It’s never a particularly good time to be a black metal fan, but whenever our beloved, bastardized genre is dragged into the public eye, the results range from cringeworthy to outright dangerous. Heavy metal in general has had an image problem since at least the 1980s, when the Satanic Panic had moral authorities across the nation clutching their pearls for dear life, and Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center went on a crusade against the unholy influence of now-iconic names like Judas Priest, Mercyful Fate, Venom, and Black Sabbath.
Nearly three decades later, metalheads are still struggling to shake the general public’s negative assumptions about them, and much of the music itself remains fairly inaccessible to the average listener by dint of its abrasive, distorted character. The mainstream media is very bad at covering heavy metal, and particularly black metal, which is arguably the most theatrical and controversial of metal’s many, many subgenres, making it ripe for terrible takes.
Whenever you see the words “black metal music” in a non-music outlet, there is always an overeager emphasis on one or more of the same three things: Satan, corpsepaint, and/or church burnings. The latter has been the go-to choice since the spate of murders and arson that characterized the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990s. It’s a useful crutch for a writers who probably have next to no interest in weird screechy music, giving them the option to ignore anything that happened after 1995 instead of actually delving into the extraordinarily complex musical, social, cultural, and political history of this continually evolving genre.
This is all mildly aggravating, but recently the media allergy to actually giving a flying fuck about black metal as an art form with a legitimate cultural legacy has landed us in a position in which a 21-year-old man named Holden Matthews, the son of a Louisiana sheriff’s deputy, has been charged with setting three historically black churches alight — yet the media focus from outlets like CNN, the Today show, and Rolling Stone (which should really know better) has been on his music taste instead. As these articles will tell you, in 1992, in the midst of Norwegian black metal’s rise to prominence, Varg Vikernes, the frontman of Burzum, one of the genre’s most influential bands, set a stave church ablaze in Bergen, triggering a string of copycat arsons across the country and ensuring that the genre’s history would be rooted in blood and ash (he later went to prison for arson and murder after stabbing his former bandmate 37 times in the back).
As a result, church burnings have become part of black metal’s mythology, and there’s certainly a chance that Matthews’s interest therein is what sparked his terrible idea. Bringing up these blazes in the Northern sky is colorful, but tired; it’s the Piss Christ of lazy writing about metal — a metonym for those who know precisely one thing. Is it perhaps more likely that the kind of person who would perpetuate a hate crime of this magnitude was already harboring something uglier in his heart? Where, for example, might a cop’s kid have learned lessons about using violence to terrorize people you don’t respect or see as human? I wonder.
There are several layers to all of this, and a lot of questions that beg answers. Does metal — specifically black metal — have a Nazi problem? Yes. Is it complicated? Also yes. While there are genuine neo-Nazis lurking within the scene, most bands that fall under the “National Socialist Black Metal” (NSBM) tag aren’t dreaming of Hitler specifically; the semi-subgenre is a haven for of white supremacist, white nationalist, fascist, racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, and otherwise bigoted viewpoints, but calling them all “Nazis” is an oversimplification. Naming their specific strains of hatred makes it easier to push back against the fascist creep.
White supremacists have long seen extreme music scenes — from hardcore to industrial to neofolk to, yes, black metal — as fertile recruiting grounds.
The fact that Matthews has liked Varg Vikernes memes, has a (almost certainly shitty) band called Vodka Vultures, and is interested in various pagan and “heathen” religions isn’t necessarily a sign that he’s a budding neo-Nazi. It’s an indication that he’s a typical nerdy black metal fan, albeit one who was probably germinating some extremely bad opinions. Burzum is an undeniably prominent band and Vikernes is one of the genre’s most infamous figures; literally any metalhead with a passing familiarity with black metal knows who they are, and why it’s best not to wear a Burzum shirt around metal folks who don’t suffer racist fools. Most of us grew up on Burzum, myself included; rejecting the band and its tainted legacy often came later.
The frightening part of all this is how utterly unremarkable Matthews is within the context of this subculture — there are thousands of young men like him who like and do the same things, yet, crucially, they have managed not to commit hate crimes. The sad fact of the matter is that without a sustained metal community effort to guide them away from far-right rhetoric, that may soon cease to be the case.
Are Vikernes and the crimes he and his idiot racist teenage friends committed in the early 1990s in Norway the driving force behind what Matthews did in 2019? They may have provided a kernel of inspiration, but focusing on them misses the point. Far less ink has been spilled over the implications of his father’s profession, the racial dynamics of his parish, his affinity for swastikas, or other aspects of his internet use. Matthews was spurred to commit these awful actions by something, but zeroing in on black metal as the culprit is short-sighted and careless. If reporters are truly interested in making concrete links between black metal and right-wing extremism, they could tap into the current culture war raging within the scene, or analyze the ways that white supremacists are using the internet to push “apolitical” metalheads towards fascism and further radicalize those who are already on the brink.
White supremacists have long seen extreme music scenes — from hardcore to industrial to neofolk to, yes, black metal — as fertile recruiting grounds. When wielded in the wrong hands, black metal’s nihilistic bent, fierce individualist streak, violent history, deep-rooted tolerance for intolerance, appreciation for aesthetic shock value and overall offensiveness, and baked-in affinity for paganism offers a particularly slippery slope down towards full-blown Nazi bullshit. This is how we’ve ended up with so many NSBM bands and, while their musical output is uniformly terrible, it’s important to remember that spreading their ideology is their overall goal; it’s white-power propaganda dressed up in leather and spikes. Given the extremely online character of the modern metal community, there is also some overlap with the world of gaming and other internet-based communities like Reddit and 4chan, which welcome “offensive” behavior and are already hotbeds of white-supremacist organizing. That’s how we got Jeremy Christian, the self-described white nationalist and black metal fan from Portland who murdered two people in 2017 after attacking two young women of color, one of whom was wearing a hijab.
There is a growing faction of antifascist and vocally leftist metalheads in the black metal scene, but a much larger percentage of fans prefer to cling to the veneer of apoliliticality, or to push back at efforts to address issues of inclusivity and bigotry. There’s been an upswell in reactionary rhetoric as of late insisting that Nazis “aren’t that big of a problem” in the black metal scene; I’m of the opinion that even one is too many, and ignoring this problem in an age of heightened political tension and right-wing terrorism is a dangerous, cowardly move. Despite the protestations of those who would prefer to ignore them, there is still that noxious underbelly of white supremacists, racists, and literal neo-Nazis running roughshod over a genre of music that they do not deserve and should not be allowed to pollute. They have been met with less resistance than necessary, which is something that some in the current generation of metalheads are seeking to rectify.
This is why hand-wringing over Vikernes when members of Atomwaffen Division — a neo-Nazi group responsible for at least five murders — are showing up to sieg heil at a Horna show in Texas is not only irresponsible, it’s dangerous. Vikernes, yes, is a colossal piece of shit who has done more to foist a neo-Nazi agenda on the genre than anyone else, and he deserves every ounce of blame and vitriol for what he’s done; however, he’s the tip of the iceberg, and we’re barreling full steam towards the bottom. If you want to care about “Nazi black metal,” care about it by doing the research, naming active threats, working to connect the dots between seemingly innocent bands and their NSBM counterparts. Care about it by talking to antifascists and metalheads who are working to counteract and eradicate its poison.
Falling back on tired, damaging “metal fans are crazy/weird/evil” tropes is one thing, but creating a corpsepainted smokescreen for the real problems at hand is another. The media’s tendency to glom onto easy, well-trodden narratives obscures the real issues at work — the intersection of racism, white nationalism, and police brutality that surely has far more to do with this jagoff’s actions than his affinity for one of black metal’s worst (and most extremely online) figures.