Black metal wants to destroy the world. With its signature shrieking vocals and harsh, abrasive instrumentation, it is replete with songs howling against modernity or dreaming of fiery, apocalyptic battles to come. But what form any new world should take is far less settled.
This ambiguity has been readily exploited by the genre’s fascist fringe, who, though a small and often despised minority, have effectively utilised the genre’s propaganda potential, envisioning the return of a pagan Europe that never truly existed and the genocidal expunging of ‘foreign’ and ‘degenerate’ influences. Yet it is in this ambiguous apocalyptic fury, according to Bill Peel’s Tonight It’s a World We Bury: Black Metal, Red Politics, that black metal’s potential lies as an artistic weapon for the left.
Tonight It’s a World We Bury is the latest theoretical contribution to a growing left-wing, anti-fascist current within black metal music. But while much of this current has focused on ‘reclaiming’ the genre from the far right, Peel eschews this framework entirely, arguing that though the genre was never innately fascist, it was never inherently left-wing either.
This is prudent as even if we rightly acknowledge that explicit nazis constitute a small minority, efforts to ‘reclaim’ the genre as though it had been taken from the left inevitably struggle to reconcile themselves with the racist, homophobic or social Darwinist views many of the genre’s luminaries, including from its infamous Norwegian scene, have espoused in the past.
Instead, Peel conceives of black metal as a site of ideological contestation, one that can not only be enriched by embracing left-wing principles but that has much to offer the left in turn.
Weapons of refusal
In order to tease out black metal’s revolutionary potential, Peel identifies five key thematic tendencies; distortion, decay, secrecy, coldness and heresy. Each of these holds something of interest to the left, but I found his discussions on decay and heresy to be particularly fruitful.
In the case of the former, Peel contends that decay offers us a conceptual framework that eschews the finality of death and instead embraces an ongoing process in which new life emerges from the dispersal of old bodies. This is something that might serve as a useful juxtaposition to the left’s tendency towards melancholia, which clings to past failures at the expense of new avenues of struggle.
But the aspect of black metal I believe has the most to teach the left is heresy. Like Marx and Nietzsche, Peel argues that black metal’s opposition to Christianity stemmed not from a disbelief in its fundamental truth, but from its hegemonic place within Norwegian society, one many of them believed was imposed through violence at the expense of older, pre-Christian practices.
It is in its ambiguous apocalyptic fury that black metal’s potential lies as an artistic weapon for the left
Admittedly, some caution is warranted when discussing black metal’s heresy from a left-wing standpoint. Leaving aside the hopefully obvious point that burning churches is generally bad, it is important to note that not all expressions of Christianity occupy the same hegemonic position (black churches in the US have historically been subject to racist attacks, including one by a far-right black metal fan).
Nor am I convinced that, as Peel argues, the Christianisation of Scandinavia is really comparable to the explicitly colonial imposition of Christianity by those same countries onto the Sámi people or in Greenland. And finally, there were many within the black metal scene whose hatred of Christianity extended to anti-semitism and Islamophobia. If black metal’s heresy is to be of use to the left, then, it must find more deserving gods to slay.
Thankfully, Peel identifies this new god in the form of capitalism, which he conceptualises as a sort of grotesque facsimile of faith with its own doctrines, high priests and systems of judgement. How often have we been told to accept worsening living conditions for the benefit of ‘the economy’ as though it were a spiteful deity that must be satiated with blood?
Capital’s structure of belief is even echoed by some on the left, who advocate for their socialist politics on the basis of sound management or efficiency over the free market’s wasteful excesses. I am reminded in particular of Aaron Bastani’s TedTalk, delivered to a predominantly bourgeois audience, on how ‘fully automated luxury communism’ could provide for abundance without actually undoing the systems upon which capital runs.
If the purpose of heresy is, as Peel (quoting Marx) contends, ‘ruthless criticism of the existing order’, then the left should not seek to appeal to capital on its own terms, but to defy it and the oppressive power structures it rests upon.
Storms of red revenge
As for transforming black metal itself into a weapon against capitalism, it is necessary to contend with capital’s ability to recuperate any oppositional culture into itself. As I write this, I am listening to Rotting Christ’s 1993 debut album on Spotify, a platform that reduces song, artist, genre and listener to data points intended for user engagement and profit maximisation.
In 2011, it was reported that the Norwegian government was offering diplomats courses in black metal as one of the country’s primary cultural exports. Where once Norwegian tabloids ran sensationalist headlines about black metal’s antics, it is now a source of soft power for the country.
Black metal has sought to ward off this recuperation through the cultivation of a deliberately confrontational playing style (there’s a reason nobody passes me the aux cord at parties) and a history of eschewing more mainstream avenues of distribution. But adherence to the genre’s conventions renders it vulnerable nonetheless.
In the first chapter on distortion, Peel notes that the genre’s inaccessibility grounded in opposition to the mainstream serves to police it from within, rendering it static and inflexible through a dogmatic adherence to convention. If it wishes to change the world instead of passively opposing it, black metal cannot therefore sit in isolation, seething with impotent contempt for the rest of the world.
Instead, it must become dynamic, constantly challenging its own conventions and indifferent to the demands capital places on it for the purpose of easy commodification.
But as much as black metal’s ‘trve cvlt’ purists have railed against any slight change, this is something I’m optimistic about. Experimentation is as much a part of black metal’s history as satanism, and bands such as Deafheaven, Liturgy and Agriculture continue to push the genre in exciting new sonic and thematic directions.
Additionally, a more diverse array of black metal artists has become increasingly prominent in recent years, including indigenous acts such as Australia’s Dispossessed and the US’s Blackbraid, as well as the substantial queer presence within the scene.
And this is to say nothing of the recent wave of anti-fascist and anti-capitalist black metal acts, a transgression in itself when much of the genre often treats politics as taboo. Black metal is awash with revolutionary potential, and Tonight It’s a World We Bury provides us with perhaps the most thoughtful and compelling theoretical framework yet for how it might be unleashed.