music, but have discussed their support for feminism and LGBT equality in interviews and social media posts [17] – often to a backlash from right-wing fans. And then there are bands and labels who reject both the far-left and far-right, such as Naturmacht Productions [18].

What does all this mean? As with anything involving politics, that nothing is simple. To assume that black metal is inherently fascist or right-wing is wrong. To rely on internet rumours and gossip in determining a band’s ideology is a dangerous path to take, especially when the nature of symbols is open to interpretation, such as the rune on the cover of Darkthrone’s Circle The Wagons – and, as the example of Lemmy shows very clearly, an appreciation for Nazi iconography does not mean you hold Nazi beliefs. Context is also important – whilst those of us in Europe might immediately associate the swastika with Nazism, there are movements to reclaim the icon, and remind people of its original meaning, both within mainstream society and in the metal and counter-cultural underground [19].

black metal

Furthermore, the question of politics and music is – to make an understatement – difficult. I imagine that most of us listen to records made by people whose views we disagree with to some extent. The extent to which a band or musician’s political beliefs influences our views on their music is something for us to answer as individuals – I will not sit here and dictate what you should and shouldn’t listen to. And likewise, the extent to which political music influences our views, and whether we are drawn to music that shares our views, is a complicated one [20]. And then there are issues of free speech, and the extent to which tolerance will allow intolerant views – difficult questions, beyond the scope of this article.

It all brings us back to the pepper spray attack on the crowd at a Taake show. It is important to note here that the attack was not on the band, but on members of the crowd. There is no way the attacker could know the beliefs of those fans in attendance – indeed, there’s no way of even knowing if Hoest himself holds far-right views. This is, after all, a man who has been filmed French-kissing Niklas Kvarforth of Shining on stage [21] – not behaviour one would expect of a neo-Nazi. It paints the picture of an individual interested not so much in the far-right, but in controversy for its own sake – especially as Hoest rejected claims of Nazism soon after the show held in Germany (a country which has laws against using fascist symbols) where he painted a swastika on his chest. And who were the support for the show that was attacked? Young And In The Way, the same band who have made multiple distinctly left-wing statements via social media.

It all makes the actions of the attacker look very sad and incredibly misguided. Even a short period of time engaging with black metal will show that it is not a genre defined by fascism and the far-right, even if it may seem more common than in other metal genres (though black metal is hardly the only genre to have problems with neo-Nazism – just look to Phil Anselmo for proof [and our own Wemmy Ogunyankin’s piece on it]). NSBM may exist, but as vocal as it is, it is a relatively small part of the black metal underground; and there is a vast difference between bad taste provocation, and openly performing in front of Nazi swastikas and white power symbols as bands such as Goatmoon do. Such an indiscriminate attack is never the way to go about making a political point – instead, engage with those you disagree with over reasoned debate. Not to mention the wider implications of such an attack at such a venue, mere days after the mass shooting of an LGBT club [22], and months after the shooting at an Eagles Of Death Metal concert in Paris [23]. An indiscriminate attack such as this upon ordinary concert-goers is perhaps the most counter-productive thing to do from the point of view of the local Antifa group. It is far better instead – and much harder – to reach out and talk with those you disagree. Political discourse in both Europe and America has become increasingly partisan and violent in recent months – as highlighted by the recent murder of left-wing MP Jo Cox by a man who, in court, gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain” [24] – and I hope that it is a long time before we hear of anything of this nature again. Sadly, I don’t think it will be.

If there is one key point I would make, it is the importance of being a critical consumer when it comes to politics and music. This does not mean refusing to listen to bands who do not share your politics – after all, politics is too broad and complex a topic to capture in short interviews or over the course of an album or song, touching as it does upon all aspects of life and society. Politics is too important a matter to let yourself be swayed by a song or album – certainly, it is right and proper than a band can introduce you to new ideas, but adopting fascist beliefs because your favourite band is Graveland is as stupid as converting to anarchism because you’re a fan of Crass. It is your choice what to listen to and which artists to support, but do not do so blindly. And just because someone listens to a band, it does not mean they agree with what that band believes in. A failure to recognise that ultimately leads to the kind of situation where a room full of innocent black metal fans are pepper sprayed because the singer on stage courts controversy.

Footnotes:
[1] Link to news article via Blabbermouth

[2] Famously, the Norwigan and Finnish scenes of the time had a strong rivalry, with Impaled Nazarene stating “no orders from Norway accepted” on their first album. There was also a strong rivalry between Euronymous and the Swedish black metal scene, to the extent that Euronymous’ murder was initially blamed by some, such as Fenriz, on Swedish black metal musicians.

[3] The back cover of the original press of Transilvanian Hunger labelled the album as being “Norwegian Aryan black metal”, and the band made a further statement that “Transilvanian Hunger stands beyond any criticism. If any man should attempt to criticize this LP, he should be throughly patronized for his obviously Jewish behaviour.” Peaceville Records, Darkthrone’s label at the time, put out a further statement criticising Darkthrone’s own statement whilst also stating that they could not censor their artists.

[4] Darker Than Black records is run by Wolf and Hendrik Mobus of Absurd. The first pressing of Absurd’s Thuringian Pagan Madness contained a dedication to Adolf Hitler, and Asgardsrei contained many Nazi references in the lyrics, linear notes, and symbolism. Members of Absurd have also served time for various crimes, including the murder of a classmate.

[5] Common examples include white power symbols such as Celtic crosses, Thor’s hammers, or references to the numbers 14 and 88, with 88 standing for “HH” (“Heil Hitler”), whilst 14 is taken from white supremacist David Lane’s 14 words, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.

[6] Finnish-language interview clarifying his position.

[7] Shameless Navel Gazing’s piece on Inquisition

[8] Pagan, Not Nazi

[9] Siouxsie Sue; Johnny Rotten

[10] Link to the Quietus interview (reprinted) with David Bowie

[11] The Independent article on Lemmy

[12] Wikipedia entry on Nietzsche and fascism

[13] An interview with Erik of Watain ; An interview with King ov Hell of Gorgoroth

[14] Red and Anarchist Black Metal Blogspot

[15] The Dark Skies Above Us website and Bandcamp.

[16] Seeds In Barren Fields on Bandcamp

[17] Interview with Caïna; Young And In The Way’s Facebook post

[18] Naturmacht Production’s website

[19] Reclaim the Swastika’s website; Origins of the Swastika

[20] Political Pop, Political Fans? text

[21] Niklas Kvarforth (Shining) and Hoest (Taake) kissing, via YouTube

[22] The Guardian’s article on the Orlando shooting

[23] A BBC report on the Bataclan attack

[24] The Guardian report on Jo Cox’s murderer

Clarification from the writer:

“At a time when there is heightened concern over attacks, especially in enclosed spaces, I cannot understand how anyone involved in Antifa think carrying out an attack of any kind is a good idea. It should go without saying, though, that the attacks in Orlando and Paris are much more horrific, and of a completely different scale; and that any sort of attack on fans or musicians is wrong. It should also be remembered that these are not new concerns, and that they have been raised by the press, musicians, and fans before – for example, when Dimebag Darrell was murdered on-stage.

Sadly, there have also been reports of further Antifa-aligned attacks at metal shows since I submitted the article (such as the alleged attacks on fans at a Morbosidad show, which led to Antifa protesting that band’s European tour, leading to many shows being cancelled). There has also been reports of trouble between members of Deströyer 666 and Antifa, showing that this is an issue unlikely to be resolved any time soon.”

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