We investigate a moral question that may have no right or wrong answer…
The idea that black metal is an inherently fascist genre is, for all its issues with National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM, or nazi black metal) and the use of fascist imagery, inherently false; aside from the obvious counter-point of the recent rise of overtly anti-fascist black metal bands such as Dawn Ray’d, Trespasser, and Underdark, there are always bands who have apolitical lyrical stances. Yet, there is always a conflict between those bands and scenes which oppose fascism and bigotry, and those where members are sympathetic to – if not down-right advocating – prejudiced or fascistic views. I don’t mean this in the obvious sense of ideological or physical conflict between different scenes and views – that is a given. Instead, what I mean is how anti-fascist bands and fans react when shows and festivals book bands who are either explicitly fascistic, or where members have links or sympathies to fascism and bigotry.
This discussion has taken on recent relevance with the final set of announcements for Damnation Festival 2019. Held each year since 2005, Damnation is one of the premier events in the UK extreme metal calendar, with a vast array of bands and merch stalls, decent ticket prices, and a wide variety of genres represented. Recent headliners have included Napalm Death, Bolt Thrower, and Vader – bands whose lyrics and actions have fought against prejudice and authoritarianism. But for 2019, two high-profile announcements included Mayhem and Mgła; bands who may not have political lyrics, but whose members have links with or expressed sympathy for prejudiced views or politics on the far-right. Given that the festival organisers have booked bands with such diverse themes and views it would be extremely difficult to read anything into these decisions, but it still presents an issue for anti-fascist fans and performers who have already brought tickets or confirmed their place on the line-up.
Mayhem’s history hardly needs repeating, and their present line-up is not without issue either. Drummer Hellhammer previously claimed, as quoted in the book Lords Of Chaos, that “black metal is for white people”, and stated that he “honours” Faust of Emperor for the homophobic murder of Magne Andreassen in 1992 (though the actual quote, in the Until The Light Takes Us documentary, contains more homophobic language than that used here). Elsewhere, bassist Necrobutcher recently made anti-Semitic statements to Kayo Dot’s Ron Varod.
In March, an English translation of an article on the online Finnish anti-fascist network Varis laid out the links between Mgła and Mikko Aspa, main-man of Clandestine Blaze and owner of Northern Heritage Records (with whom Mgła have released almost all their records), with Aspa’s fascist views being made clear. This was no mere guilt-by-association, however, with members of Mgła having served as live musicians for Clandestine Blaze, playing songs with fascistic and racist lyrics; and Mgła vocalist M.’s project Leichenhalle has an album titled Jedenfrei (which translates to “free of Jews” or “clean of Jews”).
The question, then, is how are anti-fascist bands booked to play these shows expected to respond? First of all, I think it is clear to note that there is no right or wrong response. Ultimately though, there are two options: pull out of the show or festival; or stay on the bill. Either option is valid, with different points in their favour.
An anti-fascist band cancelling their appearance at a festival that announces a band with fascist or bigoted views and links is perhaps the most visceral of the two choices. It is an immediate, hard-hitting statement; a clear declaration that “we will not share this space with you”. Sometimes, this can be the only reasonable option. If a band no longer feels safe playing at a space that is open to bands with such views, then their pulling out is a reasonable response. It may upset fans, but musicians must consider their safety and wellbeing (both physical and emotional). For some, entering such a space is a step too far – and as fans, we must respect this.
It is not without its own problems, though. One of the biggest potential obstacles to cancelling a show is the obvious financial hit. As fans, we do not know what the contracts to play shows and festivals state, especially for a festival as large as Damnation; if bands were to drop off after being announced, would there be financial penalties? Might they be blacklisted from future events run by the promoter and their contacts? Whilst it can be argued that a price shouldn’t be put on principles, it must be recognised that the money to be made by bands in extreme metal is minimal, but sometimes, that minimal income can be what keeps the members of a band alive, as they likely have bills and rent to pay. The financial penalties for cancelling could simply be too much for bands to bear, and so they are left with little alternative but to play the show. It should also not be assumed that bands booked to play festivals or shows know who else will be on the bill before they agree to do so; when it comes to a large event like Damnation, it may not be possible to state who else will be playing until later in the day, once early announcements (like those for Dawn Ray’d and Venom Prison for Damnation in 2019, both of whom were announced before Mgła and Mayhem) have already been made.
Even in an ideological sense though, cancelling an appearance has consequences. Doing so effectively concedes ground to the far-right; it allows bands with fascistic and bigoted views to occupy space that was previously considered neutral or sympathetic to the left, and to do so without challenge. Instead, the decision to stay on and play the show represents a barrier to the unmitigated spread of far-right ideas and sympathies. Even if Mayhem and Mgła’s music is not overly fascistic or political, the history and links of such bands represents a creep of such ideas into spaces where they were not present before. And in some ways, that Mayhem and Mgła’s lyrical themes are essentially Satanic or personal presents a further challenge to anti-fascist bands – most fans will either not know or care about the views and associations of their members; it is a different situation than if a band like Goatmoon or Absurd, with explicitly fascist views, had been booked.
Instead, by staying on the bill, anti-fascist bands are given a clear and immediate opportunity to challenge fascistic and bigoted views – and, in the case of Damnation Festival, it is a large platform to do so. This can help introduce attendees not just to new bands, but to new ideas. After all, there are large sections of the mainstream media who demonise antifa as extremists or terrorists, where anarchy is treated as something childish, and where feminism is seen as a kind of man-hating cult. Dawn Ray’d have already stated that they intend to use their appearance at Damnation as a way of challenging the far-right and talking about their politics (as they do at every show I have seen them play); whilst a band like Venom Prison are also inherently political in their lyrical themes and imagery. Festivals help give such bands an audience they might not normally reach; one of the worst tendencies of leftism is the way it often preaches to the converted, pursuing ideological purity over real growth and change, and by refusing to share spaces with bands whose views they disagree with there is a risk that anti-fascist bands may reinforce that tendency.
It is also interesting to note that the discussion around such line-ups is also often framed in a way that expects leftist bands to take action, whether that be to make a statement or to drop-off a line-up – I am yet to see any examples where fans of bands with fascist or apolitical themes implore said bands to drop off a festival for playing with anti-fascist bands. And whilst I have drawn heavily from the recent example of Damnation Festival, this is just one example; and nor are these sorts of conversations consistent. Did anyone ask that Bad Religion, for example, pull out of Psycho Las Vegas rather than play on the same day as Phil Anselmo’s new band En Minor, in light of his “white power” statement? And there seemed to be little outrage over Taake headlining the Sophie Lancaster stage on the Saturday of Bloodstock 2019, despite Taake’s anti-Islam lyrics being at odds with the stage’s links with the Sophie Lancaster foundation, which aims to combat hate. And it is also interesting that the onus is often placed on bands and fans, rather than organisers – though organisers of high-profile festivals have in the past cancelled bands because of their views, as happened to Satanic Warmaster and the 2011 Hellfest in France.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer to this sort of situation. Whilst I think it is important to challenge the fascist creep, and not to concede spaces to bands with far-right views and sympathies, this is not something that can be expected of everyone, as not every musician will feel safe playing alongside bands who hold such views. Nor should the importance of festivals such as Black Flags Over Brooklyn be disregarded – it is important that spaces which are explicitly feminist, anti-fascist and inclusive are carved out and defended within the extreme metal scene. Such festivals are a minority though, with the vast majority adopting an essentially apolitical stance, seemingly booking bands based on their music and little else. I fully support anti-fascist bands maintaining their presence in these spaces, even if it means they end up sharing space with bands with fascistic sympathies, as it is important to challenge such views wherever they may present themselves, but I also give my full support to those who do not wish to do this. It must also be recognised that not everyone is safe on the frontlines of this culture war within extreme metal, where ideological conflict can give way to physical violence, and musicians and fans must always prioritise their own safety.
Words: Stuart Wain