The Cult Is Dead: The Alt-Right & Black Metal
After Charlottesville I would love to think, even for the second, that the end has begun for twenty-first century Fascism. I’d like to think that after an attempted mass murder, teenage boys whose critical faculties have been destroyed by South Park, who make up the bulk of what we call the Alt-Right, would desert. No such luck. The Alt-Right is an identity first, a political project a very distant second, and identities don’t go down easy.
Even if this isn’t the beginning of the end, there’s historical precedent that suggests that it may be the end of the beginning in another group of angry, sad, young, white men who took nerd culture and nationalism far too seriously: The Norwegian Black Metal scene centered around the Helvete record store in Oslo, a group of musicians and hangers-on who sometimes, perhaps ironically, referred to themselves as the ‘Black Circle.’
I don’t want to position them as a true precursor to or even an influence on the modern Alt-Right- who barely express a preference for music beyond a sad attempt to start a ‘Metalgate’ and the half-hearted creation of Fashwave. There are unlikely to be more contemporary fascists who enjoy Black Metal than there are in the general population, but the reverse, sadly, is not true: there are a disproportionate number of far-right jackoffs in extreme music at both band and fan levels, and the second wave of Black Metal did a lot to establish a mindset in too many metal fans that is interchangeable with that of the Alt-Right: unearned elitism coexisting with laments that everything important to them has been or will be taken away, provocation for provocation’s sake, a paper-thin veneer of misanthropy over a boundless well of self-loathing, nihilism that extends to the ‘anti-cosmic’ position that the universe itself was a mistake, and the standard right-wing hatred towards women and persons of color. If the Black Circle weren’t of the Alt-Right then they were at least an alternative right-wing stream in Norwegian society- not the Alt-Right but an Alt-Right. There were other Alt-Rights in the Neofolk and Industrial scenes, throughout occultism, biker culture and even in environmental groups- even in Anarchist (‘National Anarchist’) and Communist (‘National Bolshevik’) circles.
They emerged in the early nineties as the second wave of black metal musicians- the first had been geographically and (relatively) racially diverse, playing heavy metal or thrash metal with an emphasis on Satanism and extremity in both their music and aesthetics. The first wave- Newcastle’s Venom, British Columbia’s Blasphemy, Budapest’s Tormentor, São Paulo’s Vulcano, Los Angles-via Hawaii’s VON and others- didn’t want to convince anybody that, say, the bass player of Blasphemy’s given name was ‘Ace Gestapo Necrosleezer and Vaginal Commands’- this was the age of hair metal, and although they were a million miles from Dokken and Ratt they shared a theatrical bent. Lyrical themes typically included Dennis Wheatley-level occultism, violence and, something now completely absent from Black Metal, sex and partying (Sacrofago’s ‘Satanic Lust’ or Bulldozer’s ‘Whisky Time’.) Nobody was getting killed at least.
By the late eighties, Death Metal was in-vogue in the already-niche extreme metal community and it was generally agreed that Black Metal was a handful of small, strange bands whose time had passed. Serious effort had to be expended on making the second wave of Black Metal happen. A large part of the extra-musical elbow-grease came from Øystein Aarseth, or ‘Euronymous’, owner of Oslo’s Helvete record store, operator of the Deathlike Silence record company and guitarist in the band Mayhem. Initially a death metal band with song titles like ‘Chainsaw Gutsfuck’ and ‘Pure Fucking Armageddon’, Mayhem’s sound came to typify the second wave: the spare, minimal, cold atmosphere that could only come from an arctic country in which significant areas spend months in total darkness. Alternatively, it’s a sound that absolutely shouldn’t have come from a progressive social democracy that is currently ranked as the happiest on Earth and was little different in the early nineties. It illuminates the contradiction at the heart of metal music: songs about suffering made by people who have never really had to suffer, anthems to struggle from people who have never struggled.
Although they hadn’t released a full album, Mayhem were a known quantity in extreme music at a time when tape-trading and letter-writing kept the Black Metal scene on life support. Euronymous’ persona in interviews definitely played a part. He made pronouncements like:
“I have no friends, just the guys I’m allied with. If my girlfriend dies I won’t cry, I’ll just misuse the corpse…Partying is bad. It’s better to sit and cut yourself than go out and have fun.”
If the cadence is familiar from ill-advised dives into subreddits for Incels, Gamergaters, ‘Racial Realists’ (racists), Trumpists, Men Going Their Own Way, Neo-Reactionaries and others then that’s not a coincidence. Self-serious young men have a certain way of speaking. As you can see, cultural gatekeeping, defining who is and who isn’t truly metal, was a major factor in Euronymous’s rhetoric and his persona. Mayhem was designed from the ground up to alienate the (relative) Normies still playing Death Metal- everything about it was nastier, darker, deeper underground.
The members of Mayhem weren’t good people, but prior to the entry of vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin into the band in 1988 they could at least be dismissed as being out to shock above all else, a similar defense used by the lighter end of modern fascism. ‘Dead’, as he styled himself, was one-hundred percent sincere in his beliefs, and that was not a good thing. He was introverted, depressed, and after a near-death experience as a child seemed to suffer from something akin to Cotard’s Delusion, the belief that one is in fact dead, despite all evidence to the contrary- he talked about feeling that his blood was frozen in his veins, a common Cotard’s trope. He surrounded himself with rotting animals, self-mutilated onstage, buried his clothing so that it would rot before he wore it and originated the ‘corpse paint’ makeup that is still worn by Black Metal musicians today. He had said throughout his life that his place was with the dead, so it was no surprise that he took his own life- slitting his wrists and, after bleeding for quite some time, very literally blowing his brains out with a shotgun.
Their bandmate ‘Necrobutcher’ told The Guardian that
Øystein called me up the next day … and says, “Dead has done something really cool! He killed himself”. I thought, have you lost it? What do you mean cool? He says, “Relax, I have photos of everything”. I was in shock and grief. He was just thinking how to exploit it. So I told him, “OK. Don’t even fucking call me before you destroy those pictures”.
Does anyone think that he destroyed the pictures? Anyone? One mysteriously found its way onto the cover of a live Mayhem bootleg album; Euronymous fashioned pieces of Dead’s shattered skull into necklaces that he would give to people who had won his favour.
It’s hard to imagine any of today’s crop of far-right grifters going that far when, I don’t know, Mike Cernovich’s nootropic stack liquefies his pineal gland. And yet, given how cartoonish all of Euronymous’s pronouncements in the press were and how different he was from his character in real life, where he was a inveterate networker and good company, it’s difficult to take even his reaction to Dead’s death one-hundred percent seriously. There is more than a whiff about him of Milo Yiannopoulos, the disgraced alt-light pedophile-enthusiast who has been forever failing upwards despite lacking any discernible talent or appeal even by far-right standards thanks to his ability to charm conservative cash-cows into funding his inane projects, the latest of which being a Mercer-funded stable of underage Youtubers- a kind of digital Neverland Ranch if you will. It’s also interesting to note that Euronymous was a lifelong Communist, a member of the ‘Red Youth’ wing of the Marxist/Leninist Communist Workers Party, and perhaps transposed authoritarian, cult-like elements from the Red Youth into what would have otherwise been a bunch of guys hanging out in a record store.
That record store was Helvete, opened mere months after Dead’s death, seemingly to cash in on the publicity from the suicide. A slipshod operation that had to shoplift albums to sell, decorated with canonical Black Metal records and medieval weaponry, lit by candleight, it was primarily a place for Euronymous’ pen-pals to hang out and for him to develop the Satanic aesthetic of Black Metal, separating it completely from Death Metal. They claimed to be Theistic Satanists, literal believers in a ‘Horned God’, and dismissed Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan as ‘humanistic’. They did not believe in democracy, freedom, peace or happiness. They were the edgiest of the teenage edgelords, the spiritual forefathers of anyone who turns up in your Twitter mentions with ‘Hitler did nothing wrong’ copypasta.
One of Euronymous’s pen-pals was a young Varg Vikernes, the son of Neo Nazis who had at one point worked for Saddam Hussein, a devotee of J.R.R Tolkein and Norse heathenry (not, as many incorrectly assume, Satanism or even mainline Nazism, though he has at times described himself as a Nazi.) Vikernes was a quiet, eloquent teetotaler and Euronymous took a shine to him, making him part of Mayhem and signing his one-man band Burzum to his label.
Then churches started burning. This was a major step up for the Helvete scene, which up to that point had talked a big game about evil and darkness but were still comprised of semi-normal people- Euronymous’s treatment of Dead lost him a lot of friends, including Mayhem’s bassist, which opened the door for Vikernes. Authorities initially blamed lightning and faulty wiring, then Satanists when a decapitated rabbit was found at one pile of consecrated ashes. By the time the wave of arsons abated in 1996 fifty churches had been burnt to the ground. Vikerness would later be convicted of burning three, though the real number is likely to be much higher. Mayhem’s drummer, Kjetil Manheim, said that the church burnings were “just people trying to gain acceptance”, and if you’ve ever met a white teenage boy from a first-world country this won’t be surprising.
Their own beginning ended in 1992, when Bård ‘Faust’ Eithun of the band Emperor, then only nineteen, murdered a man who had propositioned him. When Eithun confessed this to Euronymous and Vikernes they rewarded him by taking him along on their next church burning. The murder was an open secret in the Helvete clique, in which Vikernes and Euronymous were beginning to jockey for position- the showboating businessman and tireless self-promoter versus a undoubtedly authentic and charismatic upstart. According to Vikernes, they set aside their differences long enough collaborate on a project that turned out to be instrumental in the Black Circle’s undoing, an interview Vikernes gave to the Bergens Tidende newspaper in which he confessed to the church burnings as a scheme to ‘spread evil’, promote Black Metal and drum up customers for Helvete, which had been struggling financially since its inception. Euronymous’ parents, who evidently were holding the purse strings, closed the store (another current Alt-Right trope: the total inability to turn a profit on even the most rudimentary business venture and having to grift hard to get by.)
By the time the article was in print Vikernes had been arrested, but was released for lack of evidence. With Vikernes and Eithun on the ascendent, Euronymous was forced to crack the whip to maintain his relevance. He became hostile to Vikernes, supposedly issuing death threats that included a plan to torture him to death on camera. Vikernes reacted to this by travelling to Oslo under the pretext of signing a record contract and, depending on who you believe, stabbing Euronymous twenty-three times, mutilating him so horribly that Vikernes’ unwitting accomplice fainted, or getting into an argument that was heated enough for Euronymous to attack him and in the ensuing fight fall on a lamp, cutting himself and bleeding to death. The Norwegian authorities believed the former and sentenced Vikernes to twenty-one years in jail, the maximum sentence allowed, for the murder, the church burnings, and Vikernes’ possession of 150kg of explosives that he intended to use to destroy an anarcho-punk house in Oslo. Three years into his sentence police arrested a Neo-Nazi group who were in the process of attempting to spring Vikernes from a maximum security prison; when he was moved to a minimum security prison in 2003 he immediately escaped, carjacked a family with young children, and was found with an assault rifle and survivalist gear that was clearly supplied by a third party; in 2013 he and his wife were arrested after mass murderer Anders Breivik sent him a copy of his manifesto and his wife bought four assault rifles- the correlation had police in his adopted home of France worried about another Utoeya. He hasn’t done much lately but write fairly bloodless ethno-nationalist essays on his website, which lack the bite the US-based fascist movement expect in their reading material, and release a role-playing game that is, by all accounts, utter shit.
What can all this tell us about the possible future trajectory of the Alt-Right? It supports Angela Nagel’s thesis in the Baffler that once blood is shed a movement in which deadly seriousness and ironic provocation mix freely doesn’t have long left. If the Alt-Right/Alt-Light split was pronounced before it’s only going to get worse as the South Park Right who were in it for the memes are drained away and the true Neo-Nazis and Neo-Confederates finally come under the police pressure and public scrutiny that they’ve deserved for too long. However, the example of the Black Circle shows that a cornered animal is dangerous. For some the death of Heather Heyer will be their cue to leave, for others it will become another moral hurdle that an Alt-Rightist has to clear lest he be called a cuck: they’re already putting out memes celebrating Heyer’s death that are set to enshrine the ISIS-style automotive attack as a weapon of choice. I don’t just worry that there will be more deaths, I worry that more cars will be driven into more people. I know that each time it happens they will hemorrhage more followers and law enforcement will be less able to coddle them (though they’ll try their darndest). This serves to bring their end closer, but it’s an ugly way to get there. Far better to be the agents of their demise rather than trust the inevitable decline of all radical movements: punch them, mace them, get them fired, get their accounts deleted, expose them to ridicule, ignore what passes for their ideas and go straight to the nastiest and most public insults you can find when encountering them in comment sections.
At no point in the history of the Black Circle was there a moment when, if things had gone their way, they would have ‘won’. They didn’t know what winning was- moving more records and becoming the sellouts they hated? An impossible dream of returning Norway to its Viking past? They weren’t there to win; Euronymous and Vikernes were there sucking up the narcissistic supply and everybody else just wanted to feel like they were part of something scary. That really was it, but the lack of goals and shallowness of its members didn’t stop the Black Circle from dropping bodies, and it hasn’t stopped contemporary fascists. Enough men and women in black, smart and strong and organized, just might.