Book Excerpt: Black Metal Rainbows

Featured here is an excerpt from Black Metal Rainbows, a full-color anthology of radical, queer, and leftist writing and artwork about how black metal can pivot from the sometimes-problematic genre is stared as to a new, open, and inclusive genre.  

“Black metal is a paradox,” the publishers of the book state. “A noisy, underground metal genre brimming with violence and virulence, it has captured the world’s imagination for its harsh yet flamboyant style and infamous history involving arson, blasphemy, and murder. Today, black metal is nothing less than a cultural battleground between those who claim it for nationalist and racist ends and those who say: Nazi black metal fvck off!” 

Black Metal Under the Black Flag 
Kim Kelly 

Black metal has always been a study in contradictions. The genre—itself a bastardized offshoot that whips together basic elements of thrash metal, the new wave of British heavy metal, classical music and punk, and filters them all through a veil of distortion and a theatrically evil atmosphere—has been knocking around since the late 1980s by virtue of early pioneers like Hellhammer, Sodom, Venom, Tormentor, and Mercyful Fate. Despite its scrappy, punk-inflected roots (especially in the case of Venom, a schlocky, gritty NWOBHM band who coined the term), black metal quickly became a symbol of something darker. 

These early European adapters were surrounded by their peers in the 1980s punk scene, who stayed busy grinding out short, sharp musical shocks and making their anti-establishment, overwhelmingly leftist political sympathies known. But Venom’s tarnished version of British steel was unconcerned with capitalism or the Queen; rather, their lyrics and image were pegged to black leather and black magic. Satan, laughing, had spread his wings, and those primordial stabbings at evil and darkness spawned a genre with a theatrical commitment to nihilism—and a mean streak. 

Everything changed in 1982, particularly in the countries that gave rise to black metal’s early stirrings, now canonically known as its “first wave.” Anarcho-punks Crass released Christ—The Album in 1982, the same year Venom’s Black Metal LP came out. While the Falklands War raged and British punks railed against the cruel austerity policies of hated Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, their counterparts across the pond protested US president Ronald Reagan’s brutal arch capitalist agenda. In Germany, where Sodom’s “witching metal” was birthed in 1982, protestors flooded the streets to advocate for nuclear disarmament, while in Sweden, the left-leaning Social Democratic Party swept the 1982 election (while, in 1983, Bathory’s Quorthon began work on his demo). Nothing, even the most willfully antisocial, cerebral art, is created in a political void—and whether or not they realized it at the time, early black metal was barely removed from punk in its execution, if not its message. 

Despite the historical context, when black metal’s fitful, bloodstained march toward global popularity first truly hit its stride in the 1990s, those involved in the genre’s second wave rejected any notion that their creation was based in anything but pure hatred. Norway and Sweden dominated black metal discourse throughout the 1990s, while South American bands forged their own concurrent path in relative obscurity. Norwegian bands, in particular like Burzum, Mayhem, Darkthrone, Emperor, and Thorns, became the face of the genre and reveled in their social and musical transgressions as they raked in attention from horrified journalists and befuddled music critics alike. 

Even then, as the genre was finding its first set of sea legs, there was something rotten in the state of black metal. Racism, antisemitism, and misogyny were rampant within the second wave, and escalating violence became its hallmark, with several of its biggest names engaging in racist attacks, homophobic hate crimes, arson, and murder. Jan Axel Blomberg, better known as Mayhem drummer Hellhammer, made the black metal scene’s deeply rooted white supremacy problem clear when he told one of the authors of the influential book Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground (which was cowritten by the openly fascist musician Michael Moynihan), “Black metal is for white people.” 

Those events and the influential recordings that were released around them would set the stage for the decades to come, scrawling a blueprint for black metal bands to couch or openly peddle far-right views under the guise of extremity for extremity’s sake, shock value, and, later, “free speech.” 

The philosophy of black metal cannot be nailed down into one specific school or line of thought; as with any complex art form, the genre contains multitudes. Given how much black metal has evolved since the early 1990s, it can be difficult to generalize anything about it at this point, but one of the major tenets of black metal has always been a total rejection of oppressive societal structures like organized religion and the idea of “polite” mainstream society. It is about power, extreme emotion, and individualism as much as it is about evil or esoteric philosophies. Darkness as a concept, an aesthetic, and an experience is an integral component, along, of course, with hatred in its myriad forms. 

Andy Curtis-Brignell, better known as the force behind British experimental black metal/noise project Caïna, has been involved in the black metal scene for decades and has been an anarchist for nearly as long. In his estimation, the combination makes perfect sense once one is able to peel back a few spiky layers and recognize the ideological fallacies that black metal often seeks to perpetuate. 

As Curtis-Brignell explained in a 2020 interview for this piece: 

Black metal is a philosophically dualistic creature, in that, on the one hand, there’s a perception—at least certainly an internal perception—of itself as uncompromising, thematically, sonically, and politically conservative and rigid, and so on. But if you actually look at the genre, there’s a tremendous plurality of opinion, approach, and attitude that I think is broadly anarchistic in nature. It’s iconoclastic, says “Fuck you!” to the top-down hierarchies of both music theory and the Byzantine hellscape of the music industry in general and has stuck more rigidly to its founding inherently proletarian DIY community principles than any other subset of heavy music. 

The contradictory character that Curtis-Brignell describes is indeed made plain as one digs a bit deeper into black metal ideology, if that label remains appropriate. The “anti-human, anti-life” rhetoric common to its second wave and prevalent throughout the genre’s history is countered by equal exhortations to support a chosen community of like-minded people by rooting out “posers” (and, later, “hipsters” and “social justice warriors”). Its pagan roots and connection to heathenry opens up a dangerous avenue for white supremacist poison to filter in, but it also opens up space for ideas around mutual aid and collective living. The genre’s well-known connection to Satanism offers another line of contradiction, one that connects ideas about free love and self-determination to more problematic and harmful viewpoints. There are as many ways to be a Satanist as there are to be a black metal band, and, at this point, many artists have eschewed the association altogether, particularly those who have chosen to pursue a more political bent. 

Black metal’s political and ideological ambiguity remained elastic during the first wave’s punk-influenced early stirrings, but then hardened as the second wave crested. This is what still allows it to be interpreted so broadly and to be claimed by so many conflicting perspectives. It is why anarchist black metal coexists (albeit extremely uncomfortably) with neo-Nazi black metal and why both camps are able to lay some legitimate claim to the genre. The far right has been more successful in claiming black metal as its own for a variety of reasons, but those on the left have never ceded that ground without a fight. That tension between the two camps has reached a boiling point in recent years, and one must ask: If black metal is truly about freedom, then how could it be anything but anarchist? 

Before we can get into the justification for black metal being sorted firmly into the anarchist tradition, we must first break down why exactly fascists have had such a strong track record in claiming it for their own. Black metal’s fiercely guarded relationship with hate itself is a core tenet, though the community has struggled to reach consensus over exactly what—or who—that hatred is being beamed toward. For some, it is conformity and the grating demands of mainstream polite society; for others, it is authority and oppression; while for others still, it unfortunately boils down to hating those who do not look or sound or believe exactly the same as they do, and manifests as racism, misogyny, antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, nationalism, fascism, and white supremacy. 

In a 2019 interview for Metal Hammer, Dawn Ray’d vocalist and violinist Simon Barr said: 

Fascists have always sought to infiltrate radical youth movements and cultural scenes, they tried it with Oi and punk, they have tried it in some sections of electronic music, but they always get disrupted and kicked out. The same will happen in black metal. The far right are a vocal minority in this scene, so a big part of the struggle is being vocal and visible in opposition to those ideas, so as to lessen their influence, whilst actively working to disrupt their shows and networks. Let’s be clear: fascism is the most violent and horrific ideology we have seen so far, and we cannot compromise or hesitate in our attempts to stop it.i

So how can something so fraught, with so much baggage, be anything but what the fascists have deemed it? How can it be worth saving? The answer is simple. Black metal and anarchism are both based upon the same inherent principle: the concept of freedom. As Lucy Parsons, a black and indigenous woman who was born into slavery and became a legendary labor organizer and one of anarchism’s most revered orators, once said, “[Anarchism] has but one infallible, unchangeable motto, ‘Freedom’: Freedom to discover any truth, freedom to develop, to live naturally and fully.”ii 

That sentiment has echoed throughout history, and inspired multiple generations of more recent converts to the cause. Among them are Dawn Ray’d, a trio of working-class Brits who started a band to reflect their politics and inadvertently became one of modern metal’s most controversial lightning rods. Their sworn commitment to both anarchism and militant anti-fascism—and refusal to apologize for either stance—won them fans as well as enemies across the metal spectrum after they released their watershed 2017 debut LP The Unlawful Assembly. The album remains a tour de force of masterful, potent black metal, with a melodic tinge and Barr’s violin adding texture and pathos to the proceedings, and ensuing releases only raised their profile. As one of the most vocal anti-fascist bands in metal, let alone black metal, they endured torrents of abuse, death threats, and mockery but have held firm. To them, this is more than music; it is a battle for a better world. 

“Anarchism is the freedom to live your life any way you choose, as long as in doing so you don’t affect anyone else’s ability to do the same,” Barr explains, echoing Parsons a century earlier. “Anarchism means taking responsibility for your actions, it is having direct control over your life, and it is anti-oppressive by its very nature.”iii 

As an ideology, anarchism is nearly as fluid as black metal, but while black metal’s linchpin is hatred, that of anarchism is, arguably, love. That sounds painfully utopian (and insurrectionary anarchists would surely recoil at such a kumbaya description), but it is true. To fight for collective liberation, for a world defined by voluntary association, solidarity, self-determination, and autonomy, a life without the hierarchy of oppressive power structures, built on consensus and restorative justice, and in which every creature and the natural world itself is valued, requires a deep well of affinity for one’s fellow living beings. Whether one is drawn to one of the many different schools of thought loosely grouped under anarchism’s black umbrella—mutualism, Black anarchism, anarcha-feminism, green anarchism, queer anarchism—or, in the style of renowned anarchist thinker Voltairine de Cleyre, an “anarchist without adjectives,” the core beliefs remain intact. 

Satanic anarchism is another option, and while it is certainly a less traditional path, it is one that may at first appear to be a natural fit for black metal’s leftist contingent… 

For more Black Metal Rainbows, go to the PM Press website.

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