Primal Ancestry and Race in Extreme Metal Music Discourses

Irina Manea
Irina Manea

The so-called “Völkischb” movement progressed, a term which encompasses nation, people, race and folklore into an organic and romanticized vision. There prevails a continuous resort to a mythicized past and a search for glorious ancestors with whom one can identify themselves. In this context, we can also notice a rise of the Antisemitic idea as part of this ethnic construction, as a contrastive element.

Racism was pressing forward in combination with an esoteric train of thought promoted by Austrian authors Guido von List and Lanz von Liebenfels who believed in the superiority of the mystical master race, the Aryans, whose followers must be separated from all other races in order to redeem mankind.

Radicalized völkisch circles such as Thule Gesellschaft or Ahnenerbe appeared, which not only limited themselves to a recovery of a blessed illo tempore or a resort to values such as blood or land but also tried to justify the need for a purification of the superior race.

National-socialism politicized such ideas, however, it had less to do with a Germanic spirituality which tended to flourish in the new wave of right-wing extremism that combines a political, anti-establishment attitude with a Blut-und-Boden ideology that also comprises a deep attachment to nature and everything traditional.

As such, in contrast to National-Socialism, the new radicals do sustain ethnocentrism, but not in the sense of a master race, but that of a homogenization within states or groups. All the more, the politically uninterested resort to spirituality for defining identity.

Neopagan groups and worldviews are very diverse; however, they can be divided into two major groups. The first one refers to enthusiasts willing to claim their ancient roots and display a passion for traditionalism, ecology, polytheism and a direct relationship to divinity. Since there are no historical references to detailed heathen practices, new heathenry appears to be at its most a nature religion which nevertheless uses mythological references from medieval texts so as precisely to maintain the impression of continuity.

In the case of Germanic paganism, we have examples of Asatru and Vanatrud. The second category, although it shares with the first one the distaste for modernity, technology, urbanization etc. also imposes elitist thinking translated into a belief in a hierarchy of races and ethnicities. In Odinism, for instance, people, community and family are absolute values.

Now that we have a cultural framework, we will be able to better understand the conservative nature of the extreme metal scene and its ties to a whole history of tradition-oriented approaches.

Romantic and nationalistic frames of mind with their more extreme outgrowths are a constant presence in all cultural spaces, not only the German one, alongside heathenry as a means for shaping foundation myths which in their turn may lead to a construction of ethnic images.

First of all we will discuss Black Metal, as it is the predecessor of the other two subgenres in question, Pagan and Viking Metal and it is widely acknowledged as the musical category with the most radical anti-system perspectives, opposing mainly everything related to modernity, from monotheistic religions and globalization to the principles of the democratic state.

It should come as no wonder then that such an ideology could sometimes develop extremist outgrowths. Black Metal is one of the branches sprouting from Heavy Metal in the 1980s and although much credit can be given to the forerunners from Venom who promoted a rawer sound and a less clean production, Scandinavian bands were actually the most influential in the scene and its ideology.

Mercyful Fate from Denmark with its lead singer King Diamond paved the road for Black Metal’s fixation with Satanism and the occult and its interest in generating frightful imagery not only through lyrics but also by means such as corpse paint, guttural vocals, dark scenery, distorted high-pitched guitar tones and so on.

One substantial contribution to the genre was brought by the Swedish band Bathory, which decided to explore Nordic heathen themes. Norse mythology and its mighty gods became the absolute stars in the lyrics from a trilogy of albums: ‘Blood Fire Death’, ‘Hammerheart’ and ‘Twilight of the Gods’.

For Bathory’s leading figure Thomas Forsberg, who took his inspiration from classical music and Romantic art, Germanic/Scandinavian mythology had a more profound significance than Satanism since it denoted a direct, imagined, of course, the relationship between past and present, pinpointing cultural singularity much better.

Northern gods symbolize ancient Scandinavian history at large and are used as a counterpoint to what is perceived as the offensive, “foreign” Christian tradition.

Forsberg’s art displays völkisch features in that he aimed special attention, somehow in a Nietzschean sense, to the return to European heathen roots as opposed to the destructive force of Christianity. His lyrics exhibited a preference for Nordic gods as a link to the authentic neglected forefathers, therefore securing ethnic continuity.

A more extreme offshoot occurred in the Norwegian so-called black circle at the beginning of the 1990s, dominated by band Mayhemcentered around its guitarist Øystein Aarseth and one-man project Burzum initiated by Varg Vikernes.

The conflicts, murders and church arsons associated with this initially small scene were the ones which sparked interest in it and its mentalities. Church arsons can be explained within the Neopagan-Christian binome, but at the same time may suggest a more politicized approach, having to do with a general rejection of modern society, liberal values and multiculturalism.

Vikernes’ music projects which he also pursued in jail all have in common the idea that one must reconnect to one’s “true” ancestry. That is why he sometimes reuses whole texts such as the “Völuspa” poem in the 2012 album “Umskiptar”, whose apocalyptic vision he reinterprets as an ending to Christian civilization and the rebirth of the Germanic north heroic ideal.

Dwelling on the utmost importance of what he perceived as an exceptional race, Burzum’s views cast a shadow of National Socialism over its preoccupations, however more explicit attitudes are, as we shall later see, to be found in a particular genre, National Socialist Black Metal.

But for now, we will try to highlight another perhaps more vivid byproduct, that of Pagan and Viking Metal. These subgenres or better said etiquettes have less to do with the music and much more to do with the content whose main characteristic is a celebration of pre-Christian histories and mythologies.

The music is however enriched and diversified through the usage of traditional acoustic instruments. The idea of incorporating and then revering exclusively national or regional myths, stories and tales first gained ground in the work of artists such as Adorned Brood, Falkenbach, Black Messiah, Enslaved or Einherjer, but the musical phenomenon is far from being merely European, but a global trend artistically expressing its affinity for an ethnically coloured spectrum.

Speaking of which, it is essential to bear in mind that ethnicity is a historically and culturally constructed reality, whereas the message conveyed by the songs and song texts of the scene instead pinpoint an organic understanding of ethnicity, that is a uniform, unchanged and continuous reality from time immemorial, in other words precisely in the völkisch framework.

The völkisch aspect becomes even more evident given most bands’ preference to sing in their own native languages, in the imagery of their album covers and their stage appearance as well, often involving warrior costumes, weapons and even reenactments.

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