This piece originally featured in our zine on Tolkien. Order here.
Black metal is typified by elitism, to be sure. Go back to Lords of Chaos‘ depiction of Euronymous, or mosey on down to Varg’s Twitter, or get in a six-hour comment fight on Facebook with a guy whose bio says “APOLITICAL | MISANTHROPIC | TRVE”, and you’ll bear witness to a culture that focuses not only on being different to the norm or taking pride in its outsider status (as is common in all metal), but explicitly and (sometimes) violently enforces this difference, making the line between in-group and out-group abso-fucking-lutely clear. There are many ways a black metaller can do this, naturally; listening to impenetrable noise partially out of genuine masochism is just the first step. Then comes the spiky wristbands and not washing because “it’s more authentic” to take on the semblance and odour of a dead rodent. But if you want to really step up your game, access that next level of clout, you’re going to have to read The Silmarillion, cover to cover.
The enormous success of The Lord of the Rings following paperback publication in the 1960s means that Tolkien’s influence on popular music cannot be said to be confined to metal – see ‘Ramble On’ by Led Zeppelin, or that Ed Sheeran song from The Desolation of Smaug soundtrack. However, it should be noted that Tolkien’s works have been the subject of metal songs since ‘The Wizard’, track two of Black Sabbath‘s eponymous debut, which is an eerily perfect occurrence for the forthcoming discussion – it suggests that Tolkien is truly “at home” in heavy metal. In the 1980s, perhaps the most famous Tolkien-themed band was Blind Guardian, whose classics such as Nightfall in Middle-Earth balanced gorgeous orchestration with thrash-power fury in a bid to convey both the intensity and grandeur that typifies Tolkien’s tales. Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Cirith Ungol, with last year’s Forever Black a triumphant return for the early power proponents.
In the 1990s however, symphonic power metal was ousted from its position as resident fantasy nerd by a genre that was even less ‘cool’. “Second wave” black metal took the pre-existent transgressive logic of metal to unprecedented levels in part by actively avoiding commercial success, by keeping things underground and obscure deliberately. We can see this in BM logo design, the abrasive timbres and unearthly rasping of the music, and the Helvete scene’s fascination with all things prohibited and excluded, up to and including putting knives in each other’s backs. So why would its progenitors so delight in naming themselves and their bands after characters, locations and phrases from a book series that was, as mentioned, incredibly well-known? Surely Gorgoroth, Burzum and so on would have wanted to take names from actual dusty old tomes of magickal lore, rather than from a paperback copy of Fellowship?
The answer may lie in Tolkien’s propensity for depth, which scholars have identified derives from four major characteristics: the size and intricacy of Middle-earth, the incomplete and casual ways in which characters refer to its history, the various interpretations of its history given through different stories, and the range of different writing styles used in Tolkien’s in-world texts (Drout, Hitotsubashi and Scavera, 2014). The fact that our protagonists constantly refer to tales of yore, whilst travelling through locations themselves centuries old, gives Middle-earth a sense of antiquity, which is bonded to the sheer size and complexity of the world. The languages and maps add further to this sense of enormity and history, establishing a fictional world-space that is seemingly as detailed as our own. With this sense of depth established through the use of antiquity, Tolkien was able to develop Middle-earth’s authenticity as a world unto itself – something that seemed more real, more permanent, than the transient and artificial planet outside of its pages.
This feeling of authenticity, of solidity, of weight, is critical for understanding the appeal of Tolkien’s work to black metal musicians and fans. I would argue that metal as a whole is a virulent reaction to the conditions of late capitalism and postmodernity, where famously “all that is solid melts into air”; heavy metal offers apparently authentic expressions of loudness, power, emotion and so on, whilst criticising what is perceived as an inauthentic society and mass culture. Black metal is perhaps more concerned with its own authenticity than other subgenres, with its creators’ attempts to be trve and extreme, the music’s complete lack of mainstream appeal, and the subculture’s focus on creating and nurturing its own mythology of darkness and obscurity. The genre also harbours a fondness for natural beauty, pastoral living, ancient traditions and the Old Gods, which would seem to correlate with the previous argument that antiquity and authenticity are linked, or at least are linked in the eyes of both black metallers and Tolkien buffs. However, only one of these subcultures is also known for nurturing a fanatical hatred and contempt for modernity, society and morality (delete as appropriate depending on your kvltscore).
It is here, unfortunately, that the parallels between certain aspects of black metal and fascism become abundantly clear – in their valorisation of the past, and their undisguised loathing for the present. In both there is a thematic fixation with a long-gone golden age, a heroic era suppressed by the hum of modern life and the “slave morality” of Christianised Europe, and this fixation both undermines the value of the present and fixes the meaning of the past in place, transforming it into a solid, rigid signifier. Stephanou (2010) suggests that for black metal, “There is a movement towards an original past, a desire to unearth the father signifier that incarcerates and forecloses the limitless powers of the wolf”, which could, to pick a completely random example, equally be applied to the narratives and policies furthered by Nazi Germany in response to Versailles. This is not the only thematic similarity – we could also mention their shared focus on absolute morality, their fierce demarcation of us and them, and their shared fanbases of scrawny, disenchanted folk with a taste for military regalia – but their iconographic representations of history are of particular relevance here. We might even say, in the process of pinning history down and hollowing out its messy complexity, that some strains of black metal and fascism are creating an “absent past” (Williams 2010), one that cannot be traced through the mundanity of archaeology and source analysis, but which instead emanates from myth and fantasy.
This formation of the past in fascism and black metal as intensely powerful, but only accessible through backchannels and allegory, can be explored further through Baudrillard’s (2007) description of fascism as an “aesthetics of death”, a phrase which is also apt for black metal. For those with a mythic view of the past, it is necessarily dead – it does not live on, impinging on the present, rather it is a far-flung time to which one’s primary relations are in the nebulous concretions of Blood, Soil and Story. For this past to be given its mythical character, it cannot be involved with the muck of real history; it must be severed and transformed into an effigy of history that, most importantly, is impossibly distant from the present, it is completely unlike life as we know it now. This distance from the mythical past, the fact that it is unreachable (thus dead), is precisely what can be so appealing to those who are disillusioned with modernity. If this all sounds unnecessarily deep, bear in mind that those who believe in such a mythical past can also be aware of its falsity. Consider how Varg Vikernes characterises his beliefs: “the classical European ideals paired with medieval chivalry. What once was. What exists no longer – save in lost spirits like myself. A romantic longing for a past that most likely never existed as we know it. Maybe just shadows on the walls in a different cave” (Walsh 2012).
Thus we return to the work of Tolkien, an author who was not only intimate with all manner of mythic and medieval texts (he translated Beowulf y’know), but also held a certain degree of contempt for industrialisation and its attendant onset of modernity, as alluded to through the blackened wastes of Mordor juxtaposed against the idyll of the Shire. However, bearing some relation to black metal musicians who identify as “apolitical”, Tolkien refused to explicitly link his work to the politics and economics of the 20th Century. This both denies critics the ease of a confessed historicity, and simultaneously imbues the books with further antiquity-authenticity, encouraging the perspective that the works are somehow outside of history and thus “timeless”, a revival of Medievalism without the burden of real events. We should note then that Middle-earth is, in this sense, a simulation; Ashley Walsh argues that “Tolkien’s universe provides a medieval-like environment for black metallers to escape within” (2012), with its depth and accessibility providing a conduit into the mythic past that was also (by the 1990s) universally known.
Now, before I get bollocked by every corpse-paint enthusiast from here to Hell, Norway (where about 80% of all black metal fans live according to extensive Facebook-based research), I must make abundantly clear that I am not suggesting there is a causal link between fascism, black metal or Tolkien. Apart from being an idiotic claim which cannot be tested, it would also miss the point, being that all three of these cultural-political institutions (like it or not, they are) are drawn to a similar kind of Other; the power and authenticity that are attendant to antiquity. The past cannot help but weigh on us all with legacies of conflict and immorality, freezing us into predetermined roles into which we are thrown simply by being born, constantly expanding in our own lives until it dominates us in old age. It is against such an overdetermined and miserable fate that black metal, fascism and Tolkien revolt, via very different means, and to very different ends. All of them try to reclaim some freedom by lightening the burden of the heavy past, making it more bearable for the current crop of simians who can neither be absolved nor punished for their ancestors’ sins. Therefore these three interact in the symbolic play of subcultures, agglomerating under the hands of musicians and political agitators alike, such that they become linked through correlation and cultural dialectic. Tolkien black metal bands need not be fascist (Summoning spring particularly to mind) and NSBM bands need not involve Tolkien. But to leave such correlations uninvestigated, deny their existence, or to focus instead on the contradictions between Tolkien, black metal and fascism rather than this major similarity, is to, in their footsteps, collapse and reduce the complexity of the past.
The Tolkien Issue is available here.
Words: David Burke
Baudrillard, J. and Lotringer, S. (2007) Forget Foucault / Forget Baudrillard. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e). Available at: http://archive.org/details/SemiotexteForeignAgentsJeanBaudrillard (Accessed: 26 March 2020).
Drout, M. D. C., Hitotsubashi, N. and Scavera, R. (2014) ‘Tolkien’s Creation of the Impression of Depth’, Tolkien Studies, 11(1), pp. 167–211. doi: 10.1353/tks.2014.0008.
Stephanou, A. (2010) “Playing Wolves and Red Riding Hoods in Black Metal” in Masciandaro, N. (ed.) Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium I. Charleston, South Carolina: Glossator.
Walsh, A. (2012) “Viking Heritage: The Creation of a Personal and National Identity through History and Metal” in Brown, A. R. and Fellezs, K. (eds) Heavy Metal Generations. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press.
Williams, E. C. (2010) “The Headless Horsemen of the Apocalypse” in Masciandaro, N. (ed.) Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium I. Charleston, South Carolina: Glossator.