Heavy metal has always been a hotbed of controversy. Ever since Black Sabbath took the training wheels off and dove straight into the prime evil muck, the genre has been a nearly constant game of one-upsmanship and reverse sanctimony. And that's partly what we love about it; but while most of us are content with a bit of "reality check" escapism, the metal scene has not been immune over the years from individuals co-opting the channeled energy and innate anger of the metal scene in order to further a fringe political agenda.
For the first decade of metal's existence it was pretty much just pageantry, a barrage of simple shock rock tactics tracing through Alice Cooper all the way back to Arthur Brown and Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Even Venom, the culmination of extreme imagery in music circa the early 80's, was regarded as a threat only insofar as they might act as a gateway form of Satanism that turned our youth on to the real thing.
In fact, much of what might be considered political extremism surrounding heavy metal at the time was not so much contained within the genre as being directed at it. The most notorious instance of this was the "Satanic Panic" scare of the early-to-mid 80's. This moral witch hunt loosely traces back to the 70's, but it was the 1980 book Michelle Remembers, a swiftly debunked chronicle of a young girl's repressed memories due to Satanic ritual abuse as a child, that fired off the most virulent spell of devil-fearing hysteria. Despite the tabloid-like quality of the research and the vocal rebuke of skeptics, the idea of widespread Satanism threatening the well-being of average suburban children played well on the burgeoning talk show format at the time, and obviously it wouldn't be long before the morality brigade turned their attentions toward the most visible advocate of the devil's work: heavy metal.
Though not restricted in scope to just metal, the Tipper Gore-led Parents Music Resource Group (PMRC) proved to be a perennial thorn in the genre's side. Basically a glorified lobbying group for censorship, the PMRC had one major coup to their credit, that being the introduction in 1985 of the dreaded "Parental Advisory" sticker. The practical ramification of this sticker was that it caused many big box retailers to refuse to stock any album marred by the advisory, and even actual record stores that were expected to maintain a comprehensive stock usually had an 18+ rule in place, which ostensibly prevented most teenagers from purchasing an album short of dragging their parents to the store. While this ploy might have made some sense if the purpose was to keep Slayer and 2 Live Crew out of the hands of 12 year olds, keep in mind that the primary targets in the mid-80's were usually the hair bands with the double- and single-entendre lyrics.
The societal focus on the potentially damaging effects of heavy metal lyrics reached an apex in 1990, when Judas Priest were sued by the families of two youths that shot themselves in a dual suicide pact – an event that coincidentally occurred back in that halcyon year of 1985 – which was alleged to have been triggered by subliminal messages present in Priest's song "Better By You, Better Than Me", their 1978 cover of an old Spooky Tooth song that supposedly contained the phrase "do it" in the backmasking on the vinyl. The band were acquitted, though the judge did award the prosecution $40,000 in damages against the record label, CBS.
Aside from the constant sex-and-violence concerns of the American right wing – politics which, for better or worse, are far too prevalent to qualify as "extremism" in the context of this article – the more serious side of heavy metal in the 1980's largely concerned itself with more mild-mannered diatribes against censorship (duh), nuclear war, and just the various ways that society (and "The Man") kept the youth down. This may have been due to a perception in the 80's that punk was music for serious activist types, while metal was for cartoonish stoner burnouts. At least that seemed to be the attitude stemming from the punk side of the fence; the schism was real, and the consequence of this (mis)perception was that punk tended to draw most of the more actively political types, which obviously included a lot of fringe crackpots.
Metal remained largely immune from self-earned political controversy until Norwegian black metal came along. Chronicled at length in the 1998 tome Lords of Chaos, reviewed here for Black Metal History Month a few years ago, so the limited scope of this article's headline is not arbitrary: black metal owns a pretty good slice of the fringe extremism in the genre since 1990.
Throughout the 80's, sincere anti-Christian sentiment was more often than not deliberately couched in lyrics and imagery that could easily be interpreted as escapist pageantry (if not outright camp), a compromise that the Norwegian "Black Circle" was intent on nullifying. Rejecting the forced Christianization of Scandinavia over the centuries, the members of this circle – centered around the Helvete record shop in Oslo – declared war on organized religion, with the first major action of the group being the 1992 burning of the famed Fantoft Stave Church near Bergen (allegedly by Varg Vikernes of Burzum). This would be but the first of a series of church burnings (comprehensive list here) clandestinely orchestrated by the Black Circle and their hangers on/aspirants. I'm listing these as political actions due to the Church of Norway, a Lutheran organization, having been the nation's official church until 2012. In 2013, 75.2% of Norwegians identified as members; in 2000 that number was at 85.9%.
A few months after the Fantoft arson, Emperor drummer Bård “Faust” Eithun murdered a man who had allegedly made sexual advances to him shortly after leaving a bar. Though often speculated to have been triggered by fascist ideology – which explicitly opposes homosexuality – Eithun has insisted that he was never Satanic or fascist "in any way", so this incident would be best be regarded under the domain of pathology rather than political extremism.
Varg Vikernes was released from prison in 2009 (he was convicted of several church arsons as well as the infamous murder of fellow BM pioneer Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth), at which point he relocated to rural France and got back to business as usual. Since then he has been reasonably prolific in terms of recorded music, but toward the purposes of this article we'll primarily concern ourselves with his political and philosophical writing, which is sprinkled liberally throughout his website, burzum.org, in between items on recording progress and promoting Burzum merchandising for the less discriminating collector.
Most of these writings are staggered entries in a series of ongoing essays; for instance the two most recent as of this writing are Lords of Lies: Part XIII – On how Negroes became Fair-Skinned, Blue-Eyed and Blond in Europe and Paganism: Part XIX – Comparative Mythology, my RPG & Europe… yep, Varg is working on his own role-playing game, no doubt to redress the racial miscegenation perpetrated by TSR in their Dungeons & Dragons bestiaries.
Vikernes' scribblings tend to focus on racial purity and archaic ideals of nationalist heritage, so it's no real surprise that he's been accused of neo-nazism, a label he used to endorse but has since turned his back on, even as his espoused beliefs continue to skew alarmingly in that direction. For instance, in Lord of the Lies: Part XIII he sums himself up as such:
Don't allow our European species to be degraded any more, to be reduced in quality through mixing with those other human races of the Homo Sapiens species. We too are mixed, yes, and the darker we are the more mixed we are, whether we like to admit this or not, but don't worry about that. We are still different, we are still unique and special, we are still European, and we must simply make sure that we will not have any more of that non-European blood mixed into us.
Others have drawn parallels between this brand of prescribed racial segregation and the crimes of Norwegian spree killer Anders Behring Breivik, though Breivik never mentioned black metal in his extensively annotated manifesto, which often reads like an extended shout out list to all of his influences. Nonetheless, it's easy to see instances of parallel thinking in Breivik's Islamophobia
In the next installment we'll examine the ongoing instances of race-baiting, hatemongering and other various forms of political extremity in the black metal scene.