Steeped in theatricality, mystery and more than a little controversy, black metal can lay claim to one of the most chequered pasts of perhaps any metal subgenre. Not only that, but it’s been a breeding ground for the political far right, draping themselves in the cloak of shock value, misanthropy and other trappings of the genre to push their hateful beliefs and agenda. It’s not a recent thing, by any stretch. On the other hand, the resistance to this has been steadily gaining in influence and popularity in recent years, though again it has perhaps always been there and the reckoning with the rise of the far right globally has been accelerated in some way, and brought into the light anew.
One of the most prominent, vocally anti-fascist, anti-racist black metal bands around is the outfit Dawn Ray’d; their recently released Wild Fire single was a call to arms, and a calling out, of these reprehensible elements of the scene - so naturally, we had some questions for them about the state of the scene, their place in it and how we can make metal a safer, more inclusive space..
Firstly - what prompted the decision to create and release the two versions of Wild Fire?
We are a band that tours a lot, and obviously we can't tour because of the current pandemic, so we needed something to keep this band alive! We are writing for another full length but we also wanted to stay engaged with the outside world in the short term, so this worked well for that. I can’t remember exactly how we came up with the idea but it was something new that we all really enjoyed doing.
Given the troubled history of black metal - thinking especially of the events in Norway in the 90s - and the associations of some of the leading figures of the time; why do you think black metal has become such a fertile ground for the left and for antifascist bands such as yourselves?
It seems to be a combination of things, but ultimately it is a direct reaction to the far right presence in the scene. When we first started there were no black metal bands that would talk about antifascism, so we started pushing those ideas as hard as we could because it was so desperately needed. We were warned in 2015 (by someone genuinely concerned for our wellbeing) not to mention "antifa" as people would hate it and we would never get shows or a record deal etc!
Black metal has become really popular again, but as more people listen to it, the more attention is going to be drawn to its unsavoury past. The only way I think this scene can survive is if it addresses these problems.
"When we first started there were no black metal bands that would talk about antifascism"
To put it mildly, black metal (and metal as a whole) has a problem with the far right. Why do you think it’s been able to (sadly) flourish, or at least not be stamped out?
I think all of sudden black metal has become a lot more visible again, and that has shone a light on its more negative sides. It's a genre that was very underground for a long time, and not something you would come into contact with unless you were seeking it out. This has meant that bands have been able to say racist and homophobic stuff, be paedophiles etc within the safety of a scene that delights in the controversy of those issues, and away from the judging eyes of the rest of the world. The internet has made that whole world much more visible, and all of a sudden the creeps and Nazis have nowhere to hide. Ironically the people who complain the most about 'safe spaces' are now angry that their own safe spaces have been stripped away from them! It is massively on the decline now, Horna, Graveland, Marduk, Varg and a tonne of other bands have had shows cancelled, been kicked off social media, had their accounts demonetised, and are now facing real world consequences.
"Ironically the people who complain the most about 'safe spaces' are now angry that their own safe spaces have been stripped away from them!"
Related to that - the lyrics for Wild Fire I include references to shock theatre that we should ignore, as well as cowards hiding behind the veneer of being edgy or doing something for shock value. That’s a pretty direct callout of many bands - and sometimes even labels - that have these themes or associations but claim they can in the name of free speech. Why do we tolerate that?
I guess for a long time it's been hard to challenge, antifascist activists and other political scenes haven't been fully aware of these bands so haven't mobilised against them.
I don't think we should tolerate it, and I think we have to draw some lines as to what we will accept as a community.
I don't think it is acceptable to spread racism, which can lead to real world violence against refugees and other marginalised communities, in the name of art or entertainment. Your band isn't important enough to be allowed to threaten the lives of vulnerable people just so you can claim some cheap edgy aesthetic.
Dawn Ray’d have always been unapologetically anti-fascist, anti-racist and radically left wing. How does it feel to you to be part of a wave of leftist black metal? It seems to have been gathering momentum recently but equally perhaps it just hasn’t been reported on before and is coming to the fore now?
Well, Sorgsvart was singing about anarchism in the 1990s, then there was Iskra, Panopticon, Skagos and Alda who were all explicitly anarchist, but there didn't seem to be enough active bands to call it a scene.
When we started, a lot of those bands had slowed down, so it did feel like we were starting out on our own. It's awesome that more bands have sprung up now though, as the more people that speak out, the safer it is for everyone. Also the more popular the ideas of anarchism and antifascism are, the closer we are to revolution and freedom.
There are some grifters in this scene unfortunately, bands like Gaylord who do repeat some of these ideas in a cynical and insincere way, but you will always get opportunists in any scene.
What do you think of the RABM [Red Anarchist Black Metal] label? Is it useful to you?
I guess I don't honestly like it that much as I just see us as an 'anarchist black metal band', the 'red' bit holds no interest to me, but I suppose it's a useful shorthand term.
What can we as fans, listeners as well as bands themselves do to push back against the far right and the rise of it that we’ve seen in the world?
Get involved in antifascism. There is no amount of posting online, fundraisers, merch or songs that will have as much effect as actual direct action. It's important we spread these ideas, but these ideas are useless if we don't also act on them.
Is there a band who are proven to be nazis playing in your town? If so, ring the venue and ask them if they are happy hosting artists like that. Are the far right marching or organising in your area? Get in touch with your local antifascist action group and find out what you can do to disrupt it.
Music and art and its surrounding industries can play a huge part in stopping kids getting groomed by the far right, offering people alternative explanations as to how they can improve their lives and the world around them, and can help build networks of resistance.
In the face of growing evil, we all have to ask ourselves honestly, what can I do about this, and to what lengths am I willing to go to help others?
Arguably, deplatforming fascism and right-wing bands (whether outwardly or those that hide it) is one of our most effective tactics in that it starves them of attention. In the event that a “suspect”, shall we say, band is booked to play an event such as a festival or show, should left-wing bands refuse to perform with them?
Well this is the ultimate question in RABM isn't it? What tactics do we use, and what has worked best so far?
We were booked for Damnation Festival the same year Mgła were. There are some legitimate concerns about that band, their connection to Miko Aspa being one of them. Mgła were at the time the most requested band for that festival, and we were much, much lower down the poster than they were! If we had pulled out of the festival that year, they would have very quickly replaced us with another band, and no one would have really noticed. We are incredibly vocal about our beliefs and talk about these ideas from the stage at every show we play, we give out literature and information from the merch desk every night, and decided it would be better tactically to have a band play the fest that would introduce people to antifascism than not; even more so if potential right wing musicians would be playing.
We were the most vocal band politically on the festival, and none of the right wing musicians said anything political from the stage. We also had a photo with an AFA flag in the main foyer of the festival. We felt this was a big victory, and tactically was the right decision.
I guess different situations require different tactics though, Napalm Death were once booked to play a fest called Blast Fest, alongside Peste Noir, when Napalm Death found out about Peste Noir being booked they and a number of other bands pulled out which caused the whole event to be cancelled. I haven't seen Peste Noir get booked outside of their dedicated Nazi scene since. I guess we have to assess our power in each situation and act accordingly.
"Black metal is made up of mostly good people who are well intentioned, and this a scene that shouldn't be abandoned to the far right."
Is there a better argument to be made for playing as well to not cede space?
Yeah, I think I mostly covered this in the last question, but we can't concede any cultural ground. Do we let nazis have their own scene and genre of music in which to organise and build? Black metal is made up of mostly good people who are well intentioned, and this a scene that shouldn't be abandoned to the far right. We (as an antifascist movement) kicked the bone heads out of the skinhead scene, we kicked them out of punk, out of ska, out of techno, out of folk music and now we will kick them out of black metal.
Pushing back against fascism and racism has to be a collective effort - who are some of your other favourite bands/musicians, metal or otherwise that are specifically antifascist or leftist?
Honestly my favourite anarchist band are Moscow Death Brigade I think, I love that they make such obnoxious and macho sounding music that is rooted entirely in compassion and love, whilst still being violently in opposition to fascism. They are uncompromising. It's not the sort of music I would normally listen to, but I actually cried watching them at 0161 Festival.
I think Chumbawamba were an incredible band, especially when viewed in the context of the time, to be militantly anarchist and have a number 1 single, whilst criticising the Labour party live on TV, funnelling tens of thousands of pounds into radical causes is an inspiration. Also their early folk albums are legit amazing.
In metal, Ragana, Thou, Underdark, Martyrdod, Iskra, Panopticon and Skagos are all musically and politically legit.