When the neofolk band Nøkken And The Grim take the stage, an air of beautiful confusion sets in among the uninitiated. The band, which emphasizes atmosphere over musical shock-and-awe, is fronted by a man wearing a horse mask and bowing a violin. A quiet mix of nature sounds and slow strings begins to emanate from the group. Drawing on a deep spiritual connection to horses, the band takes its name from the Norwegian shape-shifting water spirit who could inhabit the image of a Bäckahäst, or “brook horse.” The project is deeply experimental, finding inspiration in Magyar (Hungarian) and Norse pagan animism. It is folk and ritual music molded into an ecstatic frenzy, alternating between uplifting nature worship and the soundtrack to a sylvan horror film.
“[M]usic in ancient cultures was not just entertainment but was a deeply communal, spiritual and exploratory practice,” says Justin Gortva Scheibel of Nøkken And The Grim. “The whole concert has a very ritualistic atmosphere, but one which is open to cultural and spiritual sharing and diversity, much like how ancient ‘pagan’ peoples shared spiritualities, deities and culture with each other frequently.”
Nøkken And The Grim embody just about every feature of a dark music subculture that makes many uncomfortable. Paganism, romanticism, anti-modernity, deep ecology—a miasma of radical expressions that tend to hew either leftist or very, very far to the right. This is why so many have written off the neofolk genre entirely as the work of fascists, a form of emotional propaganda that renders nationalist historiography into musical prose. But that image of neofolk was promulgated by design—fascist activists entered the music scene with the intention of trading on folk traditions and iconoclastic subcultures to recruit a new class of rank-and-file nationalists. At the same time, a counter-tradition was forming—one that centered the revival of folk music, paganism, and ecological reverence in revolutionary anti-racism. One whose romanticism was founded on how to build a world free of oppression.
“Romanticism so often involves expressing relations to history. But the question always is, ‘Whose history? What history? Who wrote it?’ Often, it is written by those who have power, control, and have oppressed or destroyed others’ histories,” says Scheibel. “But what we find is there are so many histories, of different peoples and of the human species’ relations to the living world, that shed deep skepticism upon ‘history’ as written by oppressors. There is romanticism in our sensuous connections to the living world in all its diversity, through primal rhythms and upsurges of feeling.”
The New Folk
Neofolk is a “post-industrial” genre that was developed by treating folk music (as well as art and spiritual traditions) as the source of a completely new type of sound, albeit one grounded in earlier scenes, like goth rock, metal, dark wave, and experimental-industrial. What you end up with is a rich musical experience that pushes extremes in a way that Americana folk rarely does, focusing on darker themes and centered in the romantic tradition. Pre-Christian paganism, reverence for the environment, myths, and sagas all loom large in this world, as does the return of instrumental diversity: in particular, the use of the cello, violin, mandolin, and accordion, drawing from the well of thousands of years of traditional music. Tradition is again treated with reverence, to be remembered and celebrated rather than seen as a hindrance to creative freedom.
“For me there are is essence two ways to deal with traditions. One is to follow them and the other is to rebel against them,” says Bart Deryter of the neofolk band Awen. “[O]nly by knowing other traditions can you evaluate your own traditions and try to get to the best possible result for yourself. You could then say it is not the original tradition anymore. That is true of course, but I’ve always been told, and I agree with it: when something does not evolve anymore, it is dead.”
The genre then rests on the question of how folk traditions, the musical customs and sounds that were handed down informally through familial and social relationships outside of the cities, can be brought into a contemporary musical setting to facilitate collaboration across genres.
“I’ve always just sort of looked at it like I’m taking traditional instruments and playing them in nontraditional ways,” says Paul Ravenwood of Twilight Fauna, which mixes neofolk, bluegrass, and metal into an eclectic mashup of Appalachian hill noise. “I’ve always wanted to push the boundaries to see what kinds of sounds I can get with folk instruments used within a more varied soundscape.” The term neofolk may seem fairly cut-and-dried, but since many of the largest bands in the genre have been found to have direct ties to fascist political movements and white nationalism, the label has largely been avoided by bands that have no association with the world of reactionary fantasies.
And the detractors aren’t wrong. Neofolk is a genre not just heavily infiltrated by fascists, but founded by them. In every scene across the U.S. and Europe, you’ll find band iconography teeming with far-right imagery, nationalist lyrics, and connections to fascist parties both central and fringe. The best known example of these is Death in June, a darkwave staple in the early 1980s, which defined itself by using Nazi-appropriated pagan symbols in a way that straddled irony and sincerity. The band’s frontman, Douglas Pearce, became infatuated with the “Strasserite” wing of the Nazi party, the veritable anti-capitalist version of fascism that focused on romantic pre-modernism and opposed the both the economic disparity and cosmopolitan nature of capitalism.
I’m Just Apolitical
This brand of fascist neofolk eagerly located itself in the “Third Positionist” camp, a trend in fascist philosophy opposed to both capitalism and communism and looking for a “third way.” This ideology folds in a range of right-wing philosophers and artists that are committed to a romantic revival of Europe, all built on an idealized image of what the empire used to be and what the whites who ran its nations could again become. For the ideologues starting these neofolk bands in the 1980s and ’90s, the music represented a way to continue this romanticization, to build up a cultural image of Europe as a lost great civilization. Where their political arguments failed, they resorted to tugging at listeners’ heartstrings by proffering false and ahistorical notions of greatness and decline.
This phenomenon is part of what scholar of the far-right Anton Shekhovtsov labeled “apoliteic.” Following the work of fascist esoteric traditionalist Julius Evola, the trend was a fascistic politic that eschewed actual political struggle in favor of the battle for hearts and minds. Instead of building political parties to fight against the left for political hegemony, Evola would start with individuals and their sense of self.
“The excessive mythologization of the nation as well as the impetuous thrust towards its palingenesis results in fascism having the appearance of a political religion,” writes Shekhovtsov, noting how fascism moved from a political program to a motivating feeling about the world that influenced a person’s underlying values, not just their external politics. “While apoliteia does not necessarily imply abstention from socio-political activities, an apoliteic individual, an ‘aristocrat of the soul’ (to cite the subtitle of the English translation of Cavalcare la tigre), should always embody his ‘irrevocable internal distance from this [modern] society and its ‘values.’” In essence, this represents a means by which fascism can fashion an individual by reshaping their sense of self. To do so, it must recreate myths of a once-glorious past that has been lost in the degeneracy of modernity. This objection mainly comes down to fascists’ kneejerk rejection of multiracial cosmopolitanism and social progress.
The European New Right, a collection of far-right philosophers that came out of late-’60s France, would label this “metapolitics”—the struggle over ideas in a culture that influence politics down the line. If the New Right could change how people of European descent think of themselves, change their values and their sense of identity, could they change the kind of societies those people build in the future? For years, fascist academics and artists have tried to reshape this consciousness, furthering nationalist ideas by eschewing political language and instead focusing on how people form identities, relationships, and emotional triggers. While the left bargained over power in the streets, fascists went straight to the struggle in people’s minds.
The problem with reducing our perspective on neofolk to the one presented by the fascists, however, is that to do so erases the counterculture that’s fighting against these voices. Antifascist neofolk musicians eclipse the fascist narrative with a romantic political ideology of their own.
Looking for Europe
And this is the world from which a huge range of neofolk’s forerunners emerged from: people looking to inject their politics into the culture through subterfuge and subtlety. Tony Wakeford’s band Sol Invictus was one of the pioneering projects of this movement in the 1980s, taking ideas from Evola and German Conservative Revolution philosophers and mixing in Tolkien, Nordic paganism, and medieval iconography to construct neofolk albums the underlying message of which, if you weren’t looking closely, would be easy to miss. Allerseelen, Ostara and Spiritual Front made albums that focused on the esoteric and metaphysical side of life, recruiting from the industrial and goth scenes to generate eclectic and morally ambiguous music and lyrics. In the world of extreme music subcultures, where people are used to challenging their basic assumptions about the world’s values, this aesthetic crack was exploited to insert a counter-narrative to leftist notions of identity and utopia.
“We know that there is an aspect of traditional neofolk that is not antifascist: it is white supremacist, what they often call ‘metapolitical’ or ‘nihilist.’ You cannot support a band that has Miguel Serrano quotes in its lyrics or wears National Socialist iconography just ‘to make controversy,’” says Emerson Dracon, an anarchist martial industrial artist from Spain. Martial industrial is a subgenre of neofolk that draws heavily from military marches and pounding, rhythmic drumming, on top of epic orchestral harmonies that at times feel more in line with orthodox neofolk. It is even more controversial than neofolk (if that’s possible) because of its heavy use of fascist and Nazi aesthetics, often drawing on romantic images of imperial warfare.
Fascist neofolk has become so expansive that there are areas of Europe where neofolk bands are literally a part of the fascist paramilitary and political apparatus, to the extent that they influence social movements and public policy and are driving anti-immigrant violence. In Eastern Europe it would not be uncommon to see Ukranian and Romanian militia figures at these concerts, right next to the “boots and braces” of the neo-Nazis.
The term “entryism” is often used for to describe covert fascist attempts to attract adherents to their subculture, but here, it doesn’t fit perfectly. To describe this cultural phenomenon as ‘entryism’ would imply that this kind of cultural recruitment is done for disingenuous political reasons. On the contrary, these fascist musicians are incredibly sincere. They obsess over a romantic vision of Europe’s past and are expressing themselves accordingly.
The problem with reducing our perspective on neofolk to the one presented by the fascists, however, is that to do so erases the counterculture that’s fighting against these voices. Antifascist neofolk musicians eclipse the fascist narrative with a romantic political ideology of their own. Despite the fact that many fascist bands helped to build the scene and rule the scene in places plagued by a growing fascist insurgency, they are still a relative minority. Like any scene, there are political actors at the edges, but the largest masses of people are attracted for aesthetic reasons. In arts circles, left politics still have more currency than reactionary ones.
A Different Kind of Romanticism
The left neofolk scene, which is much more expansive and diverse than the insular fascist network of bands, similarly imbues folk traditions with a romantic spirit while deriving inspiration from vastly different motivations than the fascists. Anti-colonialism, the return to ancestral traditions in the face of ecocide and neoliberalism, the revival of anti-patriarchal practices—these bands are looking towards folk music and art as a way of reviving a spirit of resistance. This creates a fundamentally different vision, even if they often look to the same historic songs and folkways.
“On a societal level, when we don’t allow ourselves the room to play and have fun, to write stories, to romanticize and mythologize our histories and our lived experience—when we don’t create our own fables to tell our children with moral lessons in equity, anti-colonialism and anti-racism, in the ethics of radical cooperation, mutual aid, and antifascism, when we fail to engage in dreams of a better world and to create real or imagined utopias with beautifully diverse, just, and equitable communities—then the left and our movements are bound to lose,” say Deborah and Justin Norton-Kertson, the duo behind the antifascist neofolk band Ashera.
“Music is storytelling through melodic, harmonic, rhythmic sound. Music is poetry and auditory art that prompts us to feel, that explores the human condition and the whole range of possible emotions that we navigate in our late-stage capitalist society. Music is the expression of our dreams, our aspirations, our history. Music is the sharing of stories among people and across space and time, from one generation to the next. In that sense music is both folk tradition, and at the same time it is an expression and vital vehicle for the transmission of folk tradition.”
There is a romantic idealism here, one that looks at some of the same things the far-right does with longing. But when fascist activists look back at pre-modern Europe, they see (in many cases incorrectly) racial homogeny, hierarchy, and patriarchal gender prescriptions. When antifascist bands look back, they see something else entirely. The balanced worldview of paganism, the peasant resistance to the flood of imperialism, the wild women healers, the gender rebels, the unmediated egalitarian lifestyles. Both groups can be guilty of imprinting their vision of the world on the past, but it’s the left neofolk bands that are looking to history as inspiration for dreams of a liberated world. Their visions are not a roadmap, but instead a set of sociohistorical fabrics used to weave a patchwork of possibilities for the future.
Spanish Galician folk giants Sangre de Muerdago draw on matriarchal musical traditions in the Galician region of Spain. They have served as both an affront to the fascist militarism of Franco and patriarchal trends within and without their communities. Instead romanticizing empire and power, Sangre de Muerdago have built beautiful orchestral ensembles that raise up hidden voices, their surviving traditions striking a blow against the generational oppression that has pushed back on sovereignty and dignity without losing their romanticism.
The mainline of neofolk is also much less monolithically tolerant of fascist traditionalism than it might appear; bands central to the development have condemned this racialist trend. French martial industrial band Gae Bolg was started by Eric Roger, a former stage musician who left Sol Invictus when it became clear that the band was continuing to side with the organized racist movement. Neofolk artist Sieben released a now-classic antifascist track “Rite Against the Right” in an effort to mock the growing obsession with fascist occultism in the scene, and artists like Kimi Kärki have made anti-authoritarianism a key fixture of their music from the start.
The passion in antifascist neofolk is built on its reclamation of the methods of resistance and the romantic-utopian impulse to build something better.
Antifascist Folk Traditions
One of the problems that these bands face is that many of the largest bands in the genre, such as Death in June, have made fascist iconography and ideas so persistent that it has become difficult to develop a following without crossing paths with openly racist bands. In response, musicians have carved out a space for explicitly antifascist neofolk—bands for whom the politics are not just personal. Their ideology is a primary driver of the music itself.
“We made a conscious decision to place antifascism at the center of our music because antifascism is where we are in life; it’s the social experience that we’re having and with which we’re engaging. It’s the story that we want to tell, the picture we want to paint, the song we want to sing. Antifascism is the values and legacy that we want to leave for our kids and for their children,” say Deborah and Justin Norton-Kertson.
“This moment that our society and our world are currently in is too important and too historic for us to be fence-sitters and appeasers. The situation that has developed within the neofolk music scene is a microcosm of that. Fascists have taken over the scene. If the rest of us don’t speak up and act out to counter that—if we aren’t explicitly antifascist—then we are enabling fascism and conceding important ground in the struggle.” Bands like Aradia, Cinder Well, Byssus, Anna Vo, and a whole range of “dark folk” and other variants have made antifascism a starting point in their effort to take back cultural space appropriated by the right. For them, it wasn’t enough to just have a space free from the fascist creep. They had to begin from a place of vigorous opposition.
“Fascism hates culture. Fascism just likes the fascist culture. Let us remember those who burned books in large bonfires,” says Oscar Martin of both the Spanish neofolk project Aegri Somnia and the metal band As the Light Dies. The Spanish Revolution and its birth in the resistance to Franco hangs over their music, just like it does in a contemporary Spain that was built in the shadow of a decades-long fascist regime. “If you think anything different, just take a look at the fascist theory written. There’s almost nothing. If you have read Mein Kampf you easily see that there’s no rational thinking. They are a bunch of angry and visceral arguments about [the] German race and hate [for] Jews and leftists. Fascism is against all kind of cultural expression which differs from this.”
The passion in antifascist neofolk is built on its reclamation of the methods of resistance and the romantic-utopian impulse to build something better. Past traditions, pagan spirituality, animist connection to the natural world—all is seen in terms of what it can bring to a liberated tradition, rather than merely validating and justifying reactionary impulses.
“There is a serious lack of diversity in the voices that we hear from in black metal, neofolk, and related styles,” says Jordan Guerette of the neofolk/chamber synthesis project Forêt Endormie. “This seems to be improving as time goes on, though simultaneously the far-right is getting louder and appears in the mainstream much more frequently than it seemed to 10 years ago. Given this increased visibility of right-wing fascism in the US and across the world, it is crucial that our humble music scene at the very least ensures that our community is a hate-free place that embraces all folks regardless of where they were born or their genetic makeup. We also need to make sure that those who buy into far-right ideology know that they are not welcome and that they can fuck off.”
The Old Gods
This is especially true in the world of paganism, particularly the Nordic pagan revival known as heathenry. The Aesier and Vanir pantheons have for years been trawled by racists who use outdated Jungian modalities to argue that the Gods are archetypes for people of Northern European descent, a convenient construct to justify racializing myths. The vast majority of the heathen community rejects this “folkish” interpretation. They have made a significant mark because heathenry is one of the chief means by which fascists can build a metapolitical space of influence.
Heathenry and pre-Christian religions loom large in neofolk. There’s even a subgenre of Nordic folk that focuses on traditional instrumentation from the Viking period. Because of the association between neo-Nazis and heathenry, leading bands like Wardruna have drawn a line in the sand, stating that these spiritual paths have nothing to do with meta-genetics and everything to do with the Gods that call to you.
“Nordic paganism and spirituality is basically the core of our music. Without it we wouldn’t be able to create that atmosphere we make today, and that’s basically why I wanted to do this kind of music from the start. The music has definitely its roots in the nature and spirituality,” says Nils, of the Nordic folk band Hindarfjäll. “It’s a real shame that we even have to explain that heathenry and Nordic symbols doesn’t have anything to do with fascism. But I think it’s really important to do that especially in these days.”
A Revolutionary Counterculture
A more complex picture of neofolk is forming now that the space has been opened up. Women and gender non-conforming artists are coming into the fold, mixing in a range of folk traditions including classic “singer-songwriter” tropes and Southern Americana, all trying to build something that echoes down-home musical traditions while offering something new. Consequently, new sounds from all around the world are now on display in the genre, rather than just Eurocentric traditions. This is breathing life into neofolk in a way that the rash of nationalist bands never could.
“I’ve definitely been at shows where Nazis have showed up. I live in an extremely conservative part of the world where those elements exist in force,” says Paul Ravenwood. “More than a musician, I think first and foremost I’m an antifascist human being. We live in a time where a segment of our population would take away the rights of a lot of other people for merely existing. They’d also completely destroy the mountains and our entire ecosystem in the name of economic progress. To remain silent would be complicit in allowing that to happen.”
The assumption that fascists have a right to neofolk, or a special claim on this cordoned musical corner, is more a question about what they are entitled to. Does their role in neofolk’s founding give them legitimate ownership? When broken down into its component parts, neofolk is built from a huge swath of cultural practices: romanticism, paganism, ancestral storytelling, folk musical traditions, myth, dreams. What we see when we look at the fascists that have infested neofolk is not any sort of mystical bloodright to the music, but rather a decades-long history of appropriation and invasion. The bands that make up the problematic core of the scene, from Sol Invictus to Death in June, have only defined the genre because they set the initial parameters. There is nothing inherently fascist about the style.
The creation of an antifascist neofolk culture then must be intentionally cultivated; it cannot happen simply by osmosis. If we open up our vision to the broader possibilities inherent in neofolk, we can see just how small the fascist cadre is. By creating that committed space, allowing antifascist musicians to develop and thrive, and approaching the music scene as any contested ground, it has the ability to both grow as an organic arts movement and to cultivate a force to counter fascist aesthetics and political recruitment.
Because fascism needs to undermine the logical, particularly the egalitarian, it has based its entire messaging and recruitment on romantic revisionism, which undermines reality by adding emotional weight to mistruths. Yet is not the only version of romanticism. There is a utopian spirit, one that dreams of a different world, that fantasizes about who we could be. When the romantic arts are given over to fascists entirely, they have the ability to colonize and distort an entire area of human expression—a spirit that they have no philosophical right to. This goes beyond the contested space of material conditions. It represents the superstructural power of ideas and passion, and that is not something the left should give up. We need that. It is the role of art, music, and spirituality to open our thinking about what our lives can be. And the ability to crack open the world should never just be handed over to fascists with impunity. Nothing should be. ♦
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.