Black Metal takes Norway’s Everyday Racisms to the Extreme

Laura Wiebe Taylor

Laura Wiebe Taylor

Norwegian black metal represents an intersection between locality and genre: its locality figures the scene as a national expression within a global metal underground, its genre as a particular set of stylistic and ideological practices within the broader category of metal music.

As one of the “extreme” subgenres of metal, black metal is characterised by “sonic,” “discursive,” and “bodily” transgression, including its screamed vocals, intense tempos, heavily distorted riffs, and abject or socially unacceptable lyrics, imagery and rhetoric.

In ‘Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge’, Kahn-Harris notes that extreme metal is a predominantly white genre, attracting few artists of sub-Saharan African, Chinese, or South Asian descent even when it makes no deliberate attempts to exclude them.

This demographic tendency is even more pronounced in Norway’s black metal underground, partly explainable in terms of the country’s white majority population, but the genre’s exclusionary constructions of Norwegian black metal whiteness may also play a role.

Black metal also emphasises a kind of whiteness in musical terms, avoiding elements, such as blue notes and syncopated rhythms, that are associated with African American influences.

The white face paint, or corpse paint, worn by many black metal musicians, including many of the early Norwegian artists, might be read as a further marker of whiteness — the horror of whiteness associated with whites’ historical power to bring about others’ deaths.

During the early nineties, Norwegian black metal coalesced around a raw, primitive aesthetic — low production values, piercing drone, stripped-down song structures and arrangements, and harsh imagery — much of it pillaged from Norse mythology, paganism, satanism and/or fascism.

The resulting sonic and visual noise could then serve to evoke, even enact, a particular vision of Norway, an atavistic and ruthless national imaginary where social interaction is based on perpetual strife and mutual hate.

Individual songs and albums, at least those written in English, were rarely explicit about how this vision of Norway might be brought about, but several artists’ public actions and statements indicated their ideologies of ethnic and racial nationalism, glorifying a myth of pre-modern, pre-Christian and preimmigration Norwegian identity.

The Norwegian black metal underground developed within a particular temporal, cultural, and geopolitical context that included an increasingly heterogeneous Norwegian population, pressure for Norway to join the European Union, a history of Nazi occupation, and a tradition of cultural nationalism relying on the construction of a homogenised Nordic heritage.

It is within this environment that the Norwegian black metal scene emerged as the social and musical production of a small number of young white men expressing their disdain for what they perceived as modern weakness and liberalism while attempting to reclaim Norway’s Viking, or at least pre-Christian, history and to re-establish an imagined white, warrior past.

According to Iver Neumann, national identity has been important in Norway since at least the 1770s, when aspirations for Norwegian political independence inspired a nationalistic campaign of self-definition.

Historians such as Gerhard Schøning associated Norwegians’ “common and proud history” with the “age of the Sagas” — what later became known as “the Viking age” — when brave and fiery Norwegian peasants represented a “Terror” for the rest of Europe.

Norwegian language and nature (mountains and cold climate, for example) became celebrated markers of a “nationalised” people, defined against the ruling Danes, the allegedly less pure-blooded Swedes’ and Germans, as well as Finnish migrants and the indigenous Sami living in the north. Norway’s contemporary “national self-image,” as described by Marianne Gullestad, still sees Norwegians as “close to and fond of nature,” but also as “white” — a colour specification that was only implicit in early national identities.

After Norway emerged as a “fully sovereign state” in 1905, self-definition began to work in opposition to, first, a generalised “European Other,” then to Nazi occupation and, eventually, to the political amalgamations of the European Community and European Union. Yet, as part of Europe, Norway has also been engaged in a larger European project of maintaining a distinct identity from the United States, and from the non-European East and South.

Gullestad suggests that Norwegian national identity has been revitalised in recent decades as a “response” to factors such as increasing “individualisation, immigration, Europeanization and globalisation.”

This revitalised identity is racialised as well as nationalised, constructing a vision of Nordic racial homogeneity that never actually existed. It relies on a sense of Norway’s colonial innocence, even victimisation, and excludes both historical and contemporary immigrants from attaining the status of “Norwegian.” Even now, writes Gullestad, “nine out of ten majority Norwegians reserve the use of the word ‘immigrant’ for people with what is perceived to be a ‘dark skin colour’.”

Far-right political parties that espouse anti-immigrant rhetoric have also become more popular in Norway since the 1980s: for example, the far-right-wing Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet) became the third-largest in Norwegian parliament in 1989 while advocating “tax reform and stronger immigration controls.”

Xenophobic discourses invoked by the Progress Party and others who pose immigration as a national, cultural or ethnic problem or threat engage in a form of “raceless racism,” which attempts a denial of race in order to indulge in “fantasies” of homogeneity and a “bleached” Europe.

Such popular, if marginally acceptable, discourses of cultural and ethnic nationalism exist in Norway alongside the similar but more easily demonised ideologies espoused by an extreme nationalist political underground.

Despite this larger socio- and geopolitical context, black metal racism is more likely to come up in a discussion of extreme underground politics, satanism or paganism than in an analysis of mainstream racist discourses circulating in the public sphere.

Certainly, a nation that associates racism primarily with Nazism, and which rarely refers to racism except in denials, could not have found it difficult to distance itself from the satanic and fascistic imagery of the black metal scene or the violent acts of scene members. Yet, such transgressions do not express clear radical or underground political allegiances, nor do they usually expose overt or explicit racism.

It was a small step from the celebration of Norwegian history to a nationalistic glorification of Norse heritage, from the shock value of Nazi references to the shocking values associated with Nazism and fascism. But for early Norwegian black metal, racism was often implicit and incoherent, embedded in a bricolage of violent, anti-religious, and racist ideas drawn from any available inspiration, including mainstream constructions of white Norwegian national identity.

The connection between racist nationalism and black metal’s appropriations of Nazism can be read in the Aryanism and anti-Semitism that some scene members have expressed.

One prominent example involving the band Darkthrone is discussed in both Kahn-Harris’s ‘Extreme Metal’ and Moynihan and Søderlind’s ‘Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground’. Darkthrone featured the phrase “Norsk Arisk Black Metal” (“Norwegian Aryan Black Metal”) prominently on the back cover of their 1994 album ‘Transilvanian Hunger’.

As Kahn-Harris explains, the band also initially demanded that the record packaging include a written statement calling any attempt to criticise the music a demonstration of “Jewish behaviour”; in response to the resulting backlash, Darkthrone’s members quickly offered a public apology, but their claims to have offended people “unintentionally” were disingenuous, and while their record company (Peaceville) did not distribute the letter, the “Aryan” slogan was not removed.

Black metal’s appropriations of Nazism, along with satanism and Norse paganism, are also related to the scene’s propensity for misanthropy — its celebrations of violence and war and discourses about the survival of the fittest or purging the weak. The connection is illustrated by numerous album and song titles, including ‘Panzerfaust’ — a Darkthrone release from 1995 that takes its name from a Nazi anti-tank weapon, or simply, ‘War,’ a 1991 song by Burzum (‘Burzum’). But in the black metal context, even images of nature often take on an especially harsh or threatening guise, inflecting the image of Norway’s national natural wonders and forbidding weather with visions of “wild” forests and mountains and the dangers that lurk there.

Again, song and album titles offer indications of this perspective — such as Burzum’s ‘Feeble Screams From Forests Unknown’ (‘Burzum’, 1991), or Darkthrone’s ‘Where Cold Winds Blow’ off ‘A Blaze in the Northern Sky’ (1991).

Such imagery — Nazism, war, and harsh nature — carries over into Norwegian metal’s constructions of white masculinity and male power. These not only favour the image of the ferocious Viking warrior but also resonate with Nazi ideals of Aryan masculinity defined against an extreme backdrop of dark forests, imposing mountains or bitter ice and snow.

Black metal band photos and promotional shots of musicians in absurd re-creations of Viking armour often provide visible manifestations of this violent masculine archetype.

Such “extreme” whiteness also serves to reinforce the normalisation and invisibility of ordinary whiteness, while excluding colour (and gendered) difference from black metal and Nordic identity.

Black metal tends to claim indiscriminate misanthropy, and espouse an ideology of generalised warfare. Yet, it is clear that racialised difference is particularly despised.

The genre’s exclusionary nationalistic discourses, as well as individual artists’ more explicit commentaries, indicate that black metal hates some types of people more than others.

Because of black metal’s tendency to marginalise politics, artists’ racist views are far more often revealed through interviews with individual musicians than in songs.

It is in such interviews that the ultranationalism of early Norwegian black metal most clearly takes mainstream forms of racism and xenophobia to an extreme; some artists used such opportunities to publicly express feelings of distaste or disgust toward “non-Norwegians” — immigrants and, particularly, Muslims.

Scene member Jan Axel Blomberg (Hellhammer), made several particularly virulent racist statements in interviews in the 1990s. In one of his milder comments, Blomberg suggested that immigration is a problem in Norway. He offered a more inflammatory suggestion while discussing the church fires set by black metallers: “[…] why not burn up a mosque, the foreign churches from the Hindu and Islamic jerks […] instead of setting fires to some very old Norwegian artworks? They could have taken mosques instead, with plenty of people in them!”

In one sense, Blomberg is revealing a willingness to oppose any organised religion, but his desire to protect Norwegian culture and his disturbing characterisation of Muslims and Hindus and their culture as disposable is an extreme and, I would suggest, deliberately transgressive appropriation of widely prevalent anti-immigrant and nationalistic views.

Other black metal musicians, without making explicitly racist statements, have expressed a strong desire to celebrate their culture and heritage, and regret that this may be interpreted as “racist or Neo-Nazi.” Even when such comments do not involve an explicit call to rid Norway of “non-Norwegians”, they reinforce constructions of Norway as a white Nordic space. This kind of thinking is not far removed from the more mainstream or “new” racisms analysed by critical race theorists since the 1980s. Even when such discourses encode race as culture, they often cast racial and ethnic differences as insurmountable, suggesting, for example, that people “naturally prefer [their] own kind.”

Cultural mixing is seen not just as “unnatural” (although some argue that it is) but as the fuel for violent conflict. Thus popular culturally-framed arguments calling for the exclusion of immigrants from Norway, or an end to immigration from Africa, the Middle East, or Asia, provide a thin veil for racism, eschewing claims to biological difference only to get caught up in the pseudo-biology of “basic human instincts.”

This “cultural fundamentalism,” as Verena Stolcke calls it, contends that “relations between different cultures are by nature hostile and mutually destructive because it is human nature to be ethnocentric.” Such views of hostile human nature are not far removed from Norwegian black metal’s misanthropic vision of perpetual human strife.

“Raceless” racist discourses, focusing on culture or ethnicity, circulate Norway and other nations that conceive of themselves as homogeneously white, and their whiteness as threatened by multiculturalism and an influx of black and brown immigrants.

Scenarios that position immigration as a threat to the natural cultural (read “racial”) homogeneity of Norway particularly focus on Muslims as the source of disorder and a drain on social welfare.

Providing social aid is viewed as distasteful by many black metallers, but social aid for “non-whites” also comes to be seen as a “problem” by ordinary citizens who imagine refugees and asylum-seekers, in particular, as (state-made) “social welfare clients” and a burden on local communities and the nation.

On these grounds — the construction of a white Nordic national identity, hostility toward non-Nordic and especially non-white immigrants — Norway’s mainstream nationalism and xenophobia may be understood as directly related to black metal’s ultranationalism: extreme and everyday racisms intersect, the latter informing and enabling the former.

Despite such ideological similarities, it is not surprising that this relationship has received little attention. It is only recently that researchers such as Gullestad have begun to demonstrate that mainstream racism actually exists in Norway and that it is similar to the xenophobia and ultranationalism of the radical underground.

In fact, despite the resurgence of right-wing extremism in the country and the proliferation of anti-immigration rhetoric, most of Norway, and Europe in general, has been in “raceless” denial.

Attempts to blame xenophobia and racism [and other forms of discrimination] on the “dregs” of society provide those in denial with a scapegoat, individualising the problem while normalising racist views.

Scapegoating also supports the naturalisation of “ordinary’ whiteness as an “invisible” ideal. As Richard Dyer asserts in White, the “extreme” whiteness identified with white supremacism serves as a “distraction” — a symptom of “derangement” in which “ordinary” white society fails to recognise its own reflection and can thus continue to imagine itself the non-raced universal human norm.

Doing away with scapegoats and distractions does not mean ignoring the harm caused by extreme racism (nor should it lead to wallowing in unproductive guilt), but it does demand the recognition of everyday racisms wherever they may circulate and a commitment to dismantling them.

Recognition is thus only the first step, but an important one. The comparisons I have outlined here are exploratory rather than explanatory, but they do indicate that Norwegian black metal did not invent new forms of racism or appropriate them strictly from National Socialism or neo-fascism. Rather, the scene’s inherent transgressiveness has produced an intensification of pre-existing mainstream discourses — “extreme” versions of the everyday racisms and discrimination already present in ordinary Norwegian society.

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