Better Red Than Dead: Towards A Socialist Black Metal

The history of black metal has been marred by lurid tales of church-burning fascists and the far-right represent an ongoing blot on the scene, but as *Tonight It’s A World We Bury* author Bill Peel argues, black metal remains a site of contestation with much to offer to left thought

Soon the dawn shall arise

For all the oppressed to arm

A chariot of thunder shall be seen

And bronze horns shall sound the alarm

Fists will raise like hammers

To a cloudy black sky

Bonds and chains fall to the ground

— Bathory, ‘Blood Fire Death’

“Politics” is kind of a dirty word in black metal. Ever since its origins in the late 1980s, the genre has rarely gone out of its way to address issues of politics. Black metal might pay lip service to “the oppressed”, like in the Bathory song cited in the epigraph or in songs like Darkthrone’s ‘I Am the Working Class’, but bands will still avoid any mention of politics, in thought or in action.

Nonetheless, the genre has gotten itself a reputation for being chock-full of fascists. And that reputation isn’t entirely undeserved. Euronymous, Mayhem’s guitarist before he was stabbed to death in 1993 and the closest thing the Norwegian black metal scene had to a figurehead, wrote a letter to a fan claiming that “almost all Norwegian bands are more or less nazis [sic]. Burzum, Mayhem, Emperor, Arcturus, Enslaved, you name them”. It’s impossible to verify Euronymous’s statement so far in the future, but he was correct in identifying a thoroughly racist atmosphere in the Norwegian black metal scene. Hellhammer, Mayhem’s drummer and Euronymous’s bandmate for a brief period, famously said that “Black metal is for white people”, and it hardly stops there. Varg Vikernes, Burzum’s sole member, has spent decades arguing against race-mixing, immigration and the supposedly dominant influence of Jewish people in Europe. He argues for what he calls “National Heathenry”, a combination of pre-Christian Norse paganism with blood-and-soil ethnonationalism. And while Vikernes hasn’t been the only influence on National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM for short), his influence has certainly been felt. Vikernes and others like him – Rob Darken of Graveland, Mikko Aspa of Deathspell Omega, Hendrik Möbus of Absurd – have done much to popularise the idea that black metal is by and for fascists.

Written analyses of the genre suggest the same. A large number of academic studies on black metal preoccupy themselves with the question of black metal’s engagement with white nationalism and/or Viking masculinity. Lords of Chaos, by far the most popular written work on black metal – so much so that it was made into a feature film – follows Vikernes for entire chapters and discusses his worldview at length, describing his ideological (and supposedly familial) ties to Norwegian politician and Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling. Lords of Chaos ends with a long exploration of far-right activity in the black metal scene, as if that’s the future of the genre now that the Satanist wave has crested. This all gives the impression that white identity and traditional gender roles are black metal’s foremost concerns.

The high profile of NSBM festivals solidifies black metal’s Nazi reputation even further. Until the spread of Covid-19, multitudes of black metal reactionaries met in Ukraine every year for the Asgardsrei festival. Asgardsrei is the most famous NSBM gathering in the world, where Peste Noire CDs can be sold next to busts of the Nazi high command. Started by Alexey Levkin of the band M8Л8TX and Ukraine’s neo-Nazi militia the Azov Regiment, the festival eschews much of the secrecy of far-right gatherings. Band rosters are publicised in advance, professional live footage is shot and for audiences, mobile phones are fair game. Unlike the annual memorial gigs for Skrewdriver’s Ian Stuart Donaldson – arguably the central populariser of Nazi music – one can simply buy tickets to Asgardsrei online, requiring no sleuthing or word of mouth.

As far as its reputation is concerned, black metal is irretrievably dominated by reactionary figures. But beyond the world-eclipsing influence of figures like Vikernes, NSBM’s actual popularity is relatively minor, and rarely do people gravitate towards it due to its Nazism. In reality, the genre’s explicit politics are much more boring.

I’ve been listening to black metal for a long time, and as far as I’m concerned there are two predominant trends in black metal’s stated politics. And neither of them is explicitly reactionary. The first is “reflexive anti-reflexivity”, summed up as “knowing better, but deciding not to know”. Separate from both anti-reflexivity (not wanting to know better) and unreflexivity (not knowing better), reflexive anti-reflexivity combines the two into a conscious effort to disregard or disengage with what one knows. Maybe a film can help clarify things. In the 2021 film Titane, a woman is on the run from the police and she assumes the identity of a boy who’s been missing for ten years. The missing boy’s father takes the woman into his home and cares deeply for her, thinking she is his son. But the father isn’t an idiot, and it becomes clear over time he knows the woman isn’t his son, but for the sake of his sanity, he continues to act as though she is. The woman only discloses her real name, Alexia, to the father once her hidden pregnancy is revealed, and the father continues to call her Adrien, the name of his missing son, even though she’s visibly pregnant. (Alexia is also pregnant with a car, but that’s beside the point.) In the film, the father obviously knows Alexia isn’t his son, but his immense emotional investment in his missing son’s return prevents him from acknowledging it openly until he can’t avoid the fact any longer.

In Titane, reflexive anti-reflexivity functions to prevent a devastating emotional realisation, a confrontation with “the Real”, in Lacanian terms. In black metal, it functions to strategically obfuscate a band’s politics, even when they’re plainly obvious. The Australian band Spear of Longinus claim on their Facebook page that they are motivated neither by race nor by politics, yet even the most cursory research into the band would indicate otherwise. Their first demo is called Nazi Occult Metal, featuring a song of the same name. Their second full-length album is called The Yoga of National Socialism, indicating an interest in fascist readings of the Hindu Vedas popularised by Julius Evola. The band released a split in 2013 named Rebirth of the Luciferian Light, not necessarily out of step with other black metal titles, but the album’s cover art features the symbol of Nazi-Satanist group the Order of Nine Angles front and centre. Finally, the band are represented by Darker than Black Records, whose roster seems to be mostly made up of NSBM bands. Reflexive anti-reflexivity isn’t plain ignorance, it’s closer to wilful ignorance. In this case, the reasons for such ignorance are perfectly evident: being outed as an openly Nazi band is undesirable, jeopardising collaborations and future profits. Above I said that this political trend isn’t reactionary, and that’s true for reasons I’ll soon get to. But it nonetheless affords reactionary bands space to move and grow and collaborate with non-political bands.

Reflexive anti-reflexivity selectively ignores a band’s politics, or pretends that such politics don’t exist, for the sake of maintaining friendly relationships in the black metal milieu. For a recent example quite well known to fans, two members of the Polish band Mgła have played backing instruments for NSBM band Clandestine Blaze on stage, while the sole member of the latter, Mikko Aspa, has performed live vocals for Mgła in turn. When this association caused a furore resulting in two cancelled Mgła shows, the band responded on Facebook by castigating those who would accuse them of harbouring any political sentiments at all, no matter who their friends are. The attitude shown by Mgła is pervasive in black metal. Apolitical bands will selectively ignore aspects of bands they associate with by claiming to be above or beyond politics and arguing that all art should follow suit. The same occurs in festival rosters, with apolitical and NSBM bands routinely sharing stages as friendly collaborators. This isn’t the same thing as left-wing bands sharing festival rosters with NSBM-adjacent acts as an attempt to reach out to audiences, because no attempt is made to disregard political differences for the sake of getting along. An atmosphere of reflexive anti-reflexivity allows bands to disavow the discussion of politics of any kind: left, right or nominally apolitical. It’s a conscious attempt at neutralising any political discussion, even when politics are blatantly apparent.

Of course, by no means is this kind of selective ignorance limited to black metal. Slavoj Žižek argues that what he calls “fetishist disavowal” is crucial to the operation of capitalism itself. After reminding readers of the daily horrors of factories and farms, he writes, “I know [the horror exists], but I refuse to fully assume the consequences of this knowledge, so that I can continue acting as if I don’t know it”. ‘Ag gag’ laws – which ban the recording and distribution of industrial farming practices – exist to reinforce disavowal. We know what happens on killing floors, but laws are passed to prevent us being confronted with the horror as often as we should be. On a more individualistic level, everyone knows the brutal conditions of Amazon warehouses or the Shenzhen sweatshops where iPhones are assembled, yet we selectively ignore such details when making purchases because the operations of capitalism coerce us into doing so. After all, in the global economy it’s the only game in town. In this regard black metal is no better, and no worse, than the economic system underpinning it. Both compel us to ignore the horrors they produce.

The second political statement in black metal is markedly less subtle. As this book’s title indicates, black metal harbours a desire to destroy the world as we know it. Reasons vary across the genre, but the sentiment remains the same. Aaron Weaver from Wolves in the Throne Room says that “it’s possible to define the essence that unites artists within black metal. It is a revolt against the modern world”, and he’s correct in his assessment. An absolute hostility to the world is black metal’s raison d’être. Black metallers, artists and fans alike are united in dissatisfaction at the state of the world, even if their dissatisfactions vary endlessly. Some hate religion, some hate capitalism, some hate immigration, some hate materialism. The unifying factor is that none are happy with the state of the world as it exists. The question remains of what kind of world should be built upon the ruins of the old one.

Black metal’s political sentiments are then marked by paradox: a hatred for the world, yet a hatred that disavows – nay, flees from – any mention of explicit politics. This paradox turns black metal into a kind of abstract weapon, capable of being aimed in any direction by whoever sees fit to wield it. The right have had no problem using black metal for their own ends, steering the genre’s hatred for the world towards a reactionary obsession with purifying bloodlines, securing borders and restoring traditional hierarchies. Their use of black metal points the finger at modernity and the supposed degeneration of values it’s brought with it. But black metal has much more to it than a reactionary nostalgia for feudal Europe, and it’s up to us to prevent this reactionary enclosure from being the end of black metal’s usefulness. Socialist thought is about looking for new weapons, finding new tools with which to think and to challenge the new forms capitalism takes, and it does itself a disservice by ignoring weapons when they present themselves.

Black metal, and its incomparable hostility to the world as we know it, is already a functioning weapon. All it needs is a clear target like capitalism to prove its full force. There is no larger a power in the world today, and nothing more capable of organising the world to its will. Capitalism has its hand in everything, big or small. It enforces drudgery in professional offices in the United States, it topples South American governments for better access to their material resources and it compels our desires towards its own self-sustaining motion. And above all, it ensures ordinary people never see the full value they create. Capitalism influences things as large as international shipping routes and as small as the ads we watch before a YouTube video, and always propels wealth to the uppermost echelons of society. Capitalism deserves our scorn, and black metal provides it in spades.

But even if I think black metal has its uses for socialist thought, I have no intention of “reclaiming” it, as is so often the terminology when the right makes a claim on cultural products like video games and Norse runes. Much of the language of “reclamation” implies that whatever is being reclaimed was originally a socialist entity that was stolen by the right. This is rarely the case, and especially so in black metal. None of the central figures of black metal in the 1990s were left wing, and as we’ve seen, several of them harboured reactionary sentiments from the very beginning. Black metal is not, and has never been, an unequivocally socialist genre. It cannot be reclaimed because it was never ours to begin with. While this may be controversial, I argue that any claims socialists make to black metal are as legitimate as the right’s. Fascists are not wrong to use black metal to express their political vision. They clearly see a usefulness which NSBM bands like Goatmoon, M8Л8TX and Absurd seize upon. So long as black metal speaks to them, black metal’s hatred for the world has the potential to be utilised by fascists. We cannot ignore this fact. Similarly, Red and Anarchist Black Metal (RABM for short) bands like Trespasser, Iskra and Skagos aren’t wrong to find value in black metal either. Black metal is, in the parlance of poststructuralists, “a site of contestation”. In other words, black metal is fought over by a multitude of actors, all of whom seek to lay claim to it. The task of Tonight It’s a World We Bury isn’t of reclaiming black metal from the right and calling it ours. Rather, it’s about uncovering the uses black metal has when put in relation with socialist thought. What can class struggle and emancipation give to black metal, and vice versa?

Tonight It’s A World We Bury by Bill Peel is published by Repeater

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