by Shane Burley
Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.
All photos courtesy of Dawn Ray’d.
“Antifascist metal is the most dangerous kind there is, because it holds the revolutionary potential to enact actual change, to challenge oppressive structures and systems of power, and to provide marginalized people with the support and space they need to become more involved with a scene that desperately needs their perspectives. What could be more dangerous than destroying the status quo? What’s scarier than a peoples’ revolution?” — Kim Kelly
A metal festival might be expected to cause some controversy—but not usually for the reasons Northwest Terrorfest did. A three-day concert in Seattle, Washington, Northwest Terrorfest hosts a series of prominent bands from the “extreme” edge of heavy metal. In the weeks before this year’s event, the organizers publicized a few policies. Bathrooms would be gender-neutral, racist imagery would be banned, and anti-harassment and anti-hate policies would be strictly enforced. Social media comment sections soon displayed evidence of a split: an aggressive series of punches traded between those who celebrated Terrorfest’s progressive turn, and those who thought misanthropic racism and sexism were key to keeping metal “dangerous.”
“We can’t concede any ground to fascism. We cannot just abandon a music scene to the Nazis, as it gives them a safe space to build and grow,” says Simon B., vocalist and violinist for the anarchist black metal band Dawn Ray’d. “The majority of people in this scene, however, are decent people who are not racist or right-wing in any way. We meet so many amazing people every night, and it’s time to show the Nazis to be the minority they truly are.”
Dawn Ray’d, a Terrorfest headliner, were soon joined by vocally antifascist bands like Closet Witch, Cloud Rat, Dead to a Dying World, and Despise You—all defying a persistent stereotype that casts black metal as a cesspool of reactionary white nationalist mysticism.
While Churches Burn
Fans have long relished in the gory details of black metal’s origins in Norway, particularly the horror-movie tropes that have come to define the legend of Mayhem. One of the founding bands of the genre, the murders and suicides surrounding Mayhem’s toxic early-90s subculture have proven a source of endless fascination. Their lyrics were explosively nihilistic, lashing out against the conformity of the Christian church. The band also incubated a xenophobic nationalist current that sought to revive a Viking past that they romanticized as brutal, Nietzschian, and exclusionary.
The black metal subculture inspired a string of church arsons in the 1990s and was increasingly associated with Nazi ideals. Varg Vikernes, the singer of Burzum, another foundational black metal project, played a major role in infusing black metal with fascist overtones. By 1993, he was doing a 21-year bid for religious firestarting and the murder of his former bandmate, Mayhem guitarist Øystein Aarseth.
The right-wing current spearheaded by Vikernes became known as National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM). Though this particular tendency was a minor thread in the extreme metal scene, in general, black metal got its street cred from offensive iconoclasticism. As a result, many bands reveled in reactionary antagonisms as well as the kind of pseudo-spiritual occultism that has been associated with fascist, racist movements since the proto-Nazi Thule Society.
The media’s portrayal of metal only fueled the inferno of controversy, as metal fans and the media alike loved the idea that a musical genre might grow so powerful and pernicious that it could corrupt an entire generation. In part, this narrative helped to foster the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and 1990s, where bogus stories of Satanic cults and ritual abuse led to an obsession with “subliminal messages” ostensibly found hidden in popular songs, metal and otherwise. The eventual upshot of this hysteria was debacles like the case of the “West Memphis Three,” wherein three teenagers were convicted of murdering three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas primarily because they wore Metallica t-shirts and were too poor to afford a superstar defense.
Daytime talk show ratings spiked when they ran sensational stories about Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, or Marilyn Manson, and album sales would jump right alongside them, establishing a symbiotic relationship between provocateur and provoked. Metal’s defining fable then served as a cover for what became an actual fascist infiltration of certain pockets of the extreme music scene. Because many people had written off metal to begin with, any cultural resistance to fascism that genre fans might have had was impaired, and a sense of being besieged by mainstream media soon made them more amenable to other extreme ideas that lurked on the fringes.
While that story persisted in the minds of many, including the racists who used metal shows to recruit, the music itself became less insular, more international. While the caricature of long-haired men headbanging in black is a kitschy trope that’s re-established by each generation of budding metalheads, that is no longer the singular story of metal. It has since become a canvas upon which a wildly diverse array of artists have experimented.
Clearing Out the Old Gods
Metal has expanded in recent years as antifascist and leftist revolutionary bands have entered the fold, building a loose community of tours, labels, festivals, and publications for a metal fandom hostile to far-right shock jocks. In the post-Trump world, plagued by the ‘alt-right’ (read: neo-Nazi), which has normalized white nationalism for a new crop of young people steeped in Internet culture, left-leaning bands are publicly declaring their antifascism. Until recently, this wasn’t a controversial or outlandish position: nobody liked Nazis. But in the new ideological conversation, where far-right personalities fearmonger using laughably overblown characterizations of Antifa movements, and where fans have started to challenge metal’s racist gods, the music fringe has developed an increasingly binary character, riven by the dividing line between fascist and anti-.
“I think for the black metal scene in particular, the antifascist movement is sort of a response to all of the bands that have used black metal in the past as a platform to push toxic agendas such as racism, homophobia, and misogyny,” said Royce Kurns, drummer for the grindcore band Closet Witch. “It seems to me like this wave of bands that are explicitly antifascist in nature are trying to send a message [that] the genre’s past that.”
Some right-wing holdouts, like Horna and Taake, who have had their tours canceled thanks to protests, emboldening antifascist musicians to take an explicit stance. It’s no longer enough just to tacitly disavow fascists. The shifting political contours of the scene now encourage participants to take a stand.
“A lot of things have gone unchallenged in this scene for too long, but as soon as a few people start to speak out, then it becomes a lot safer for more and more people to challenge ideas that have no place anywhere, including this music scene,” says Dawn Ray’d’s Simon B.
A large part of this shift can be attributed to the fact that radical left politics have made their way into the scene, and their adherents have made themselves proudly known. Metal is about smashing barriers, throwing guitars and grinding and biting and screaming in faces—this is not a genre predisposed to tamping down intense feeling. In metal, challenge is implicit. While the far-right has long attempted to snake its way into heavy music subcultures, radicals have just as much stake in transgression, and so it was anarchism, socialism, and deep green ideas that set a new antifascist standard.
Bands like Dawn Ray’d, Panopticon, and Feminazgul derive their inspiration as much from anarchism as from pagan folk traditions, the latter being a staple of black metal. “Redneck” labor struggles, direct action social movements, and the crises of modern capitalism are driving these bands. Their antifascism then emerges as a common sense extension of their politics.
“Feminazgul is an antifascist band, sure, in that I’ve been involved in antifascist struggle for a long time, and I’m in the band, and we don’t fuck with Nazis or all this Nazi-apologism that’s going on. But Feminazgul is a feminist band, first and foremost. It’s (two, at the moment) women pushing for space within the remarkably male-dominated world of black metal,” says Margaret Killjoy of Feminazgul. Killjoy is well-known in American anarchist circles as a popular fantasy and political writer, and she is constantly extending her creative reach.
“What I think antifascist black metal can do is, it can basically say, ‘If you’re a Nazi we’ll fucking fight you,’ and it can show that antifascist themes are just as, if not more, fitting within the aesthetics of black metal. We too can express mourning, longing, rage, the beauty of the natural world, a hatred of religions imposed upon us by force, all of that shit.”
For bands like New York City-based black metal outfit Sarparast, antifascism flows naturally, since their music’s creative core harbors sincere political commitment.
“I’m a communist and my band are communists, so we wanted to start a band to spread messages of anticolonialism, communism, and some messages that other bands hadn’t been hitting,” says Hassan Muhammad, who plays guitar, bass, percussion, and sings in Sarparast.
“The medium of black metal is co-opted by fascists who use it to express anger towards things that aren’t real. On the one side you might have them expressing anger towards Christianity; on the other you might have them expressing anger towards their incorrect perception of immigrants being a source of trouble in their respective countries… The music genre itself is very potent and powerful, and it can be used to express real anger, like the anger of black people suffering under police brutality.”
Leftist political strains in metal are not entirely new. Metal’s fringes overlap with the grindcore and hardcore scenes, which have always had a left-wing bite. Green anarchists are inextricable from the shifting sands that this music has sprung up from, notably in bands like Earth Crisis, Peregrine, killtheslavemaster, and Burning Empires. There’s even been an effort to define and encourage a current called “Red and Anarchist Black Metal (RABM)” with a popular blog and subreddit that share hundreds of bands in related genres.
A Line Has Been Drawn
Now that the battle lines have been drawn in the scene, antifascist members are steadfastly dedicated to strengthening their side and rooting out the festering fascist infection, while doggedly refusing to abandon the scene for another counter-culture. Metal is worth fighting for.
From the activist side, a consensus has emerged that there are points of struggle, nodes around which metal fans orient their culture, that cannot be ceded. The term that fits best here is “contested space,” a cultural or geographic point that is claimed by both an antiracist community and encroaching fascists. A prominent example of this kind of clash was the one that took place amidst the street punk and Oi! movements in the 1980s. Antiracist skinheads and neo-Nazi boneheads fought for ownership of the scene, culminating in the racists being combat-booted from venues and neighborhoods by antifascist organizers and punks. Similar intercultural turf wars have played out in countless subcultures, from music to politics to working-class neighborhood streets, and metal is no different.
“The black metal scene has been one of these subcultural bubbles that have fascists in them, but in a larger way are just warm sympathetic places for fascists. It allows them to expand these ideas to people who wouldn’t be reached otherwise. And it’s clear that people are coming out of the black metal scene and joining fascist movements,” says Spencer Sunshine, an antifascist researcher who has spent years diving into the murky world of fascist entryism. “We don’t want to make [the metal scene] a pool of people that fascists have easy access to… where they can make it a pipeline into fascist activism from the music scene.”
This is why some bands are putting antifascism front and center in their entire structure, banking on mocking the far-right while putting the onus on fans to make their loyalties clear. Bands like Neckbeard Deathcamp, Gaylord, Marxthrone, Necrotiting Fasciitis, and Sankara are mixing the genre’s standby tropes, such as hyperreal levels of lyrical ultraviolence, with explicitly antifascist content.
“I WOULD CONSIDER [antifascist metal] AN UNDENIABLE PRESENCE NOW. ANTIFASCIST BANDS ARE BLOOMING LEFT AND RIGHT. SHITHEADS ARE GETTING THEIR SHOWS THROWN OUT. AND THE AIR OF COMPLACENCY IS NOW A MIASMA OF HOSTILITY,” said XX of Neckbeard Deathcamp. [Ed. note: The band opts to speak only in full caps and as a single unit, and we will oblige.]
Neckbeard Deathcamp has from its outset been driven by that pugnacious and principled hostility. Founded two years ago as a parody of NSBM bands that they saw sneaking tendrils into the scene with basement recordings, they mimicked the lo-fi sound and gave their songs titles like “The Left are the Real Fascists,” “Incel Warfare,” and “The Fetishization of Asian Women Despite a Demand for a Pure White Race.” Their freshman release, White Nationalism is for Basement Dwelling Losers, might have begun as little more than a means of lampooning racist bands, but it rapidly became a sensation.
“A LOT OF PEOPLE GET PRETTY BENT OUT OF SHAPE THAT WE’RE ‘NOT SERIOUS’ BUT WE ELECTED TO TAKE THIS ANGLE BECAUSE US PARODY LAWS ARE PRETTY OUT OF HAND. YOU CAN BE A TOTAL FUCKING DICK TO PEOPLE. RIGHT TO THEIR FACES. AND THEY CAN FIGHT YOU BUT THEY CAN’T SUE YOU.”
Give It a Name
The crystallization of the openly antifascist metal scene, though slow, has been consistently fostered by dedicated scene mainstays. Blackened Death Records, created by Richard Weeks of Gaylord, has become a leading part of this push, putting out antifascist and left-leaning albums from extreme metal to neofolk and creating benefit compilations like the Worldwide Organization of Metalheads Against Nazism (WOMAN) that will go to benefit causes like climate change and abortion access. Social media has aided in the creation of a virtual network, allowing artists, labels, and promoters to build on each other and creating a vibrant chain of progressive metal dialogue on places like Twitter.
A key part of identifying and strengthening this antifascist metal current has been putting a name and face to it, giving voice to the bands and reifying it as a distinct phenomenon. Writer and anarchist labor militant Kim Kelly took the lead in a series of band profiles that eventually led her to create the antifascist metal festival Black Flags Over Brooklyn in January of 2019.
“I believe that it is important to create explicitly antifascist, anti-oppressive spaces within the metal scene, and while the thriving leftist metal Twitter is a wonderful development and a community in and of itself, we’re not going to win this war by logging on,” says Kelly. “Metalheads love festivals; radicals love bookfairs and conferences; combining the two was a no-brainer, and worked out spectacularly well.”
Dawn Ray’d and straight-edge giants Racetraitor headlined the first night of the festival. The rest of the weekend included bands like White Phosphorus, Ragana, Glacial Tomb, Occultist, and Cloud Rat, playing to a crowd of over 400 at the sold-out venue.
“The new wave of antifascist heavy metal has truly taken root, and comes complete with label backing, media attention, and a rapidly expanding, supportive network of bands in various countries. It’s not a moment too soon, either, because metal’s reactionary elements and their attendant repulsive ideologies have never been so loud; the genre (and this counts more for certain offshoots like black metal and death metal) is caught amidst a “keep metal dangerous / apolitical / actually just let me be a Nazi” faction. Those who are thoroughly against it, and for the latter—for us—to win this sort of miniature culture war, we need to be working overtime to create these kinds of spaces and uplift these kinds of bands and provide no quarter for fascist scum, no matter how sick their riffs may be,” says Kelly.
Adapting to the Era of Mass Crisis
“Looking at things from a global political standpoint, fascism is rearing its head all over the world. Most of the world’s population would prefer not to be murdered and are moving towards antifascism in a variety of ways, some misguided and foolhardy and some effective and well thought-out,” says David Meredith, the person behind the solo Depressive Black Metal (DPBM) project Gudsforladt.
DPBM (also called Suicidal Black Metal) is a subgenre that tries to incorporate a repetitive drone into their sound, mixing in atmospheric elements while adhering to a certain degree of minimalism. For Meredith, his communist politics and his introspective and experimental music meld and create a new avenue for political action in people’s lives.
“Black metal specifically is compelling musically and emotionally in a way a lot of subgenres of metal aren’t… Communist and anti-fascist art and music has to be accompanied by communist and anti-fascist political action and organizing. I think if this music gets kids interested in how profoundly broken our world is and how desperately it needs to be saved that’s a good thing but the rest is up to the global communist movement.”
The burgeoning genre of antifascist metal is going global, where it can play an increasingly important role in the struggle over contested subcultures.
“We play black metal for the oppressed. Our concept is pretty straightforward. Black metal today stands at crossroads; it will turn towards hate for the different one, of retribution against the powerful one. We are here to help make the decision,” says the Greek black metal band Yovel in a full-band interview.
“We come to settle the score with this 1% society. This is our endgame. Keeping the fascists in their holes is a task intertwined with our quest for emancipation and decency. But it doesn’t end with them. It goes up to their masters; the men in the suits, with their multi-digit bank accounts and insecure sleep.”
Yovel is playing in Greece at a time when fascist parties like Golden Dawn are fighting to stop refugee resettlement and attacking immigrants in the streets. Their music is birthed out of both creative churn and political work, which they see as one and the same: a process they treat with complete sincerity; though the music may be extreme, their political consciences are anything but hackneyed.
There has been an effort by much of the metal ‘establishment’ (codified in the minds of many of the bearded men running heavy music magazines and labels) to suggest that the antifascist standard is disingenuous and unnecessary. Music comes from a passionate and unrefined place, they argue, and, besides, metal is fucking dangerous—you just might get some Nazis in the mix. Without the risk of attracting them, metal loses its edge.
The problem is that this mythology is neither accurate nor desirable. The new generation of musicians have begun to assert antifascist ideas not out of a clever identity-marketing strategy or branding push, but instead as sincere resistance to a culture careening towards violence and collapse.
“I think the main reason [this kind of metal is growing] is that capitalism is in such crisis that fascism has become a real threat in a lot of areas of the world, it is no longer seen as this abstract, shadowy, niche belief but a real, ugly, selfish and destructive political threat,” says Simon B. The old world of problematic musicians that reigned as unchallenged gods is over. People are not willing to give a pass to nightmarish behavior just because they like the intensity it lends to a song. Unlike genre devotees of the past, modern fans are increasingly unwilling to handwave away reprehensible behaviors and attitudes and thread the needle of “separating the artist from the art.”
“Racist and fascist statements made by bands are no longer lost to the annals of time, but can be found in black and white online. Bands can no longer be ambiguous in their beliefs, and as such more and more right-wing bands are getting called out for their ideas. Shows are getting cancelled as venues don’t want to host Nazis; people don’t want to be publicly associated with those ideas anymore.”
Just before Dawn Ray’d had finished their set at Terrorfest, they stopped a moment to speak to the crowd, which had filled the basement venue almost beyond capacity.
“I don’t know about you, but to me each day feels more fucked than the one before it,” said Simon B. “We can’t expect anyone else to fix it, we have to do it ourselves.”
This was met with a round of claps and cheers. While a few older members of the crowd went silent and dove their hands into their pockets, it was clear to anyone watching that they were in the minority. The world had changed, and for fascists, this wasn’t a safe space anymore. And maybe it’s this sea change that will truly make metal dangerous again.
“Antifascist metal is the most dangerous kind there is, because it holds the revolutionary potential to enact actual change, to challenge oppressive structures and systems of power, and to provide marginalized people with the support and space they need to become more involved with a scene that desperately needs their perspectives. What could be more dangerous than destroying the status quo? What’s scarier than a peoples’ revolution?” said Kim Kelly.
Music is deeply and foundationally integral to our cultures. It moves us and motivates us; it imbues us with deep emotional resonance. Any music of political struggle that ignores this in the service of cheap provocation risks ignoring that which cultivates our sense of self and each other. Metal is above all a force of creative destruction. It can rend apart and tear away, but in their stead it can replace them with new meaning, with the trademark hyperintensity that gives the genre its power. The nature of the objects and ideals of worship that will replace those old idols is up to the new bands and the new fans; through their devotion, they have earned the right to rid the music of its tired, dated hatreds. The bands and fans have unprecedented agency to determine how this clash will play out. No one else is going to fix it for them—they’re gonna do it themselves.
Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017). His work has appeared in places such as The Independent, Jacobin, The Baffler, Truthout, Political Research Associates, In These Times, and Commune.