Ideologies And Discourses In Extreme Metal Music

Bojana Radovanović

Bojana Radovanović

Metal music experienced an important breakthrough into mainstream media at the apex of its popularity in the 1980s, while at the same time being considered a subject of “media and state sponsored ‘moral panics’” in the United States of America. The first decade of the new millennium witnessed a sort of shift in focus in mainstream music media, which signified a specific media regarding metal. A highly-developed, independent system of production and distribution created by those within the metal community also had a considerable influence on the withdrawal of the metal music scene away from the general public.

Officially, the era of moral panic caused by metal was over. However, a new wave of controversy in the United States of America came in the beginning of 2016, when one of the most influential metal musicians, Philip Hansen Anselmo, gave a Nazi salute and shouted “white power” during an annual memorial concert, Dimebash. Members of the community, musicians and fans, condemned this act, prompting Philip Hansen Anselmo’s further statements and public apology. It was not the first time for Philip Hansen Anselmo to insinuate or openly preach white power discourse, which was always followed by apologies and excuses. Accordingly, questions were raised: is this type of discourse characteristic of the metal community, and what are the possible roots and impacts of racism in metal music?

The majority of the metal community rejects accusations of being racially intolerant. However, some of the ideologies of extreme subgenres are in fact formed around the ideas of self-conscious elitism expressed interest in, on the one hand, the pre-Christian aura of pagan mythology, and, on the other, racism, Nazism and fascism. The aim of this article is to examine various appearances of these extreme narratives in subgenres of metal (such as black metal), bearing in mind the variations dependent on geographical, political, and other factors. Instead of focusing on the sound of metal music, I will discuss its discursive production of meaning, which although (musically) silenced, screams for media attention, thus causing moral panics and public concern.

Guided by the adjective extreme while examining this subject, I first tend to pose questions of possible extremeness in music as well as in its (political) narratives and ideologies. In an attempt to define the group of extreme narratives (racism, Nazism, fascism, et cetera.), I relied upon Carol Tator’s interpretation of John Fiske’s and Paul-Michel Foucault’s understanding of racist discourse. Namely, Carol Tator’s interpretations state that these “[…] discourses repress, marginalize, and invalidate differences” through an identifiable repertoire of practices. Thus, extreme narratives are perceived as the narratives that contribute to creating discourses of repression, marginalization and invalidation of differences. As previously stated, these narratives are deeply embedded in the ideology of the extreme metal subgenre, black metal, as we will see further in the text. Through analysing extreme metal discourse and its transgressions, extreme narratives are indicated as a consequential element worthy of further discussion.

The term extreme metal is used as a collective name for the group of several metal subgenres. Keith Kahn-Harris perceived “musical radicalism” as the common feature that distinguishes them from other subgenres of metal. Simultaneously, extreme metal represents a sort of cluster of forms with various historical backgrounds and contexts. This group of subgenres (death metal, black metal, doom metal, grindcore, and their variants) show the highest level of diversity, artistic vibrancy and dynamics, while at the same time being the most problematic area of metal culture in general. Unlike the subgenres that experienced mainstream popularity (classic, heavy, glam, and thrash metal), and, even paradoxically, were the object of attacks and public disapproval, extreme metal was situated on the periphery of the music industry, thus forming its own institutional network for creating, distributing, popularizing, and consuming music.

Finding it necessary to complement and strengthen Franco Fabbri’s definition of genre as “a set of musical events (real or possible) whose course is governed by a definite set of socially accepted rules,” in which we can also define a subset, that is, a subgenre that functions within that kind of system, I will add concepts of scene and transgression, which was in more detail elaborated by sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris.

In an attempt to define their environment, members of the extreme metal community most commonly use the mentioned spatial concept of a scene (also, the underground). This term is used for various modes of describing “the context within which extreme metal music, practices and discourses are produced.” In global terms, the extreme metal scene is viewed as an assemblage of all local scenes based on the production and consumption of a particular extreme metal subgenre.

The second term that I stated as relevant is the concept of transgression, referring to the diversity of phenomena proven to test and exceed boundaries. The concepts considered as forms of transgression in extreme metal tend to be the exact reason to classify those sub-genres in the “extreme” category. Certainly, sonic and sound transgressions are the most expected (use of certain scales and modes, playing and vocal techniques, rhythm and tempo, songwriting, et cetera.). On the other hand, extreme metal practices particularly important forms of discursive transgressions, and, to a lesser extent, bodily transgressions.

Given that this scene produces an enormous amount of non-musical texts through a variety of media (band names, song titles and lyrics, everyday behaviour, magazines, fanzines, blogs, record labels, etc.), subgenres of extreme metal are distinguished from heavy and thrash metal by sharpening and intensifying the discourse. Taking into account all musical, and, in particular, non-musical discursive parameters, it can be stated that black metal is the most radically transgressive sub-genre of extreme metal. As I stated in the beginning, black metal discourse is built on an idea of self-conscious elitism and misanthropy, at the same time exploiting thematic fields of Satanism, occultism and paganism. Discursive transgressions fashioned in such a manner are often aimed to discursive domains of Nazism, racism, and fascism, ideologies that are, to a greater or lesser extent, transparent in the musical product itself. Depending on the geopolitical position, narratives of black metal vary slightly, adapting to the environment, political discourses, and audience and industry requirements. Further, I will examine the formation of black metal ideology in Norway and its echoes and transpositions in the Serbian metal scene.

Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke detects roots of the Nazi and racist ideology of black metal in skinhead movements and white power music that emerged in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s. Troubled working-class white youths that felt the need to compensate personal failures and social inadequacy with violence and aggressive behaviour became a new audience for Hitler cults and notions of Aryan identity. Over time, these movements became militant and aggressively advertised through developed networks of media, which led to a large number of supporters throughout Europe. Initially, those networks were found in countries such as Germany and Sweden, but by the early 1990s, they spread throughout the “new” states of Eastern Europe, in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Serbia.

Misanthropic zeitgeist became the foundation of the black metal ideology developed in Norway. In the mid-1980s, inspired by the main representatives of the first wave of black metal such as British band Venom and Swedish band Bathory, the second wave of Norwegian black metal bands began to emerge. As their most significant discursive characteristic, we perceive the idea of merging satanic and occult ideologies with Nordic mythology and fascination with the Scandinavian countryside. A prominent discursive feature of one of the most influential bands, Mayhem, and many in the offing (Emperor, Enslaved, Immortal, Arcturus, Burzum, Darkthrone, etc.) is a distinctive philosophy of nihilist hatred impregnated with depression and morbidity (the “negative side of [the] Scandinavian psyche”).

It can be said that this circle did not include a large number of musicians; nevertheless, they managed to build the type of infrastructure needed for their scene to function. Until the 1990s, the above-mentioned bands created their own identity based on the idea of superiority over mainstream culture, modern (mostly Christian) religion and other metal subgenres. This idea was deeply rooted in the interpretation of geographical position, purity of nature and landscapes, as well as Viking and Nordic mythology. Accordingly, superiority and elitism applied to musical skills, as well as racial qualifications. The most prominent members of this scene, like Dollarsnymous and Varg Vikernes, advocated a need to annul the effect of Christian colonization of Scandinavia in the Middle Ages. Bearing that thought in mind, in the early 1990s, several attacks on Christian churches throughout Norway began. Centuries-old churches were burnt. These events caused panic in public circles and led to unimagined media attention to the nascent black metal scene.

The interest within the scene in pagan mythology rapidly evolved into extreme discourses. Through an obsession with the pagan past and “pure” landscapes, as well as openly expressed distrust towards cosmopolitanism and “Americanization,” the scene established strong ideological connections with the nationalistic ideas of the nineteenth-century and fascist and racist movements of twentieth century. Nazi ideology, supported by characteristic readings of Darwinism, found its way to the musicians and audience alike.

The last decade of the twentieth-century was truly the time during which the most extreme and the most intense discursive transgressions in black metal occurred. The impact of this ideology was evident not only in the technical aspect of the music, visual imagery, and central ideas in the scene but also in the concrete actions and criminal acts that remained a feature of the Norwegian extreme scene as well. The ideology and sound of black metal are considered genuine Norwegian products, that is, the result of the synergy between contempt for other metal subgenres and distinctive interpretations of pagan mythologies, extreme-right oriented ideas, in relation to the Norwegian landscape, and the lonesome psyche of that landscape. However, through the institutional network of the underground, Norwegian metal reaches fans all over the world. Fascinated musicians and listeners hence tried to adapt its ideology on their own themes and thoughts, and their political and social questions.

The question of transgressions in extreme metal genres is always current, moreover if it comes to their sonic or discursive forms. After the “most extreme,” the second wave of Norwegian black metal, associated crimes and riots appeared to calm and, thanks to the fluidity of genres, the extreme narratives within extreme metal actually softened. However, as is demonstrated in the text, multiple appearances of these narratives can be found within the contemporary metal music genre. Thus, discussions on contextual relocation and adapting of extremist ideologies are to be current, especially when they are set in politically unstable periods of history. While observing the stage presence of one Serbian black metal band’s frontman, anthropologist David Jo Murphy stated that “under different circumstances this kind of charisma would easily lead man into a battle,” thus contributing the importance of discourse analysis applied to the realm of extremeness in the metal music industry. Artistic and musical discourses can, even in the cases like this one, represent “perfect artistic simulations of political activism,” but, at the same time, they can indicate deeper disturbances and problems that warrant consideration.

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