Hiding in the Grey Spaces

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As ever in black metal, a new controversy recently bubbled up to the surface. An open letter from the Anti-NSBM Working Group, published on Metalsucks [1], requesting that Hell’s Headbangers cease carrying records by far-right and National Socialist bands and labels, drew an inevitable backlash. Most notably, a piece by Exhumed vocalist Matt Harvey [2] argued that metal is inherently apolitical; that, whilst ending bigotry is a noble aim, it is as good as impossible; and that attempts such as the open letter which seek to ‘censor’ labels and bands are an ineffective way of doing so.

Yet, for all the recent arguments, this is a debate that has been going on for years and years at one level or another, but what is overlooked is the simple fact that many bands act in ways that are intentionally provocative; yet, when they succeed in provoking a response, an air of innocence is often adopted. It is slightly absurd when musicians who express controversial opinions – whether sincerely held or simply to shock – act surprised when offence is taken. Whilst artists have every right to say whatever they wish to say, hiding behind the shields of ‘free speech’ or ‘art’ should not mean that they have the right to be granted a platform, or to be protected from the consequences of their actions. Moreover, the idea that metal is somehow an inherently apolitical scene means that, for better or worse, opinions that would be shunned elsewhere are often normalised, and this has an effect not just on metal, but on society as a whole.

Marduk grey spaces

Whilst the number of overtly Nazi bands is, in the grand scheme of things, relatively small, the number of bands who flirt with fascist or far-right imagery and ideas is much larger. Nor is it restricted to the underground. You’re unlikely to go in to a HMV and find explicitly neo-Nazi records – as you might some underground tape distro – but you’ll still find records by artists who have made controversial, if not out-and-out racist, statements. The most obvious example is, of course, Burzum, whose mainman Varg Vikernes is as well known for his white supremacist, pro-ethno state beliefs as he is for spearheading one-man black metal – and sure, whilst you can find Burzum records on the high street, you’re unlikely to find albums by, say, Goatmoon or Nokturnal Mortum. You’ll still find fascist imagery though, whether it be from Marduk or the mainstream likes of Slayer – whether sincere or not, it still contributes to a scene where such imagery is normalised. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find albums by musicians who seem to hide in the grey spaces, making statements or playing with images that might not be explicitly racist, but still feel like a dog whistle to those who believe in such things. A radio interview with Myrkur, for example, where she professed to be uncomfortable with Islam [3] contained enough hesitation and vagueness to avoid being irrefutably racist; but, when combined with music rooted in ancestor worship, with its imagery of an imagined, pre-Christian pagan Europe, (which is inherently associated with an idea of a fictional, “pure” Europe before modern migration – a common trope in metal) takes on a different, more sinister tone. Though a recent interview with Metal Hammer [4] saw her offer statements acknowledging that some Muslims have had a positive influence on Europe, whilst also dodging questions on Islamophobia and racism, these statements do little to make metal a more welcoming, inclusive place. If your problem is with sexism in metal or wider society, say so; don’t use this as an excuse to attack an already marginalised group (and there is already plenty of sexism stemming from traditional Western, Christian ideologies without blaming Islam).

A few years ago, the sentiments of such an interview might have been surprising. But what’s notable is that, far from being an underground train of thought, Islamophobia and far-right politics are more visible in Western society than at any other point in recent history. Following the votes for Brexit and Donald Trump launching his presidential campaign respectively, reports of hate crimes rose substantially in the UK [5] and US [6]. Nor are Muslims the only targets; attacks on Jews, people of colour, and people identifying as LBGT+ have all increased. In Greece, the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn is one of the largest opposition parties (with one of their members of Parliament, Georgios Germenis, as vocalist of black metal band Naer Mataron). Donald Trump has been openly supported by far-right groups – most notably, the Ku Klux Klan – and done little, if anything, to refute them, even going so far as to draw equivalence on multiple occasions between neo-Nazis and anti-fascist protestors in Charlottesville [7]. Elsewhere, anti-Islam, far-right parties such as the National Front (France) and Alternative For Germany are seeing support that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. Far from being the sole preserve of bands that press 88 copies of their demo, fascist, authoritarian, and xenophobic politics are, in many countries, becoming worryingly mainstream propositions.

Grey Spaces

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Now, I’m not suggesting for one moment that the rise in far-right politics is linked in any substantial way with metal. What I’m saying instead is that, by being surrounded by such thoughts and imagery, they can become normalised, so that they no longer seem shocking or surprising. If you often listen to bands or read interviews expressing far-right sentiments, it’s not such a shock when you find those views reflected in modern political movements compared with if you have less contact with them.

Furthermore, many of the defences from bands making controversial or provocative statements when they are pressed on them are intellectually empty. The claim that metal is inherently apolitical is utterly false. Right from its first days, metal has been a political beast, with many of its big bands – from Black Sabbath (‘War Pigs’) to Metallica (‘One’) to Sepultura (‘Refuse, Resist’, ‘Propoganda’, half of their discography really) to Megadeth and Iced Earth (with recent albums from both bands drawing inspiration from modern American right-wing thought and American exceptionalism) to Napalm Death (practically every song recorded) – expressing views that would currently be considered left-wing in no-nonsense terms (Megadeth and Iced Earth aside). This is even without considering the idea that metal can be inherently considered as outsider music, and it is impossible to create outsider music without it being a protest against the status quo of society – hence, it can be argued that metal is inherently political, rather than apolitical. Likewise, the idea that metal is some utopia where all are welcome is evidently a lie – it may seem that way to straight white men, but to women, or people of colour, or those who do not conform to gender norms or identify as LGBT+, it can be a very unwelcoming scene; the acceptance of neo-Nazis only emphasises this. By welcoming a group whose ideology is based upon genocide, patriarchy, and heteronormative beliefs, you inherently make those deemed inferior by Nazis less welcome and unsafe.

The argument that protesting against disagreeable sentiments is somehow censoring them is also plainly false. Censorship, to be clear, is where an authority figure prevents someone from speaking or otherwise expressing their opinion. Stating “I will not buy from your store because you sell neo-Nazi records” is not an act of censorship. You are not preventing far-right bands expressing their views. A metal distro not stocking a far-right band’s tape is no more censoring said band than they are a band whose music they don’t sell simply because they don’t think it’s any good or won’t make them any money. Freedom of speech does not mean that you are entitled to a platform from others for it. Nor does it protect you from the consequences of your words or deeds – to claim that this is censorship is, frankly, insulting to those who live in countries without genuine freedom of press or of expression. The hypocrisy of this argument should also be noted – by claiming “your protests against my music are censoring me!” you are, by this logic, censoring the protestor.

A frequent question asked is “why can a band write anti-Christian lyrics, but not ones against Jews or Muslims?” The difference lies in the concept of “punching up”, a concept that has its roots in comedy [8]. Within a Western context, Christianity is still the dominant ideology – our laws and culture are all rooted in Christianity. By challenging Christianity, a band challenges a culture that is in a position of power. In contrast, Muslims and Jews do not enjoy the same positions of social power or regard that Christians and Christianity does – these are groups who are frequently persecuted and prejudiced against, and by attacking them, a band is attacking a group who are among the less powerful in society, whilst also reinforcing social norms. Of course, this is different for bands from countries with different power structures and dominant ideologies, such as the raw black metal Iranian band Halla, or Mogh, who relocated from Iran to Germany, both of whom have recorded explicitly anti-Islamic songs. These bands approach anti-Islamic thought from a different position to, say, the neo-Nazi American band Taghut who wrote several anti-Muslim songs (and who, ironically for fascists, also had a song complaining about police harassment). The irony of anti-Christian, black metal bands engaging in anti-Semitism – which has its roots in Christianity, with Jews being blamed for the death of Jesus Christ – is also worth highlighting.

Mogh grey spaces

Mogh – a band originally from Iran but now in Germany, and vehemently anti-Islam.

The other common claim, that extreme metal should express extreme views, is also without merit. Extreme metal does not demand extreme politics. Playing hyper-speed (or hyper-slow) riffs and blast-beats does not require a band to also have controversial lyrics; and even then, there are plenty of topics to be explored without resorting to racism and other prejudices. It could even be argued that the sexualised lyrics often found mainstream in pop music are far more shocking and controversial than yet another song about Satan. And if we accept the view that black metal is rooted in Satanism; and that Satan stands as a figure resembling rebellion and individual liberty; then it’s no great leap to suggest that authoritarian thought and black metal are inherently incompatible, and hence that black metal is anti-fascist and anti-authoritarian by nature.

It’s a powerful statement to speak out against what we, as listeners, find unacceptable. This does not just apply to conventional left/right politics, but to other standards of behaviour. The swiftness with which punk/hardcore label Magic Bullet Records recently addressed allegations of sexual assault by the guitarist of punk band Zex – removing their records from sale, offering refunds to customers, and making donations to RAINN and Cornerstone Housing for Women, who support victims of sexual violence – speaks volumes about how seriously they take the allegations. By contrast, when members of Deiphago admitted to assaulting the girlfriend of a band member, statements from their label were notable by their absence. Likewise, Gorgoroth‘s career seems to have suffered little for guitarist and main member Infernus being found guilty of gross negligent rape in 2006; and rape allegations against Michael Gira seem to have done little to harm the popularity of Swans.

Likewise, just because a band or artist apologises for controversial behaviour or statements, we are not obligated to accept those apologies. It is perfectly valid to still hold racist statements by Darkthrone and Krieg [9] against those bands, despite both artists apologising for them. That Neill Jameson of Krieg’s apology included an admission that he was essentially trying to stand apart from his peers by making such statements is telling in itself, speaking of a culture where racism is somehow seen as noteworthy and consequence-free – a way to distinguish one’s band, where the music should be what does that. Apologising for making racist statements does not, in itself, take away the damage those statements may already have done, and whilst it is valid to say “this musician has done something wrong and apologised, I accept their apology and feel comfortable supporting them”, or to accept that serving a prison term means they have been sufficiently punished for a crime and deserve a chance at rehabilitation, it is also valid to say “they should not have said or done those things in the first place, and no apology can make up for the harm done.” Just as we set out own standards of what we find acceptable, we set our own standards of when we forgive or not – whether that be once a statement is issued, a prison term is served, or some other arbitrary point.

What should also be noted is that I am not telling anyone what they should or should not be comfortable listening to or buying. Those decisions are for individuals to make, and where bands don’t express their politics directly through their music, it’s perfectly understandable if fans don’t keep track of every interview given, and hence miss controversial statements or actions that aren’t picked up by the large metal press. And whilst it’s absolutely acceptable to say “I do not listen to this band because the politics of members, even though they’re not expressed in their music, stand in opposition to what I believe and detract from any enjoyment I might otherwise find,” it’s something different to force your standards upon another. But we should also be aware of the consequences of listening to and supporting far-right bands, or those who parrot their ideology and imagery for attention. Buying their records or merch gives them money with which to further spread and normalise their hate. Even streaming on Youtube or Spotify provides them with support, whether through direct payments from streaming, or by pushing them further up your preferences in the algorithms which suggests new music and videos to you at the expense of non-racist bands. And let’s also remember, when we’re talking about neo-Nazi bands, this is no simple difference of opinion – these are bands who support the mass-murder of people based solely on their skin colour, or sexuality, or health, or some other arbitrary definition [10].

Don’t be surprised if people stop buying from your store or label if you openly sell such records or otherwise financially support people who hold such beliefs – after all, making these record labels financially unviable is a good way of shutting them down and stopping them spreading their hate, and in capitalist society, the choice of where we spend our money is one of the most powerful, politically loaded actions one can take. Nor should bands be surprised if they act in provocative, controversial ways, and then find people taking issue with this – as the saying goes, if you play with fire, you’ll get burned. You’re free to sell or listen to neo-Nazi records, or to play with fascist imagery in the grey spaces; and I’m free to think far less of you for it.

Footnotes:
[1] http://www.metalsucks.net/2017/08/24/an-open-letter-to-hells-headbangers-records-to-stop-releasing-and-distributing-metal-by-white-supremacists/

[2] https://www.decibelmagazine.com/2017/08/28/matt-harvey-cant-censor-nsbm-distribute/

[3] http://ajournalofmusicalthings.com/an-interview-with-myrkur/

[4] http://teamrock.com/feature/2017-09-26/we-asked-myrkur-about-those-islam-comments-and-heres-what-she-had-to-say

[5] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-vote-hate-crime-rise-100-per-cent-england-wales-police-figures-new-racism-eu-a7580516.html
[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/opinion/hate-crime-lebron-james-college-park-murder.html?mcubz=3 and https://www.splcenter.org/news/2017/02/15/hate-groups-increase-second-consecutive-year-trump-electrifies-radical-right

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/14/trump-charlottesville-both-sides-tim-scott

[8] http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Punching_up

[9] When Transilvanian Hunger was released, Darkthrone issued a statement stating 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.” Fenriz later apologised for this statement, and in the book Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult (2013) admitted regret over the statement. The sleevenotes for Krieg’s split with Satanic Warmaster saw frontman Neil Jameson rail again “n****rloving” in black metal“. He later apologised in an article for Decibel.

[10] Related to this, let’s also keep in mind that “whiteness” is a shifting construct, as are all socially defined constructs. It wasn’t so long ago that Irish people weren’t considered “white”, and even now, there are divisions in neo-Nazi movements between those from Scandinavian countries and those from Southern Europe. Race itself is a flexible, changing idea, with no basis in fact.

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