This article starts with a confession that may undermine all of my subsequent observations and arguments; Yes, 2021 was my first Bloodstock. Yes, I am currently 26 years old and studying a PhD on heavy metal. These facts are somewhat incongruous with each other. You’ll just have to trust me.
2021 was my first Bloodstock, and after eighteen months of quarantine I was raring to go. The main attraction as a metal fan, especially given our current historical moment, was to see Judas Priest, who could drop dead from COVID or otherwise any day now. However, I had an ulterior motive for visiting one of the de facto homes of the British metal scene: to study it. My PhD focuses on the meanings people take away from metal culture, and what better way to encounter a variety of interpretations than by visiting a great conference of metal fandom? Further, the festival’s lineup featured power metal bands prominently, and as a perennial power metal avoider this seemed like a great opportunity to engage in a side of metal that I would normally pass on. My camp was riddled with friends who enjoy the trappings of power metal so much they started a band based on Skyrim, and managed to play a packed tent at Bloodstock despite including the following lyric in one of their songs: “Your wooden swords are broken/Because metal’s made of steel”. Awful. So far, so innocent and playful, right?
Gloryhammer, by power metal standards, are quite a Big Deal. They were third-billed on the main stage on the final day of Bloodstock, underneath the internationally-renowned Saxon and Judas Priest. They have over 100,000 fans on Facebook. Their principal songwriter is Christopher Bowes, the singer of Alestorm, who are an Even Bigger Deal. My first impression (slightly inaccurate) was that the singer, Thomas Winkler (aka Angus McFife) looked a bit like PewDiePie – however, upon review I discovered that they were both merely white men with stubble and short hair. Their early evening performance demonstrated exactly why the group has developed such a large following – LARPing onstage with an actual giant hammer, plenty of fist-pumping choruses, and trance synths that escaped from Orbital‘s clutches about 25 years ago. There were hundreds of inflatable props in the audience, and the crowdsurfing hardly stopped throughout their set. It was like being at V Festival or something. Even people who take metal too seriously, such as myself, were impressed. Maybe power metal is just, as the fans often say, “a bit of fun”, I thought after the set. By the end of the night, as I ruminated on seeing Rob Halford for the first (and probably last) time, Gloryhammer’s set was nothing more than a curio in my mind. A chance to encounter a different sort of metal fan to myself.
Only a week later it became apparent that taking power metal as “a bit of fun” begs a follow-up question: what counts as fun, and to whom? Thomas Winkler was fired from the band (via email, no less) on 22nd August, with a pair of obtuse and vague announcements from the band’s Facebook. Winkler then responded with his own statement, which suggests surprise at his dismissal while also revealing very little about the underlying situation. From the face of it this could seem to be standard prima donna band politics. Metal musicians are hardly known for their tact, after all. However it quickly became clear that something much more sinister was afoot, beginning with the appearance of a Twitter account named @GloryhammerC which leaked what appear to be internal Gloryhammer Facebook group messages. Further, abuse allegations have also been made against James Cartwright, the band’s bassist. We have uploaded all relevant images to a private Imgur gallery available below. We believe they speak for themselves.
Content warning: racism, sexism, details of abuse. Images available here.
Late on 25th August, the band’s Facebook was updated once more, this time with a dense, confusing post written in legalese, and comments disabled. It doesn’t take too many neurons to reckon that something ain’t right here, but we’re still waiting for the dust to settle. It’s not clear who leaked the screenshots, for instance – perhaps it was Winkler, who would have had access to the chat – and the reason for his leaving the band hasn’t been given either. This article isn’t here to stoke the flames of rumour, nor to speculate on the specifics before they’re known. Rather, this incident seems an opportune moment to highlight some tendencies in metal culture more broadly, which are often subsumed beneath a rhetoric of inclusivity and equality.
It’s been repeatedly noted that certain enclaves of extreme metal have a predilection for fascism – we’ve commented on some of these cases before in fact. Certainly the NSBM scene is repellent, but its reach is limited primarily to those already in an extreme metal scene, and black metal specifically. Simply put, you’re not going to find this kind of music unless you’re either into fascism or extreme metal. Further, the mere mention of nazi imagery is often enough to dissuade a casual metal listener, which is no skin off of an NSBM band’s nose – they wouldn’t want a weakling like you to listen to it anyway. NSBM and its punk counterpart, hatecore, ultimately rely on the value that underground music fans place on radical difference, on nonconformity and antagonism, in order to gain any market traction. In her 2011 study (available in this collection), Sharon Hochhauser even dubs these genres “a particularly sinister form of consumer fraud” that preys on extreme music fans, which “the hatecore metal industry perceives as most vulnerable”.
Power metal is not like this at all. In fact, I would theorise power metal as pop music for people who don’t consider themselves to be normal or cool, but still yearn for fun and big choruses. Power metal artists aren’t writing songs to be obscure or difficult, rather the opposite, and this means they have tremendous reach. This is especially apparent when considering the chart impact of bands like Nightwish, whose last album barely made a dent in the UK album chart but reached No. 1 in Finland, Germany and Switzerland. Similarly, the last Sabaton album peaked at No. 1 in Sweden, Germany and Switzerland. The name of this record is particularly apropos for the rest of the discussion – The Great War.
Professor Karl Spracklen has developed his scholarly career in part by studying the notion of hegemonic white masculinity, which has been endemic to metal throughout its half-century lifespan, but is often downplayed by fans who would prefer to emphasise the communitarian and welcoming aspects of the culture. Spracklen often uses Benedict Anderson’s idea of the ‘imagined community’, which is particularly relevant because it “explores how a community in the present is defined by myths of the past it creates. In other words, the community makes a biased reading of the past to justify its values in the present, hence legitimising itself as a coherent community.” Much of Spracklen’s work focuses on black metal scenes, where the desire for a mythic past is particularly strong, but a similar logic applies to power metal, albeit in a less extreme form. Whereas black metal artists are often concerned with a pre-Christian, quasi-ancient setting that is forever distant, power metal bands and their NWOBHM precursors often turn to more recent history for inspiration, particularly events that the musicians would have encountered in media growing up. For instance, Spracklen explores the ways in which British Empire ideology was accepted, whole cloth, by the young members of Iron Maiden, via a combination of comic books and (in Bruce Dickinson’s case) private schooling. In the case of bands such as Sabaton, it is clear that the World Wars loom particularly large, which likewise would have been accessible to the bandmembers via everything from TV documentaries to playing board games. On August 25th, the band announced a new single as part of a tie-in with online game World Of Tanks, as if they weren’t being obvious enough.
As a historian I’ve no issue with people taking an interest in the past, providing they approach it with a critical conscience. What is evident in the work of many power metal artists, however, is a willingness to accept history as it is given; to take the story of the Charge of the Light Brigade, or the Thirty Years’ War, or the foundation of heavy metal, as it is presented in popular narrative, with no need to question its validity. Indeed, every historical event and culture is now “available in the modern world as sources of power and mystery”, which in Robert Walser’s estimation enables metal bands to “carve out space and experience communion” in a world wracked by a crisis of meaninglessness. I sympathise with Walser’s argument that the ability of metal artists and fans to play with existing symbolism can be empowering in the face of postmodernity, but his interpretation is completely uncritical. Over a decade later, Keith Kahn-Harris developed the notion of ‘reflexive anti-reflexivity’ to describe a very common form of playfulness in metal scenes – that of “knowing better, but then pretending not to know”. A more colloquial term for the same idea would be ‘doublethink’, or the sustaining of contradiction. This is very commonly found in power metal, and was made particularly clear to me during Bloodstock. One of our camp, a history graduate like myself, crawled out of his tent one morning wearing Union Jack shorts and Star ‘n’ Stripes socks. He was also wearing a Hawaiian shirt, indicating his lack of seriousness. When asked what this was meant to indicate, he replied “it’s the special relationship!” He was intelligent and well-read enough to know better than to engage in such jingoism – but then pretended not to know in order to sustain the joke.
This playful approach to history is key to heavy metal ideology, and in particular its maintenance and celebration of hegemonic white masculinity. Power metal bands are allowed (by the conventions of their genre) to invoke all manner of wartime rhetoric, LARP in military equipment and ensure that every chorus references warrior virtues such as loyalty, honour and glory. Album covers are dominated by muscular European men (Manowar especially) that could easily be interpreted as some kind of wish-fulfilment for the lanky suburban listener. At concerts, there are plastic swords thrown into the crowd, costumes that wouldn’t be amiss in a Marvel flick, the inevitable helmets with horns on them. Through it all, power metal bands are continually ready with a classic line from metal discourse: “Calm down, it’s just a bit of fun, it’s just music, it’s not politics.” Gloryhammer’s overt silliness and space-meets-high-fantasy topics, undergirded privately by horrific racism and sexism, seem to put paid to the idea that the reason politics are avoided so often in metal is because thinking about them would reveal too many closeted skeletons. For metal to continue as a culture of proud outsiders, the revelation that it in fact relies on the same biases and prejudices as the governments and religions metal fans so often claim to despise appears to be too much to bear for some – so the contradiction must be sustained through reflexive anti-reflexivity.
For many metal fans, playing with history comes with the territory, but as a Jew in diaspora, I can’t claim the same degree of comfort. When I hear songs that valorize the 20th century’s gravest conflicts, I don’t experience the ‘imagined community’ that indigenous Europeans might do – instead I worry that the bands are perpetuating old stereotypes about nation and gender, which have been the ideological backbone of so much suffering. The fact that the artists might consider such stereotypes as harmless entertainment only strengthens my argument that these stereotypes, following Slavoj Žižek, form part of dominant Ideology – in effect, a fantasy which goes unquestioned. With that said, Gloryhammer are, perhaps the most disturbingly of all, typical for their genre.
This does not mean that metal should be completely joyless, unable to engage in the symbolic play and recycling that has carried it this far, and divorced of the rich histories which its artists grew up in. Neither does it mean that power metal is somehow verboden, a genre that is necessarily emblematic of hegemony. We all need that uplifting feeling now and again, we all need to cut loose and pump our fists in the air. But we can also approach our own histories, and those of others, with a critical attitude that does not assume stereotypes, and does not take the world as it is given by any authority. That is the responsibility, often shirked, which comes with the kind of ‘radical toleration’ afforded in heavy metal.
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Words: David Burke