When the Flame Turns to Ashes: A Review of Black Metal of the Americas vol. VI

It was in a recent interview on Western Lamb that I first found out about the printed zine Black Metal of the Americas. The way its editors Ed and Patrick talked about it sparked my interest immediately. They expressed the will to take into account social and political issues in their documentation of black metal. Even though they explicitly identify themselves with a left-wing ideological mindset – something which we do not have in common – I am all for attempts to place music in a broader context, highlighting any cultural, societal or political implications it may have. In short, we seemed to share a dismissal of the notion that good music is a mere collection of sounds.

A week after my interest was first aroused, I received my copy of Black Metal of the Americas volume VI, published in February of 2014. Printed on regular paper in A5 format, this 80-page magazine offers loads of content, though without many frills to soothe the eye. This scruffy effort features occasional low-res pictures in black-and-white, but is otherwise no different from something you would print at home directly from a text processor. Despite the creation having an undeniable amateuristic feel to it in terms of design, the content clearly received a considerable amount of attention. Questions are formulated excellently and the interviews generally have a good pace, indicating that the editors were well acquainted with most of the people they talked to even before the magazine was created.

However, when you actually read the interviews, reviews and occasional essays that comprise this lengthy magazine, it starts falling flat on its face quickly enough. It is one thing to take politics into consideration when you write about (black) metal music. But to let it dictate the tone of your work to such an extent that the reader is confronted with it every other page is a different beast altogether. Even if I did expect (highly) politicised articles delivered in a strong tone, I still got more than I bargained for. At no point did I feel challenged to engage in a ‘mental dialogue’ with the author, limiting me to kneejerk directions against the opinions voiced throughout the entire publication. Granted, at occasions the authors do try to motivate the reader to engage in a discussion with them – literally, via e-mail – but the way the texts are composed make me feel there would be little room to debate apart from me manoeuvring into their direction.

This publication tries to do what it accuses NSBM of doing, namely hijacking (or appropriating, to stick to their rhetoric) black metal for the benefit of its own political ideology. It is this bitter irony that drags the whole experience down dramatically.

BMotA‘s suffocating rhetoric is not to be blamed exclusively on the editors, though; some of the people they interview mainly use the platform as a means of justifying and propagating their views. I do wonder what criterium Ed and Patrick used in selecting their guests. In the preface they formulate their intention as wanting to talk to people who document black metal. Yet particularly in the first few interviews these individuals rather seem to be there on the simple account of them sharing the editorial view. This leads to a rather surreal reading experience as here we have an underground black metal zine that uses trigger warnings [1] and employs your typical American ‘progressive’ social studies vocabulary (“cisgender”, “cultural appropriation”, “colonization”). To complete this angle, many articles argue semantics to a point where the authors actively identify words as problems, which are subsequently solved by changing said words. The editors are self-aware enough to have picked up on the criticism that this sort of mentality must have spawned, mentioning “black metal tumblr posers” as a specific insult thrown at them at one point. While calling people posers these days is an exclusively plebeian affair, there would actually be no better way of describing this magazine in one phrase than ‘Tumblr goes black metal’. That is not even meant as an insult, but just an objective observation, seeing as the political forces at play in this zine are a perfect match with your random American feminist blog on Tumblr.

One thing I must compliment the editors for is that they are fully aware of what they’re doing and show no fear of voicing their opinions. This is a refreshing posture among so many zines that simply stick to talking about musical technicalities. Despite my personal disagreement with nearly everything these people have to say on a political level, I would still rather read this than bearing with the umpteenth boring interviewer asking a musician what type of guitar pedal he uses. I have made my own attempts at ‘intellectualising’ the genre here on Lurker’s Path and at my own Black Ivory Tower, and I can sympathise with the irritation awakened by metalheads crying pretence.

However, my sympathy ends when the editors push their luck and write an elegy such as this:

“I feel that kind of frustration […] sometimes. Reading one of the countless rants about how “antifa fascists” or “black metal Tumblr posers” are ruining the true nature of black metal […] is so aggrevating because it completely ignores the wider context of Western society [what the hell does that even mean? – ed. note], where violence against minorities […] is so normalized.”

(Ed as quoted from an untitled conversation with Adam Shragin that appears in volume VI.)

…with which they do not just lament the criticism they have received for their approach, but subtly show frustration over the fact that most metal fans are not willing to share their views. Later in the article, Ed claims he is primarily concerned with reaching out to people who are ‘still on the fence’ about this whole ordeal. This sentiment leads us back to the ‘suffocating rhetoric’ described earlier, because I, as a reader, feel accused for not agreeing with them enough, as if they are only allowing me to participate in the dialogue if I’m still ‘on the fence’ and argue within the margin delineated by their superior wisdom. Mind that this is not to be attributed to the politicised nature of the work in itself, but rather to regular aggrieved complaints such as the one above about their views not being embraced en masse by the mainstream. Tacitly, they assume that this disagreement is the sole fault of complacency on behalf of the skeptics. This sanctimony is further enforced by them offering a stage to people such as Zareen Price, who put forward ludicrous claims such as “no individual white person is innocent, no matter their intentions.” I am already indebted to the author before I even say a word.

In case the editors are still wondering why their work receives such great backlash, they should take note of the condescending attitude that seeps through the writings referenced above. No, this fierce counterreaction is not the result of some perceived bigotry that is deeply embedded in metal subculture, nor its reluctance to face its own demons. After all, such a claim could not be made for a subculture that is too widespread and diverse to reach a concensus on, well, anything that treads beyond basic musical characteristics. One thing we can say of metal, though, is that it separates itself from rock music and other genres by, lyrically and aesthetically, trying to transcend reality in its literal sense. Put in more colloquial terms, metal has always harboured a sense of escapism. This is why so many bands experiment with fantasy-themed lyrics, romanticised historical aesthetics or the exploration of spiritual ideas. This is incredibly important to take note of, seeing as herein also lies the strongest argument against a phenomenon such as NSBM. If a band is merely interested in spreading political propaganda, it is too one-dimensional to make for a successful metal project; it is active solely within the confines of horizontal reality. A band such as Peste Noire is so successful because it operates on a plain where elements from history, culture, politics, religion and the fantastical intermingle. The sheer filthiness of the music generates the looming sensation of dark forces being at play. That the lyrics flirt with ideas that are by many perceived as malign adds to the power of the music. Note, though, that it is not the ambiguity as such that is used here to ‘justify’ their art; rather, the exquisite music and lyrics of Peste Noire are interwoven until separating them from each other proves impossible. Hence why the politicised nature of Peste Noire‘s lyrics justifies their existence; they enhance the art. Compare this to the leagues of NSBM bands who opportunistically tack on their political ideas and refuse to develop a broader aesthetic. In said simplistic approach we find the actual reason why artists who are explicit about their propagandistic intentions (whether they represent the NS or Red/Anarchist contingents of black metal) are not taken seriously. They break the unwritten rules of metal to a point where what they do is equally mistrusted as saying they are in it for the money.

Now, how does this all relate to the efforts of Black Metal of the Americas? They make the same mistake as the overly politicised metal projects they oppose by attacking them on a horizontal level. For example, they try to reduce the influence of NS projects by charging heads-on the ideas these bands subscribe to. With this, they basically admit that their sole interest lies in excluding opinions that do not coincide with their own. Such an exercise may be interesting for people who share their specific set of ideals, but their writings will not convince anyone who does not already see the presence of these bands within ‘the scene’ as a threat – they are preaching to the choir. What Ed and Patrick must also realise is that most metal fans are not interested in having the same tiresome political debates they already have to endure in daily life. Ergo if you want to make an argument against the presence of right-wing elements in metal, you have to point out why they do not belong there. Tell me why it does not make sense for someone of whatever political current to use metal solely as a vehicle for his propaganda. Yet what Black Metal of the Americas does is constantly underlining this mundane political reality by pompously infusing a good amount of articles with an overdose of its so-called progressive ideology, to a point where these political implications become difficult to circumvent for the reader. This publication tries to do what it accuses NSBM of doing, namely hijacking (or appropriating, to stick to their rhetoric) black metal for the benefit of its own political ideology. It is this bitter irony that drags the whole experience down dramatically.

Please realise that I do not wish to deny the real-life implications some actions might have. In other words, if you have qualms about giving money to people whose political convictions you view as dangerous, that is perfectly alright. On a more cynical note, however, I do wonder how far the people who use their awareness of money streams to implicitly claim moral superiority take this interest in where their money goes and what it does. You see, if you have a bank account, odds are you are indirectly investing in the weapons industry. If you wear clothes bought in a regular store, odds are your money is upholding de facto slavery in Asian countries. If you have a smartphone (and who, apart from me, doesn’t in this day and age?), just perform a quick search query on the internet after you finish reading this article to see the amount of damage you are doing to the planet. It is obvious to yours truly that justifying one ‘wrong’ thing with the other does not constitute a feasible argument, but these are all examples of concrete, easily traceable negative effects our money may have on the lives of an enormous amount of people. So, if you are going to attack music listeners for their perceived lack of awareness that their money to a certain label might end up in the hands of a scary nazi – that wretched boogeyman of the Free West – and that he might end up using it to pay for his bus fare when he, I don’t know, travels to the other side of town to beat up a foreigner… if you hypothesise that we must examine the full extent of your argument, and if you are taking any of the other things mentioned just now for granted, this shows that either you have a questionable set of priorities, or that the true motivation to raise ‘awareness’ for what some musician might or might not do with my money lies elsewhere. When people use an argument against one thing, but then proceed doing another thing that completely goes against what they just said, that is the biggest hallmark of insincerity.

All things said and done, I might be prejudiced as I find myself on another end of the political spectrum. Still, the mentality that is propagated throughout the entirety of Black Metal of the Americas vol. VI makes me wonder how these people got into black metal in the first place. I am reluctant to pull the ‘rock ‘n’ roll is dangerous’ card, but the one-dimensional political rhetoric featured in this issue, which aims to obliterate any sense of ambiguity, mystery or transcendence of literality in black metal, makes it obvious that these guys would have been better off covering punk rather than a subgenre that thrives on flirtation with the darker sides of humanity. For should black metal be stripped of all of its political and philosophical ambivalence, it would just become even more sterilised, commercialised and domesticated than it already is. You only have to look at the deplorable contemporary state of punk rock to get an idea of where that approach will lead us. Intellectualisation of black metal may lead to new ways of appreciating the genre, but once you appear to be in it just to shove your views down people’s throats, you have completely and utterly missed the point.

Jesse, in delirium 2014

Strzelecka gromada,
Na stos rzuciliśmy

The zine is currently sold out.

[1] For those who don’t know, trigger warnings are warnings at the start of an article for the discussion of topics that may trigger severe emotional reactions in some of the readers. Initially, it started out to warn rape victims for intense bits of text that might trigger them to relive part of their traumatic experience, but it quickly escalated and now the mere discussion of whatever topic apparently requires a warning for people with self-diagnosed PTSD.

The editor of Black Ivory Tower magazine, of which the first issue was published in July of 2014. He writes about (black) metal, art, and himself in third person.

8 Comments

  • Reply July 29, 2014

    T.H.

    It baffles me why these types of people would want to associate themselves with a style of music that is as misanthropic as black metal, attempt to impose their bleeding heart victim-oriented identitiy politics onto it, and then get upset when the entire black metal scene doesn’t flock to join their pathetic cause.

  • Reply July 30, 2014

    Thomas

    I’m left wing and have been a dedicated black metal listener since 1993, to me those things go perfectly well together. In an age where ‘punk’ was dominated by happy-go-lucky, polished skate punk, I’ve always said “black metal is the real punk”. My political view obviously comes from a wish for a better, post-materialist world, where humanity is truly humane, social, not driven by self-centered needs, but by empathy and collectivism. Living in a capitalist, self-centered environment as the West-European environment I live in, has sparked my misanthropy for 20 years now and has turned me to black metal among others of extreme music genres. Black metal for me is a perfect outlet for these dark feelings and emotions. But I always thought it’s ridiculous to turn these emotions into an ideology or philosophy for life. I’m not a satanist and will never be, as religion will to me always be a symptom of trailing behind. I’m not a nationalist and I can’t ever be, since the combination of man made limitations and sheer randomness of birth should never be a force of oppression and division. I’m not a capitalist, because in a world that has enough resources for all of us, it’s just plain insanity to divide them in a way that not all benefit from them. I’m not an egoist, since self-centered thinking and acting is a symptom of weakness. Of not having the energy and strength to think and care about your neighbor.
    In a capitalist, nationalist environment built on religious ideals and ruled by self-centered politics, I’ll never understand why black metal fans will believe that conservative ideals are the corresponding beliefs for their ‘rebellious’ taste in music.

    I’m not saying that black metal has to be left wing, or political at all. I’m just saying that conservative ideas are intrinsically never rebellious (as they are to conserve, not to change) and are to me far away from the extremely anti-mainstream nature of black metal. I always believed that extreme religious and conservative views came into black metal for the shock value. It made for lot of funny theatre, but please don’t claim they make for a misanthropic view that fits the music.

    • Reply July 30, 2014

      Jesse

      Hi Thomas,

      First of all, let me just clarify that, as I mentioned somewhere in the article, the crux of my argument is not so much to contest the presence of these particular left-wing ideas (i.e. American identity politics), but rather to object the way in which they are presented. By tying left-wing politics to the rebellious nature of black metal, you are already taking it one step further than the authors of that magazine. In their work, it never became particularly clear to me why their political mindset should be better represented in the black metal scene other than them thinking it is generally the better set of ideals. The result is a set of writings that is seldom challenging: if you disagree with their political views, reading them is wasted effort; if you do agree with them, they’re preaching to the choir as they offer you no new insights into why this ideology should gain more influence in extreme metal.

      In the end I do (genuinely) wonder why the editors of this zine are into black metal in the first place, but that has to do with the specific kind of ideology that they preach rather than left-wing ideologies at large. What identity politics boil down to is creating a nerfed world in which noone ever has to feel bad, ashamed, or insulted. Hence why they put trigger warnings at the start of articles and dedicate impressive amounts of time not treading on the toes of sexual, racial and sometimes religious minorities. I really don’t want to be that ‘black metal should be this way’ guy, but the ideal I just described goes so directly against black metal as mysterious, rebellious or brutal music that I wonder why, of all genres, they chose this one to implement their worldview in.

      As for your comments on rebellion, I have to disagree. Rebellion is a radical detachment from the status quo (or mainstream or authority if you will). What a rebellion entails is thus largely dictated by the ruling mentality. To name a concrete example, I live in one of the most socially liberal countries in the world (the Netherlands), and so-called progressive ideologies are considered the norm here. And, at least to me, there is nothing rebellious about repeating what you’ve been taught all your life. So no, I don’t think one ideology is more inherently rebellious than another. It depends on geographical and temporal context. Not to mention the political landscape (fortunately) is a lot more complex than a mere dichotomy between conservative and progressive views.

      Mind that what I said about rebellion does not stand in direct relation to what I am arguing in the article. I simply responded because I thought you raised an interesting point, but I do think it is a different discussion for reasons explained in the first paragraph of this response.

  • Reply July 30, 2014

    Thomas

    Hey Jesse,

    Thanks for your reply. My comment wasn’t as much a response to your well articulated article as it was to the first commenter wondering why people like myself are associating themselves with black metal.

    I’m from The Netherlands too and we clearly have a very different view to our political situation. I don’t see any progressive forces at work, other than as a facade for a liberal luck based society where individualism, sexism, racism are around every corner. Most right wing ideologies share the core of the political status quo here and are therefore advocates for it instead of rebels against it. But there’s another place and another time for that discussion.

  • Reply July 31, 2014

    T.H.

    Thomas, you were missing my point.
    I do not disagree with your sentiments of misanthropy and their origins.
    On the other hand, I have quite a bit of experience dealing with these kind of idiots in person (I live in Portland, the special snowflake capital of the US), and the kum-bay-ya bullshit they espouse has more in common with a Montessori School than any kind of true rebellious sentiment that would typically be associated with black metal, or even punk. As Jesse said, they do spent a huge amount of time going way out of their way to make sure nobody gets offended or their feelings hurt.
    These are people who don’t want any sort of dialogue about things. They want to make sure that first and foremost, everyone gets a good look at their Good Guy Badge, and secondly, that everyone blindly agrees with the idiotic sentiments they spout such as “no individual white person is innocent, no matter their intentions.”, because if you don’t, you will get labeled a “fascist”, a “____phobe” (the definitions of these things will be left entirely to their discretion, regardless of their basis in reality), and your “priviledge” will automatically discredit any arguments you make against them. There’s no room for dialogue of any sort, it’s either accept everything they have to say or be maligned for questioning it.

  • Reply July 31, 2014

    Thomas

    Allright, I did indeed not interpret your comment in that way. I don’t know these guys and types and cannot judge them on that, so I’ll take your fair judgement on that one 😉

  • Reply August 9, 2014

    T.H.

    Yeah sorry that was misunderstood, I’m just really sick of the professionally offended social justice warriors trying to align themselves with things that basically go against everything they stand for. I don’t agree with fascism/nationalism, but when you travel outside of the US and see how people who live hand to mouth, day in and day out are to find a system where they have some hope for a better life, it’s understandable how they might embrace a system that is really sketchy in hopes that it will improve their lives. People like Zareen Price are about as privileged as it gets, because they’re American, and they judge everything from an Amerocentric worldview, whether they will admit to it or not.

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