Racism in Metal

As a member of the left leaning socially liberal snivelling socialist windbag smug superior soup of an excuse for what counts for political opposition in this country (depending on your ideological orientation), feel free to read this as an apologist piece pertaining to the widespread and pervasive white supremacy in extreme metal subcultures. Owing to the sensitive nature of the subject matter, you may find this piece drawing tedious, dubious, and unnecessary distinctions. There is nothing I can do about that.

White supremacy’s association with heavy metal culture is nothing new. It gained a particularly unpleasant prominence in the early 1990s due to certain figures in the Norwegian black metal scene. Craig Pillard of Incantation is still a notorious figure in death metal for his neo-Nazi affiliations. National Socialist Black Metal is its own subgenre, owing its distinction from black metal due to the sheer number of bands that either explore neo-Nazi themes in their lyrics, or express similar views in interviews and album liner notes. In 2015 a Satanic Warmaster gig was cancelled owing to concerns over the lyrical content of the band, leading to the venue and promoters bowing to pressure over giving a potential racist act a platform and cancelling the gig. Let’s not forget Phil Ansalmo’s proud declaration of love for white wine caught on camera at Dimebash 2016. There’s Chicago based death metallers Infestor, whose lyrics were littered with the usual gore soaked themes of death metal, only the violence was disproportionality focused on black people. And if, like me, you hold the music of Burzum in higher esteem than most, there is no end of tragicomedy to be had from reading and listening to his surrealist mixture of traditionalist and white supremacist rants online.

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Graveland

Before I go further I would deem it appropriate to give a little explanation of what it means to be a metal fan. Metal fans are shy about the kind of music they like. It really is just about the music and nothing more. They don’t like to display the bands they like on items of clothing and other merchandise. They’re not that interested in the heritage of their favourite bands, rarely exploring older bands and earlier influences. They tend to be quite fickle; they’re not loyal to particular bands and rarely follow them for more than a year. These things are funny because the exact opposite of each one of these statements is true. To be a metal fan is to inherit a long and rich heritage, offering a whole wealth of older styles to explore, and the lineage of various scenes. They are caretakers of physical media, merchandise, artwork, the collective history of people, the shared memories of gigs and festivals, essentially all the things that make up a subculture. All this makes me wary of cherry-picking outsiders, not because they are not welcome to cherry pick, but because they do so on the pretence of taking a style or subgenre in a new direction. Further debate on this to follow in a future entry.

In the interest of staying on target I will return to my previous line of reasoning for now, only to say that it is a set up for the following further clarification. Metal is heavy. Metal is outsider music. Easy to parody, easy to get wrong, easy to fall into the trappings of spectacular artistic failure so extreme as to evoke a rich history of parody running in parallel to the history of metal proper. In this lies one of its greatest strengths, the line between soaring to otherworldly artistic achievement is just next door to fantastical failure. In extreme metal in particular, this will have a unique appeal to self-styled outsiders. In the upside down world of puberty those who feel excluded from other forms of youth culture, or exclude themselves, will feel the pull of extreme metal, out on the peripheries of sonic experience. And hand in hand with the audio violence and desolation of extreme metal are ideas outside the spectrum of the acceptable.

If it’s alright with you, I’ll write with the assumption that racism is generally bad and unjustifiable. But it’s no secret that outside of this very basic premise there are any number of subtleties and distinctions people like to draw when this collides with the right to freedom of speech and expression. Here are just a few in our current remit of discussion. If an artist expresses white supremacist ideas in repeated interviews and online, but such ideas never once manifest in the music itself, in the lyrics and album art, is it still wrong to support them? Should they have their gigs disrupted by groups like Antifa as happened at the recent Messe des Mort festival in Montreal where Graveland were due to play? Slightly less contentious; is an artist that fulfills all the former criteria but also occasionally has lyrics considered to be on the borderline of acceptability to be dismissed out of hand with no consideration for their artistic merit? Nokturnal Mortum, Veles, and the aforementioned Satanic Warmaster all being examples of this. In this instance, I find words like cognitive dissonance useful. I also find discussions of the separation of the artist from the art useful. In metal, lyrics are not always expressions of the lyricist’s own personal experiences and feelings. They will use the vehicle of fantasy, history, mythology and religion to imagine the experiences of an individual or individuals living through periods of war, turmoil, extreme physical agony, or the slaying of a dragon. When Tom Araya screams ‘AUSCHWITZ, THE MEANING OF PAIN, THE WAY THAT I WANT YOU TO DIE’, he’s doing so through the lens of a fanatical Nazi, not his own heartfelt conviction. It is one thing to express convictions felt from the heart, it’s another to talk about the convictions of others. If one important feature of artistic endeavour is the reflection of the world as perceived, then death metal and her sister genres serve a very relevant and ever current purpose in this enterprise. Another way of formulating the question; should artistic merit play any part in the length of the leash we give to the artist in expressing so called forbidden ideas they may hold? Is there no amount of critical acclaim we can bestow on a work of art that would justify us overlooking or separating this from views held by the artist that we deem unacceptable?

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Cover art for ‘In the Flame of Glory’ by Russian black metal artist ‘Forest’, released 2006

Anyway, stay on target. Extreme metal, and the clue is in the handle, is extreme. In everything…not just music, and as a result it will attract certain characters over others; one of the reasons why its appeal is particularly apparent in suburban, affluent, compellingly boring neighbourhoods. But as well as this staple clientele, extreme metal has an extreme propensity to attract those on the peripheries, the subculture will either create such individuals, or attract them readymade. In both cases, the individual is either unwilling or unable to participate in more mainstream forms of youth culture and culture at large and finds their home in this otherworldly means of experience. This is why I remain suspicious of attempts by more mainstream fans and commentators to bring the peripheries of metal’s extremities back into the fold. This is not born of fear of selling out, or popularising and thus domesticating a primal and alien world. It is born of self identified outsiders to extreme metal attempting to redefine what it should mean to everyone. This again is an annoyingly fine distinction, in this framework they are not forbidden from participation in the dialogue, but they are forbidden from redefining the direction of the dialogue unless they accept certain prerequisites.

It’s this pick and choose nature of certain outsiders that births the point of contention. Extreme metal means just that, extremity. I would never go so far as to say that it is inherently racist. But one aspect of the scene is that it has always attracted those who operate on levels outside what is considered acceptable by the mainstream. To take the scene of extreme metal as one pulsating bubble of culture, you cannot expect it to tick all the right boxes on the social and political spectrum of acceptability. For a culture that idealises the negative, that uses ‘evil be my good’ and ‘extreme music for extreme people’ and ‘only death is real’ and ‘if you are a false don’t entry, the nuclear drums will crush your brain, because you’ll be burned and died’, and other such phrases as mantras, one can hardly expect it to operate on the level of the salubrious. To expect it to at its core, is to harbour the expectation for it to be something which it is not. Part of its appeal is precisely because it explores ideas normally considered to be forbidden. It reflects the depraved capabilities of humanity’s depths, and the soaring heights of beauty and indifference found in nature. If it is to be this reflection around focal points of reality we’d rather forget within the day to day, then it cannot apologise for attracting such people.

The unacceptability of certain views is precisely why they often find a voice within extreme metal. You may argue that this means that extreme metal is then at risk of becoming a platform for white supremacists. Something I’m sure the Antifa activists would use as justification for breaking up concerts. Some clarifications may be in order at this point then, because there is a risk that many bands and artists within extreme metal are tarred with the same brush as out and out racists, simply by being guilty by association. Antifa has shown a consistent ignorance of the distinction, having prevented multiple bands from playing at Messe Des Mort beyond Graveland. The variation of distinctions people like to draw to navigate the incomprehensibly sticky web of what is acceptable and unacceptable is too greater a task for me to undertake head on here. But there are distinctions. I accept that much. What I don’t accept is the expectation that the lightning bolt of extreme metal is to conform to these subtle standards and distinctions.

If you don’t like this uncomfortably close connection then leave it well alone, extreme metal is not for you. I can tell you’d like to equate this statement to something akin to ‘if you don’t like Nazism because of the racist elements, leave it alone, it’s probably not for you’. The obvious difference being that Nazism embodies a form of racism at its very core, whereas extreme metal has not or ever will embody such ideas as a defining feature at its very core. NSBM is no unique take on black metal musically, it’s simply a catch all term for disparate bands that play black metal but are also Nazis or Nazi sympathisers on the side. Call out racism and prejudice on its own terms, and by all means challenge it whenever and wherever you see it. But many people find their home in extreme metal, and are willing to accept that many thuggish racists have actually made some pretty fucking cool music, some where the actual content of the music contains racist ideas, some where it does not. Within reason, I can sympathise with the motivations of those that do not wish to give these people a platform at gigs, owing to the only justification for curtailing freedom of speech and expression, when it is deemed to insight hatred. I do not approve of the methods of breaking up gigs and festivals that are already taking place however, one artist that Antifa deemed unacceptable does not equate to a right to break up a whole festival full of other people reaffirming their credence to metal.

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Antifa

I understand this is far from a convincing justification for the kind of company we keep. But if the very existence of such a subculture can be taken as a necessary and unique artistic expression, the company we keep is a severe and bitter reminder of what exists beyond the pale of our social norm radar. Who has othered themselves? Who has been othered by the mainstream discourse? Music has often been blamed as the cause of extreme acts in the young and the impressionable, Marilyn Manson and Judas Priest being high profile examples of this. But as has been proved countless times, music alone is not the cause, if anything they are therapeutic to the complexes young people are at risk of developing, circumstance, be it familial, social, educational, or mental, are the real causes for extreme acts of violence in young people, the music being a symptom (or sometimes scapegoat) of this.

In many cases I suppose you could say that extreme metal, taken as a whole, is amoral, or non-moral. There are broad sweeps of thought and ideas one can extract from the music, a reverence for nature, death, decay, violence, a vehicle for social critique, a meditation on the world beyond self. But these hardly make up a coherent philosophy or ideology. I make no apology for buying and supporting bands with neo-Nazi leanings, not because I think such views are acceptable, but because I don’t know what else to expect from such a subculture on occasion. Not pervasive, not inherent to its identity, but loosely associated with it from time to time. Call out racism on its own terms, I feel differently about attempting to change a subculture that makes it its business to be the adversary, constantly challenging our own preconceptions and inviting us to explore the insalubrious, the forbidden.

An afterthought on Kate Bush. When she came out as a Theresa May supporter there was a massive outcry from many of my friends who have been lifelong Kate Bush fans. Someone they had admired for so long was not all they thought she was. Being no fan of Kate Bush myself, I still followed the story with some interest. I find it odd, especial in non-political artists, that people seem incapable of separating their works from their views. Does art take on a life of its own once it is released into the world of interpretation? Indeed, if art is merely the sum of interpretations of said work, then this is clearly the case, if art is the successful articulation of the intention of its creator, then maybe this is not the case. Since the age of 14 I Have placed Burzum at the forefront of what I believe modern music is capable of achieving, so I tend to favour the former view. One further thought, and one you probably already know, is that creative people in general are often fucking crazy. Kate Bush may not be for me, but I can see her unique appeal among pop stars and her off the wall tendencies. She’s also fucking weird in real life, far weirder than harbouring an admiration for a Conservative mainstream politician would suggest. In general artists operate on the peripheries of what it means to be human, and they see themselves as a vehicle for a reflection of humanity, a projection of what it could be capable of, and a prescription for they how they wish it to be. What the fuck do you expect when you ask them to develop a coherent political, social, ideological, or philosophical worldview off the back of this? Alternatively, just repeat cognitive dissonance in ritualistic reverence.

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