Rock Against Anything: How Metal Became So Fucking Reactionary and What to Do About It

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Much has been made about the growing intrusion of reactionary politics into the metal underground. Seems like we can’t go a week without some metal celebrity putting his or her (though really mostly his) foot in his mouth by whining about how the ess-jay-dubs are ruining the scene, or Antifa shutting down a gig, followed by endless back-and-forth over whether that’s a good or bad thing. But for all this talk, there seems to be little in the way of context to explain why this is all happening, nor a meaningful and comprehensive plan of action to combat it. In this piece I explore how the history of the subculture left it open to fascist infiltration and suggest some ways in which we can better address the matter.

I. The Darkness at the Edge of Rock

“Revolution in their minds – the children start to march
Against the world in which they have to live
and all the hate that’s in their hearts
They’re tired of being pushed around
and told just what to do
They’ll fight the world until they’ve won
and love comes flowing through”

-Black Sabbath – “Children of the Grave”, 1971

It’s a fact that many metalheads don’t like being reminded of, but the genre was spun off from hippie counterculture. Hippie counterculture, in turn, spun off from the Beat Generation, which probably defined itself more honestly than any other 20th-century counterculture that followed. The basic premise was a rejection of the social demands of Western monoculture (i.e. what has been commonly described as “The American Dream” in postwar parlance) and a desire to forge one’s own path in the world, usually by living a lifestyle that could readily be identified as Bohemian.

But as the Beatniks soon came to realize, building one’s ethos on the rejection of another ethos, rather than something affirmative renders it hollow and prone to collapse. The Beatniks’ refusal to commit themselves to anything constructive as a movement ultimately created an opportunity for Madison Avenue to identify the movement’s aesthetics (by way of stereotype), co-opt the aesthetic, package it and sell it as a hip new fashion trend to those who never believed in the Beatnik anti-ethos.

The Beatniks gave way to the Hippies who, to their credit, offered an affirmative vision for the world. Many were in it purely for the rebellion of drugs, sex and faux-Eastern spirituality, which is a big reason why the hippie aesthetic was eventually co-opted and commodified just like the Beat aesthetic (so much so that it was subverted by Western governments into an effective tool for turning youth in the Soviet Bloc against Communism). But enough were politically active and committed to an anti-capitalist, utopian vision that one can’t talk about hippies without talking about the New Left and their achievements in the realms of racial justice and anti-war activism.

But heavy metal didn’t arise from the strain of hippies who were marching against the Vietnam war and drafting the Port Huron Statement. The musical aesthetic of Black Sabbath was born out of a desire to replicate in sonic form the sensation of watching a particularly effective horror film – the name of the band, derived from the 1963 Boris Karloff vehicle, was itself a testament to that.

To be clear, Black Sabbath were not anti-hippies. They were not ignoring or subverting the dominant politics of the movement from which they emerged. “War Pigs”, after all, remains one of the most iconic anti-war anthems of the era. But even that song was originally titled “Walpurgis” with lyrics detailing a witches’ sabbath, being changed only after record company pressure forced Geezer Butler to commit to the text of the song his belief that “war is the big Satan.” Still, the band’s sound was built on a foundation of negativity – they wanted to frighten and antagonize with their music and use that fear and antagonism as a vehicle for the indictment of the very real evil that existed in the world around them. “Electric Funeral,” “Children of the Grave,” “Into the Void,” and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” are other classic songs that exemplify this convergence of sonic confrontationality, social commentary, and occult metaphor. This was not just what Black Sabbath were about, but also the blueprint for what heavy metal was supposed to be about. That blueprint, however, was either lost or scrapped.

 

II. Along Comes Satan

“Fight, we will fight right,
Living low in a world of our own,
Destined to live right, fight,
We’re taking hell as our home,
Burning lives burning,
Asking me for the mercy of god,
Ancient cries crying,
Acting fast upon the way of the dog,
Welcome to Hell”
-Venom – “Welcome to Hell”, 1981

The death of the hippie movement cleared the way for punk rock to emerge as the dominant counterculture in the West. It was a movement centered around music defined by its naked callow aggression and paired with grimy anti-fashion and nebulous anti-establishmentarianism. It was, in many ways, a reskinned rebirth of the Beat movement – outwardly hostile to the monoculture but without an overarching premise for that hostility or a real plan for acting on it.

In his 2013 essay, “Punk Rock is Bullshit”, John Roderick explores all the ways in which punk rock’s failure to articulate an ethos beyond pure rejection resulted in its ultimate failure to effect any sort of meaningful social change. Its cliquishness, obsession with shallow symbolic action, and inability to confront its own internal contradictions doomed it to being nothing more than a nihilistic sideshow. The disaffected youth that were attracted to punk rock could’ve dedicated their time to meaningful social and political engagement but instead wasted it largely on empty posturing and transgressive cultural signaling.

Up until the early 1980s, heavy metal avoided most of these pitfalls, in large part because it had managed to avoid (or perhaps resist) becoming a true subculture. Through the preceding decade it was difficult to draw a real distinction – musically, culturally or aesthetically – between metal and rock. Bands like AC/DC, Uriah Heep, Kiss, Blue Öyster Cult and Thin Lizzy were considered by many observers at the time to be heavy metal but the label was applied to them only in the sense that they were slightly louder and more abrasive musically than their contemporaries (you’ll note that they have since been retconned into being merely hard rock bands by most of the metal community that emerged in later decades). Even Judas Priest – considered a seminal, canonical heavy metal band that lent not only a sound but a look to the genre that bands emulate to this day – spent most of the 1970s playing music largely inspired by Queen and dressing like David Bowie.

In 1981, however, the trio of Conrad Lant, Jeffrey Dunn and Tony Bray – collectively known as Venom – finally made heavy metal “about something.” Venom were, as a function of time and location, an NWOBHM band, but were a complete outlier in their own scene. While the vast majority of NWOBHM used bootstrap DIY methods to record and publish music that featured a degree of sophistication that outstripped many of its forebears, Venom’s music was not merely raw in presentation but in composition and performance as well. Their demos and early albums Welcome to Hell and Black Metal musically had more in common with The Sex Pistols than with their contemporaries in Iron Maiden or Diamond Head. But their lack of musical chops wasn’t what ultimately made them stand out; it was their profuse, shameless and cynical use of Satanic and occult imagery.

Accusations of being in league with Satan had periodically been hurled at heavy metal bands (and rock bands in general) since the genre’s beginning but throughout the 70s bands would actively resist the smear. Venom was the first band to rise to international notoriety while proudly flaunting their obsession with Satan.

To be clear, other acts (most prominently Kiss and Alice Cooper) had actively played footsie with pseudo-Satanic imagery but for them it was purely stagecraft – Kiss’ lyrics were run-of-the-mill girls-and-partying schlock, after all. But no band before Venom had leaned so heavily on the figure of Lucifer (or, more accurately, a cartoonish version thereof) in their lyrics, and unlike Black Sabbath there was no metaphorical value to invoking him. For Venom, Satan was not merely a way of proving a point; Satan was the point.

Of course, anyone who paid close enough attention to Venom could see their whole schtick for the transparent sham that it was – the band members would themselves cop to not being actual Satanists and doing the whole thing for publicity. Frontman Cronos would describe the band’s underlying conceit as, “can you imagine Black Sabbath, but really evil?”. But in spite of their obvious posturing (or perhaps because of it), Venom became the second most popular NWOBHM band in the world, behind only the much more earnest and professional Iron Maiden. The success of Welcome to Hell and Black Metal would legitimize, once and for all, the invocation of Satan for Satan’s sake in metal. By 1983 this obsession with Satan become widespread within the genre as bands that openly embraced his image in the same way, such as Slayer, Hellhammer, Kreator, Sodom and Mercyful Fate (the latter of which was fronted by actual LaVeyan Satanist King Diamond), became widely viewed as metal’s cutting edge.

Throughout the mid-to-late 80s, as Satan was more and more inaugurated as the mascot of heavy metal, the genre’s relationship with him became more informed. Bands would draw from Biblical, Miltonian, and LaVeyan texts in their lyrics and in doing so both the bands and the listeners came to better understand Lucifer’s role as The Adversary – the personification of rebellion – in and against Abrahamic religion. What had begun as one band’s childish ploy to draw attention to themselves had snowballed into a characteristic as essential to heavy metal as heavy distortion and power chords. It was an ironic betrayal of the genre’s roots, given that Black Sabbath had treated Satan as a negative and malevolent figure (Geezer Butler, Sabbath’s main lyricist, was a self-identified Catholic, after all) but it nevertheless established an identity for artists and fans alike around which to rally. Metal was suddenly, and for the first time, actually about something.

Most importantly, the open embrace of Satan, being a cultural taboo throughout the world, codified transgressiveness as something intrinsic to the genre. Just as punk rock created for itself what John Roderick called “(a) laundry list of pseudo-values—anti-establishmentarianism, anti-capitalism, libertarianism, anti-intellectualism, and self-abnegation disguised as humility”, so too would metal, from that point on, define itself by its unholiness and opposition to organized religion (and Christianity specifically). Even bands that were not themselves explicitly pro-Satan (and, by extension, anti-Christian) would occasionally pay lip service to him, and in some cases band members who were privately Christian would serve as mouthpieces for these sentiments (see: Tom Araya).

 

III. Scales of Aggression, Modes of Transgression

“Do not rest in peace, may your souls all burn black
Your sons and daughters I will kiss….with a poisoned smile
Sing out the pain of your roots that you cannot deny
and we’ll crush your worthless prayers of the weak forgotten lie”
-Dissection – “Unhallowed”, 1995

Anti-Christian attitudes that came to permeate the genre were received and processed differently by audiences in different parts of the world. The manner in which they were received and processed was largely dictated by the concurrent societal role of Christianity in those regional contexts.

In the United States, the rise of the Christian Right as a power center during the Reagan era created an environment in which heavy metal was actively targeted as a threat to the social order. The so-called “Satanic Panic” – a rash of public hysteria stemming from several high-profile murders, suicides and child abuse cases in which Satanism and the occult was alleged to have been a factor – coincided with the rise in the genre’s popularity and placed it in the crosshairs of both powerful religious groups and the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group seeking to combat obscenity in music. This attention created feedback loop wherein metal bands and high-profile clergy and politicians would take turns attacking each other with ever-increasing degrees of antagonism, further and further galvanizing their respective audiences. Fed by this antagonism, many metal bands would work to make their music and lyrics increasingly harsh, violent and unpalatable to outsiders. It’s no coincidence that Florida, the hotbed of American extreme metal in the late 80s and early 90s, was also the epicenter of American televangelism.

In Latin America, the nascent metal scene was coalescing in the shadow of the devastation wrought by Operation Condor for the preceding two decades. Many of the scene’s participants had witnessed firsthand campaigns of state-sanctioned terrorism and repression wrought by (CIA-sponsored) fascistic military juntas throughout the continent. These juntas had weaponized fundamentalist Catholic sects as part of their campaign against socialism. It should therefore come as no surprise that bands like Sepultura, Holocausto and Chakal would frequently combine Satanic themes with anarchist and anti-authoritarian political sentiments.

In much of Western Europe and especially Scandinavia, however, Christianity had long been on the wane as a political force by the time metal had established itself as a true subculture. In the region’s distant past, it had been a weapon by which foreign invaders subjugated and erased the pagan culture of its native population – a fact that would influence the lyrics and philosophy of Bathory, the region’s seminal metal band and many that would follow. But under 20th century secular social democracy, it had gradually been relegated to a minor background role. The teenagers in the suburbs of Bergen, Stockholm and Göteborg faced neither the domineering cultural pressure exerted by Christianity that their American counterparts experienced, nor the firsthand knowledge of trauma inflicted by fascists wielding religion as a weapon that the Latin Americans had. To them the attraction to Satan was fueled purely by bourgeois nihilism – a sort of ennui experienced by all white middle-class youth when they come to realize how low-stakes their lives are. It was in this environment that the first truly reactionary strains of metal manifested.

When living in the countries with the world’s highest standards of living and lowest levels of religious affiliation swearing allegiance to Satan (or, at a minimum, showing hostility to Christianity) became considerably less shocking and radical act. But the desire to make that rebellion count for something was the same as it would be anywhere else in the world, which prompted the impressionable young Satanist of Norway and Sweden to find other taboos to violate.

In the absence of Christianity as a powerful agent of oppression in their own society, the Scandinavian youth processed the anti-Christian provocations of their favorite bands less as an incitement to rebel against a powerful authority and more as a condemnation of weakness. This attitude was not novel within the metal scene, as bands like Morbid Angel and Mercyful Fate would draw inspiration from LaVeyan Satanism (which itself drew inspiration from the radical individualism of Ayn Rand) in their lyrics, portraying Christianity as a feeble doctrine. But in a place where Christianity was, for all intents and purposes, a defeated foe, such rhetoric – centering disdain for the weakness of Christianity instead of its authoritarian tendency – was naturally twisted into a form of militant anti-humanism.

Christian morality was no longer a tyrannical source of social domination but the wellspring for all that was weak and execrable within mankind. And the weak were to be crushed under the iron fist of Satanic might. It was a philosophy that was fascist in all but name. Varg Vikernes of Burzum, the man most singularly responsible for bringing reactionary ideology into metal, took things a step further by incorporating the influence of 19th-century pan-Nordic nationalism into his anti-Christian posture. Not long after this world view was fully articulated, genuine fascist sentiments began to proliferate within the Nordic black metal scene, accompanied by several high-profile acts of arson and murder.

Of course, the fascism, arson and murder would have been seen for the self-evidently abhorrent things they are in most contexts. But the global metal community had, through its embrace of Satanism, positioned itself as a subculture wherein transgression was a form of currency. And rampant inflation of this currency had been happening for a full decade, with bands bundling heightened musical extremity with lyrics and imagery that year-by-year grew more violent, more Satanic and more offensive to the sensibilities of a censorious, conservative dominant culture. It would come as no surprise, then, that the global metal community treated the hijinks of certain Scandinavian musicians as nothing more than the next puff of air blown into the transgression bubble. After all, a subculture so bound up in the rejection of Christian values couldn’t suddenly recoil when someone put their money where their mouth was and violated several Commandments. Metal had to remain “dangerous” and if it meant some people got stabbed and some prominent musicians embraced open white supremacism, so be it.

 

IV. We’re All Geeks

“In line with their presumed whiteness, geeks are typically economically privileged. Both Gibbons and Lundberg are economically empowered white-collar workers. It is Lundberg’s unapologetic participation in the corporate environment that sets him as a villain, and Gibbon’s tortured relationship to his work which make him sympathetic, despite both characters participation in the same economic system and set of privileges.”

– Kunyosying & Soles, “Postmodern Geekdom as Simulated Ethnicity”, 2012

To stem the tide of reaction in the metal community, it’s also important to understand the fundamental geekiness at the heart of it. In their essay titled “Postmodern Geekdom as Simulated Ethnicity” Kom Kunyosying and Carter Soles define “geeks” (distinct from “nerds” and “dorks”) as “passionate, keep it real through resistance to academic / professional capital (subcultural fan capital ok)” . In other words, geeks are people who forge an identity outside of and in opposition to the dominant monoculture through consumption of products tied to a particular subculture and through this consumption (representative of their dedication) accumulate symbolic capital within that subculture. Kunyosying and Soles also explain how the geek identity is bound up in struggle as the geek and the monoculture mutually reject each other, and the “simulated ethnicity” the geek develops in response to this rejection. The geek projects himself as somehow put-upon and otherized in the same way a person of color is in a white supremacist society. In other words, “geek” becomes an identity in the same way “black,” “Latino,” “indigenous,” “female,” and “queer” are identities.

These same dynamics clearly manifest among metal fans. Throughout the genre’s history, but especially since it was codified as a transgressive subculture, metalheads have measured themselves (and one-another) by their dedication to the genre, as signified by various forms of consumption – collection (records, t-shirts, patches, etc.); concert attendance (especially traveling long distances for shows). It’s proven to be an effective sorting mechanism to distinguish the true diehards from the neophytes, dilettantes, and poseurs. On top of that, metalheads will frequently dress and act in ways that declare their dedication to the outside world, thus consciously placing themselves on society’s periphery, outside of the monoculture. The metalhead’s long hair, leather jackets and black t-shirts with unreadable logos and/or grotesque horror imagery become analogous to the thick glasses, comic book merchandise and social awkwardness of the geek, which in turn is analogous to the black and brown skin, femaleness and queerness of actual oppressed identities in the mind of the geek.

This is all pure pretense, of course. Geek culture was, for decades, overwhelmingly white, cis-male and middle-to-upper-class, so most geeks historically never had to experience firsthand any of the specific destructive socio-economic forces that disempower and disenfranchise true oppressed identities. Metalheads in the global West have historically been largely the same demographically, perhaps skewing somewhat more blue-collar and towards the lower end of middle-class. Metalheads and geeks can, at any point, make themselves physically indistinguishable from people within the monoculture with a different haircut and a change of clothes (perhaps hiding their tattoos in the former case) and benefit from all that comes with being part of the world’s hegemonic demographic without any sort of struggle. But for many in both groups the cultivated self-image of the outsider is far stronger than the recognition of actual socio-economic status, which means that anything perceived to challenge the consensus of the subculture, be it from without or within, is processed in much the same way institutionalized oppression is processed by members of actual disadvantaged groups.

This is where metal’s development as a transgressive subculture in the 1980s begins to translate into reactionary politics in 2018. For as long as the transgressiveness has been integral to the identity of the subculture, acceptance of it – either explicit or implicit – has been one of the boxes required to be checked off for people seeking entry into the subculture. And as previously explained, the antics of members of the Nordic black metal scene expanded the umbrella of the acceptable modes of transgression within the subculture to cover fascism and murder. To be clear, not everyone within the subculture at the time was comfortable with this, but very few had accumulated the capital necessary to both condemn this development and be taken seriously. For most, the celebrity status of people like Varg Vikernes and Bård Eithun, which stemmed primarily from the fact that their bands represented the cutting edge of musical extremity in a scene that was constantly seeking out that very thing, made overwhelming the social pressure to accept them as legitimate figures within the scene and consequently grant their worst acts implicit approval.

Once this dynamic was established, it opened the door for all sorts of sketchy characters to enter and be accepted by the subculture. By the early 2000s there were thousands of bands within the metal underground whose members were known to either explicitly endorse fascist and fascist-adjacent ideologies or, at a minimum, be bigots in private. People within the subculture, including those who were personally on the political left or belonged to a group historically victimized by fascism, would consume and enjoy the work of these musicians all under the tacit agreement that it wasn’t to be challenged because metal’s unwritten bylaws made it okay. Anything else was censorship.

 

V. The Dragon is Summoned

“They say there is nothing left in this world worth fighting for, nothing left in this world worth dying for…
This is a lie.
There is so much to fight for, so much to die for.
There is one true enemy in this world.
Do I need to say it?
Do I need to stain the air with its name?
Or to soil the page?”
-Void of Silence – “Human Antithesis”, 2004

The Obama era brought with it the near-total victory of the liberal left in the culture wars that had raged for three generations. The United States had elected and re-elected a black president; white male faces in heroic roles in film and television were being displaced or replaced with female, black and brown ones; the same was happening in corporate boardrooms. Capitalism and empire had acceded to the demands of feminism and anti-racism, but only in the most superficial ways possible – ways that did nothing to truly eliminate the hierarchies that existed within and upheld that system.

Representation-minded liberalism came to dominate the culture but the economic inequities that undergirded said culture continued to fester and accelerate the erosion of the middle class. White cis-men were still protected from the worst depredations of the system better than most, but many were nonetheless finding themselves slipping down the socio-economic ladder. The multi-generational propaganda campaign waged in the West against Marxism (and any other kind of leftist economic theory) rendered most unable to process what was happening. They were angry but didn’t understand the forces undermining them. Conservative media, as it had done for centuries, provided them with a convenient scapegoat. The liberal hegemony and its compulsive white male-bashing were to blame.

At the same time, the metal underground was experiencing a major resurgence in popularity, fueled by an influx of younger millennials (born in 1988 or later) into the subculture. This new contingent of metalheads did not emerge from the same blue-collar middle class (that class demographic having shrunk nearly to the point of insignificance over the previous three decades) as the gen-xers of the old guard. Instead, they were the predominantly college-educated offspring of the professional managerial class that came to be the standard-bearers of America’s Democratic Party and most other ruling parties in the global West.

The education that much of this new contingent of metalheads had received stressed third-wave feminism and liberal anti-racism (taught in women’s studies and African-American studies classes and reinforced through campus activism) as paths to liberation. But with Marxist economics having never gained much traction in Western academia, most of these kids would either entirely lack a class component to their understanding of feminism and anti-racism or only develop one years after commencement. In other words, they held a world view that largely comported with the liberal monoculture and their education came in direct conflict with the laisséz-faire transgressive attitudes that had prevailed in the metal subculture for the previous generation.

These developments also corresponded with conservative Christianity having declined considerably as a cultural force in North America since the start of the 1990s. While pockets remained where conservative Christians still held power, collectively they were very much in retreat, struggling to maintain the remnants of their regressive anti-gay, anti-abortion agenda while public opinion rapidly turned against them. The PMRC and the Satanic Panic were a distant memory. The landscape in much of the West looked much closer to that of early 90s Scandinavia, but without the feeling of economic security. This left a subculture that had forged so much of its identity in opposition to Christianity when it did have cultural hegemony in need of a new dragon to slay. Many artists and fans ignored this void, having grown past the childish obsession with blasphemy. But there remained within the subculture a large enough contingent of angry white cis-men who, for the first time in their lives, were being pressured by those both inside and outside the metal world to actually consider their whiteness and maleness, both in general and as aspects of their metal-ness. The new dragon was thus born.

It was, in many ways, a perfect storm. The old-guard metalheads were being challenged for dominance of the subculture by a younger contingent that they didn’t trust because they hadn’t paid their dues. A large portion of this younger contingent didn’t believe in the permissiveness that had opened the door to the propagation of far-right politics in the subculture. A small but very vocal sub-group within this contingent had taken it upon itself to play the part of moral scold in a world where morality was long thought to have been vanquished. To the old guard (and their millennial fellow travelers) these people were no different than the Televangelists and the PMRC that they had battled in decades past. It didn’t matter that their goals were the polar opposite of those censorious forces when it came to the values they sought to instill; it didn’t matter that they lacked the organization or economic power to actually threaten metal in any meaningful way; it didn’t matter that they still consumed and enjoyed ~90% of the same music. The new breed of metalheads were ideologically aligned with the monoculture that wanted to fundamentally change metal’s relationship with transgression, which had been its most treasured principle for more than a quarter of a century and this was unacceptable. The old-guard metalheads found themselves being forced to pick a side and many were picking the side where their bread had been buttered for a generation.

Other geek subcultures were experiencing similar upheavals around the same time. In comics and video games, white cis-males believed themselves to be besieged by the forces of what they considered “political correctness” and lashed out in ugly and destructive ways. The agents of liberal anti-racism and intersectional feminism were pissing in their sandboxes and they had to fight back. And lurking in the background, as they always were wherever and whenever there was a critical mass of angry and disaffected white men, were the fascists.

Just as “Gamergate,” with its embattled white cis-male protagonists striking back against the swarming hordes of Jack Thompsons-in-feminist clothing, was a perfect recruitment ground for the Neo-Nazi alt-right, so too did metal’s traditionalists find themselves making common cause with reactionaries (and in some cases joining them outright.) And just as in Gamergate, the rightward slide was greased by the false promise of preserving free speech – a value that, as anyone with any knowledge of history knows, fascists don’t really believe in.

VI. What Is to Be Done?

“Here is where we see yet again another deep failure of the Left, a great abandonment of territory occurring at precisely the same time as the Left largely abandoned anti-globalisation. The globalist (neo-liberal, or actually just Liberal) political transformations that have occurred in the last two decades have done for societies now what Marx noted was accomplished by the bourgeoisie in the 19th century…
Alienation of the body, destruction of local cultures and communities, destruction of religious systems and moral frameworks around which people cohered: these are all the effects of capital’s globalized spread in the name of civilization.”
Rhyd Wildermuth, Gods and Radicals

And so we stand, a year and then some into the age of Trump. The neoliberal consensus is shattered, the fascist right is resurgent and there’s a very real war being waged for the soul of heavy metal. The subculture is, more and more, being invaded and co-opted by reactionary forces. While Antifa is going to ground to combat these forces by targeting black metal gigs and blogs like Noisey, MetalSucks and others are publishing thinkpiece after thinkpiece in an effort to raise awareness of and wag a finger at them, it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that they’re doing more harm than good. The de-platforming of bands like Taake and Deströyer 666 by Antifa have been tactical victories but strategic setbacks, as they have only further reinforced the narrative in the minds of traditionalist metalheads that the subculture is under attack by the forces of left-wing censorship. If we’re to successfully banish the fascists from the metal scene, it’s time to try something different.

1. The call must come from inside the house

The authors and publishers of the aforementioned blogs won’t like reading this but trying to shame fascists into going away (or not being fascists) doesn’t work. As we’ve established, the reactionary slide in metal has been driven in part by the distrust old-guard metalheads and their young fellow travelers feel for new-jack millennials with liberal arts degrees. They see them as outsiders who arrived from outside the subculture to gentrify and sanitize it. The words of a Kim Kelly or an Axl Rosenberg – however trenchant and valid those words – will never persuade a Keith Warslut because the Keith Warsluts of the world don’t respect the Kim Kellys and Axl Rosenbergs of the world.

The reason the metal underground came to condone the presence of fascists in the first place was because there wasn’t a critical mass of people with considerable subcultural capital – and that means musicians and label owners, not journalists and critics – to vocally oppose it. We have the chance to rectify that but only if people are willing to put some relationships on the line. It’s a fact that there are a lot of musicians in the metal scene who lean to the left, many of whom have enough name recognition to garner significant attention if offered a platform to speak up against fascism.

If a Mille Petrozza or a Karl Willetts (I name them merely as two examples of prominent metal musicians known to have leftist views) takes an opportunity in the midst of an interview to call Keith Warslut a bigot and an idiot, Keith Warslut is more likely to listen than if a Kim Kelly or an Axl Rosenberg calls him that in a thinkpiece. If those musicians take the next step and refuse to play on a festival bill with Deströyer 666, that’ll force Keith Warslut to listen. If enough do this that Deströyer 666 suddenly has trouble booking shows, that’ll be a wake-up call to other Keith Warsluts.

2. Summon a bigger dragon

In her 2017 book Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle argues that the resurgence of fascism in the form of the alt-right has been aided considerably by the Western Left beating a retreat from class-based politics (in part due to a successful propaganda campaign waged against Marxism and Anarchism by global capital) and replacing it with an almost exclusive focus on culture war issues. This gradual deterioration of class consciousness and the moralistic, accusatory tone of intersectional third-wave feminists and liberal anti-racists who usurped the cultural agenda of the left has alienated young white cis-men at a time when they have found themselves facing a future very much thrown into question by the forces of neoliberalism. The alt-right, Nagle posits, has capitalized on this alienation by offering these young men a chance to reclaim their destiny by offering them a comprehensive identity and a scapegoat on which to blame for their loss of economic security and social standing. The point (which an unfortunate number of readers have missed) was not to excuse these young men for being lured in by fascism, but to suggest that instead of browbeating them about how they’re privileged oppressors, the left needs to offer them a meaningful alternative. Educating them about class and the way the forces of capitalism (rather than postmodern Cultural Marxist degeneracy, or whatever they’re calling it now) is responsible for their condition could potentially prevent them from becoming fascists.

It’s not hard to see how the thesis of Kill All Normies could be applied to the metal scene. Metal used to have a semblance of class awareness, of course. Bands like Nuclear Assault, Sepultura, Voivod and Toxik would regularly pen lyrics that took aim at the excesses of capitalism and the havoc wrought on the planet by the forces that were fully unleashed during the era of Reagan and Thatcher. Extreme metal, however, lost its way in this regard, preferring instead to fixate on Satanic and violent tropes that were thought to better complement its harshness and inaccessibility. If metal is to rid itself of its fascist disease, it needs to become class-conscious again, both in lyrics and attitude.

There’s already a strong anti-corporate ethos running through much of the underground due to the genre having been ignored and scorned by big labels and mainstream media. It’s high time to build on this antipathy by fully articulating an anti-capitalist agenda within the underground. Two ways to do this may be to establish formal networks of mutual aid for struggling musicians and shifting away from traditionally structured record labels and towards collectively owned and managed imprints.

3. Make Lyrics Matter Again

Piggybacking on the previous point, there’s no reason lyrics in extreme metal can’t be a means of conveying an affirmatively anti-establishmentarian, anti-capitalist message that can appeal to those who are attracted to the subculture by its transgressiveness. Black Sabbath, as discussed earlier in this piece, had a great knack for using occult and Satanic imagery as metaphor to express the anxiety and discontent of the era. There’s no reason today’s bands can’t harness brutal imagery in the service of social commentary in the same way. But they must work harder at it than most have shown themselves willing to do.

Falling back on the same Satan, horror, and swords & sorcery tropes that have been staples of the genre for the last going-on-40-years will lead to artistic stagnation anyway. Committing a substantial chunk of the scene to a comprehensive anti-Capitalist vision will help re-orient the underlying ethos away from transgression-for-transgression’s sake and into something with greater purpose.

To be sure, Satan and the occult can still play a role. From the Vodun priests of Haiti to the witch hunts of the Inquisition and early America, dark forces are believed to have been harnessed by a variety of history’s liberation movements. There are a number of bands that already explore this history as a theme in their lyrics, including Australia’s Murkrat, Germany’s The Ruins of Beverast and Chile’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten, but more would certainly be welcome.

It might be serendipity that the Trump presidency has reawakened the specter of nuclear anxiety that inspired the lyrics to so many great songs in the 80s. Perhaps that can be a starting point.

4. Build physical communities

This is perhaps the most important plank. Metal is afflicted by the same disease of internet-driven alienation as the rest of society. It’s become the norm for people to communicate with other human beings from afar and through electronic devices. On the one hand, this has made it easier to connect with like-minded people all over the world; on the other hand, it has made it far too easy to interact only with like-minded people. The word “bubble” gets thrown around a lot these days in reference to people rejecting information and people who do not comport with and reinforce their world view. The metal scene is especially susceptible to this because so many of us come into it already carrying a certain degree of introversion and aloofness. We have to overcome this if we wish to beat back the tide of fascism in the scene.

Make an effort to build real connections to people in your local metal scene and be engaged with the people in it beyond simply bullshitting on the street corner outside a gig. Don’t be intrusive but try to gain an understanding of which way the people in your local metal community lean on the issue of fascism (or if they’re on the fence). It’s much tougher to dismiss and ignore someone if you have to be face-to-face with them on a regular basis. If you strike up a conversation with someone you know, and they start ranting about how SJWs are ruining metal, take the opportunity to try to talk them out of it and explain what’s actually going on and who the real enemy is. You might not succeed at first (in fact, you probably won’t), but so long as you’re not smug or scolding (and this can’t be stressed enough: do not be smug or scolding), you’ll leave yourself an opening to return to the subject again and again. Persistence will pay off – even if that only means moving someone from a right-wing position to a neutral or “radical centrist” one.

The fascist right can afford to be cloistered and aloof because their goal is ultimately to divide and conquer with brute force. Insofar as they have any degree of mass support, it comes from appealing to people’s sense that they’re losing something near and dear to them and that only they can preserve it. The only way to successfully combat this is by starving the idea of oxygen, which can only be done through constant dialogue with and positive reinforcement for those who might be seduced by them. If we who don’t want to lose our subculture to the fascists, we need to do more than simply mock those who carry water for them under the banner of free speech.


Great thanks to Eric Zhou for his contributions to the thoughts upon which this essay was built.

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