Socialist Theory and Black Metal Synergy with Kastchei

At a time of considerable strife across the globe, the worlds of crust punk and black metal have – alongside left-wing political ideologies – sprung again into life once more. With the modern trend in music of artists doing what the fuck they want with regards to the polite notion of genre, the musical world is currently awash with artists combining and sliding between sub-genres in a multitude of weird and wonderful ways.

Hailing from the Midlands, Kastchei is one of these projects, with a sound that’s a prime example of aforementioned genre-mashing. To put a finger on it, Kastchei’s sound takes the framework of early ’80s UK crust punk and twists it into a thoroughly absurd black metal shape. The resultant sound, best exemplified by last year’s Communist Black Metal Madness, is a strangely engrossing take on black metal and crust punk fusion accompanied by twisted lyricism, all inspired by experimental film-making techniques.

With the grim spectre of punk once again rearing its head, we caught up with Kastchei to talk black metal, socialist theory, UK punk and resultant amalgamations thereof.

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What is it about crust punk and black metal that makes them such common bedfellows?

Convention. Plus, it’s easier to fill out your patch jacket if you use two types of band.

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What is your personal interpretation of Marxist and communist ideology?

I agree with the central proposition that a communist society is both desirable and possible. To me, that basically means a society where we work only as much as is needed to meet our needs, and we organise this work by mutual consensus. I think our current profit-driven model compels people to do unnecessary work, which is a waste of both their time and our planet’s resources. It’s abundantly clear at this point that environmental damage, including both climate change and air pollution, is an existential threat to humanity, and I’m not convinced that we can maintain a capitalist society for more than the next fifty years or so without rendering our planet uninhabitable. If you accept that, then some form of anti-capitalism is vital to our continued survival, although that’s a somewhat different line of reasoning than the one which Marxists use.

I think the Marxist tradition is a very important source for anti-capitalists to draw on, but I think it should be treated as one way of interpreting history among many. The framework of dialectical materialism is definitely a useful resource for understanding historical processes, but I think a commitment to Marxism entails the belief that one can predict the future using Marx’s methodology, which to me is just plain wrong. On the other hand, I think Marx’s description of the social construction of the economy is extremely valuable. The aspects of Marx that speak to me the most are the ones that deal with the psychological aspects of capitalism, and his account of the dehumanisation of workers always strikes a chord with me. As for Marxism-Leninism, I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that it’s an effective ideology for taking over a country, but a very poor ideology for building a communist society. The democratic centralist model makes for a very strong party but once that party attains power it’s poorly equipped to build a democratic society, which to me should be central to communism. It’s important for people on the left to study the history of 20th-century communist states and learn from those examples, rather than uncritically choosing between the pro- or anti-communist line on them.

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What type of communist/socialist ideology do you personally believe in? Or is communist black metal a purely musical ideology?

I tend to describe myself as socialist rather than communist, mostly because “communist” tends to imply Marxist in ordinary conversation. I think humanity’s survival depends on us abandoning the profit-driven model of production at some point in the future, probably within the next century, but as I’ve already mentioned I don’t think revolutionary Marxism is going to get us to that future. I’d like to think my politics are more rational than ideological, although obviously no-one can prove everything they believe in. For the most part, I tend to identify with the democratic and libertarian socialist traditions, but I’m very suspicious of anyone who can sum up their politics in under a sentence. This is sort of obvious, but I think that if you want to change the world you need to educate yourself as much as possible. Studying politics is definitely an important part of that, but so is studying science and history. To me, socialism is part of a commitment to making people happy, and as corny as it is, I think that commitment should always take precedence over any ideology.

As for Communist Black Metal Madness, the phrase appeared in my mind uninvited and wouldn’t leave until I’d released it into the outside world.

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What do you think of Euronymous of Mayhem famously venerating communist dictators such as Hoxha and Stalin in a more totalitarian approach?

I’m not an expert on the Norwegian scene, but from what I understand Euronymous was a sincere leftist at one point in his life. Of course, he dedicated his time in Mayhem to appearing as transgressive as possible, and I think his celebration of totalitarianism has much more to do with this than with any genuine political convictions. Black metal plays a lot with surreal aesthetics at the boundary between horror and humour. Trying to understand his political leanings misses the point – we should just savour the weirdness of a man dressed like a ghost who desperately wants to spend his life in a gulag.

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What do you think about the currently revitalised UK punk scene? Why do you think UK-bred punk in the vein of Crass/Amebix/Discharge etc. has once more become so prominent?

As far as records go, I pay the most attention to the bands working with labels like La Vida Es Un Mus and QCHQ – I love hardcore that’s still recognisable as punk. I also try to keep track of what’s going on in grind/powerviolence, metallic hardcore, and screamo (shout out to the UK Screamo Facebook group), although if you really followed all of them you’d never have time for any other music. One of the interesting things about hardcore is that there isn’t really a canon of classic records that you “need” to listen to. I think that’s a positive thing because it means that local scenes can embody the genre, rather than imitate it. Local bands playing (for example) ska usually seem like they’re paying tribute to a specific sound and era even if they’re writing they’re own songs, whereas watching a hardcore band always feels like a here-and-now experience.

I definitely agree that sounds on that anarcho-punk/D-beat spectrum seem to be undergoing a bit of a revival, but I’m not sure you can identify any one reason for it. There’s been a very loose sense over the last eight years or so that in UK politics the ‘80s are repeating themselves, but I’m not sure that necessarily entails a return to the sounds of that era, particularly one as niche as anarcho-punk. Musically, I think a lot of people of my age are fairly genre agnostic, and if you’ve grown up listening to indie, hardcore, and metal in equal amounts you’re probably going to end up somewhere near that ‘80s UK punk sound.

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Do you feel innovation is necessary within modern day punk? Does punk necessarily need to progress musically to still be relevant?

I guess that depends what you think the “purpose” of punk is. If you just want to keep shows happening then I don’t necessarily think bands need to be innovative. Punk is mostly an underground genre, and that means that it’s always going to sound new to someone purely because they haven’t been exposed to it yet, so as long as you can reach those people you’re always going to get new people to keep the scene running. If you want old(ish) punks like me to keep buying records, then yes, you probably do need to do something new. That could mean bringing in new ideas from outside punk, but it could just as easily mean combining elements from within punk in a surprising way. On that note, if anyone’s making music that sounds like Icons of Filth crossed with I Hate Myself, please please please let me know [please let us know too – Ed.].

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Jeremy Corbyn has been a somewhat divisive figure for those on the left – how would you feel if a Corbyn-led government were to take power within the next twelve months?

I’m pretty optimistic about a possible Corbyn government. I don’t buy the Marxist idea that capitalism has to get as grim as possible before it can change. Right now we have a government that’s very effectively dismantling the welfare state whilst proving dangerously incompetent on the international scale, and I think there’s a moral imperative to remove them from power. I definitely don’t think Nordic model social democracy should be anyone’s ultimate goal, but you’d have to come from a position of extreme privilege to claim that there was no substantial difference between life in Norway and life in the USA. From a more serious socialist perspective, I think moving beyond capitalism towards a sustainable mode of production is going to take new ideas and technologies that haven’t yet been developed, and that’s going to take time. This is a bit of a recurring theme with me, but how much time we have left depends directly on our treatment of the environment, and I think that Britain’s use of the world around us will be more sustainable under a Labour government than under a Conservative one.

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The lyrical content on Communist Black Metal Madness is an abstracted fusion of black metal imagery and punk nihilism, whilst your earlier lyrical content seems to be more concrete critiques of the alt- and far- right. What was behind this change in tone?

The political content on the earlier Kastchei material was really a reaction to the politics of the metal scene itself. At the time I wrote the split with Grimmness, the alt-right was still fairly embryonic and I was very much thinking about right-wing politics within metal. It was definitely the product of spending too much time reading metal website comment sections and just getting angrier and angrier. After a while, I just stopped caring. That’s apathetic and I suppose it comes from a place of privilege, but it’s basically what happened. I love metal, but it’s only a small part of my life and it doesn’t serve any purpose for me to constantly think about the most toxic aspects of it.

This time around, I made a conscious effort to write lyrics that I’d find interesting to read. I’m a big fan of experimental film, and I try to write lyrics that I could imagine being turned into images. It’s kind of a montage approach to songwriting. I also wanted to make a serious engagement with some of the ideas I’d encountered reading leftist literature, particularly the Marxist theory of ideology and Judith Butler’s conception of sex and gender. I didn’t explicitly name any writers in the lyrics themselves, but if there’s an overarching theme it’s that things like money, gender, religion, and politics all derive from a kind of mutual agreement. This term gets overused, but all these things are socially constructed, sometimes in a very arbitrary fashion. Once you recognise that, you can’t help but imagine how they could be different. That’s an important exercise in developing a political conscience, but it also has a strongly occult and surreal dimension. It makes reality seem very fragile and I think that’s very fertile ground for artistic ideas.

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Would you regard Kastchei as a punk or a black metal project? What do you think of the parallels between these two genres of music?

I see what I’m doing with Kastchei as black metal. I’m definitely not a very original songwriter. Most of my songs tend to be conscious imitations of music I’m interested in, which I then turn into black metal songs during the recording process. In that sense, the black metal side of Kastchei acts as a filter for not-so-black metal material, which definitely includes punk but also krautrock, industrial, and a lot of other stuff. With a different mindset I could probably assemble a post-punk album out of the same basic musical ideas, although for whatever reason solo black metal feels much more natural than solo post-punk.

I don’t really see a clear divide between punk and metal, and most of my favourite black metal has always sounded more like punk than anything else to me. I think the challenge in combining black metal and punk is that both are defined more in terms of ideas than in terms of sounds. Although superficially it’s easy to write songs that use elements of both styles, finding a balance between those two sets of ideas is much trickier.

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Kastchei’s labelmate and collaborator Grimmness’ new release End Times is out now, download/purchase here

This article originally featured in our third issue. 

Words: Richard Lowe

Artwork: Sonny Day (@daytimetattoos)

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