In a ridiculous and rightfully ridiculed New York Times piece from last week titled “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” journalist Richard Fausset hangs out with a Nazi doing regular things, not Nazi things, such as planning his wedding or shopping at the grocery store—in one of the photos accompanying the profile we see our neighborly Nazi with a shopping cart containing tortilla and black beans. The piece is the kind of unassuming support of fascism by way of Journalistic White Man “objectivity” that has become all too common since Donald Trump got elected because the Amerikkkan press is, no surprise, ill-equipped to ponder hatemongers while at the same time desperate to declare its own half-baked wokeness.
To those familiar with the punk and metal scenes, however, Nazism has been a persistent scourge, not a novelty to be pondered, almost always barely under the surface of any extreme scene or subgenre. We’ve got a great example of that in Norwegian black metal paladins of indignation Mayhem, who perform their 1994 album “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas,” this Friday at Baltimore Soundstage, and whose drummer is, well, pretty much a Nazi.
If you care to hear the seedy, traumatic details of Mayhem’s mythography, you’ve no doubt heard them already so let’s just rush through them briefly. In 1989 or so, five years into the band’s career (and two year’s after the gamechanging EP “Deathcrush”), Swedish vocalist Dead joined Mayhem and solidified their reputation thanks to his pained vocals, self-injurious performance style, and eventual, infamous suicide in 1991. When Mayhem guitarist Euronymous discovered Dead—who slashed his wrists and then shot himself in the head—he took a photo (which later ended up on a bootleg album cover) of his corpse, brain hanging out, and made bits of his skull into jewelry. Two years later, Euronymous was stabbed to death by Mayhem bassist Count Grishnackh (he recorded solo as Burzum), who around that same time also burned some churches in a rejection of Christianity and a reclamation of Norwegian heritage.
Out from under all of that, “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” (an auto didact’s translation of “about the mystery of the lord Satan,” by the way), the moment when black metal got big; the songs sprawl, the riffs spiral and sting, and it stops having much of anything to do with punk rock or hard rock. It’s a kind of unassailable constellate of young white men howling and screaming and hating their way through it all. There is no other record like it. And it is black metal as exquisite musical corpse—Dead’s lyrics fleshed out by guitarist Blackthorn (who also provided some riffs to the record and would serve time as an accomplice in Euronymous’ death) then sung by Dead’s replacement Attila, who sorta sounds like he’s chewing on the side of a couch when he sings and at times hits a kind of terrifying mania as if he doesn’t even hear the music at all—imagine Scott Walker crooning while on fire.
Mayhem’s ability to get “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” together is mostly thanks to drummer Hellhammer, ostensibly Mayhem’s only member by the time the record was released (others were dead or in jail or, in Attila’s case, back in Hungary studying to be an electrical engineer and out of touch because well, snail mail), and kept the group going to this day. Hellhammer has also been known to wear Nazi uniforms and signs his name on Mayhem records in such a way that turns the L’s of his name into lightning strike-looking Nazi SS’s. The bad faith provocation goes deep: In 1998’s tabloid-ish black metal history book “Lords Of Chaos,” he declared “black metal is for white people”; in the 2008 documentary “Until The Light Takes Us,” he praised Emperor drummer Faust for killing a gay man named Magne Andreassen in 1993 and called Andreassen a “fucking faggot.”
With Mayhem, there is nothing to really “unpack.” A whole lot of art out there is made by terrible people often espousing terrible ideas. Rejecting it full-stop is not a cop-out, and embracing it is not a sign of sophistication or one’s ability to be “above” politics. Handwringing is useless and justifying it is bullshit.
Fighting it, flipping it upside down, however, is an option. In Baltimore, the origin of Deathfest (which has welcomed Mayhem to its stage before) and a metal town for better and worse, there are also two of the best culture jammers when it comes to confounding and confronting black metal’s hateful history.
In 2014, Drew Daniel, a Johns Hopkins professor and one half of the duo Matmos, put out “Why Do The Heathen Rage?” as The Soft Pink Truth, offering up queer avant-disco covers of black metal songs in order to celebrate and parody the music and in effect kill fashy black metal bullshit dead.
“My record involves queer and trans and female people (and some straight, white male allies) working together to “cover” (in the sense of ‘occupy?’) a territory that isn’t (often) marked as such,” Daniel told me in 2014. The Soft Pink Truth’s cover of Mayhem’s ‘Buried By Time And Dust’ from “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” is creaking electro that quotes Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ (while we’re on the topic of musicians doing heinous shit, Bambaataa has been accused by of molesting young men over the past few decades). Daniel described “Why Do The Heathen Rage?” as “a silly record about a serious question: Where does pleasure stop and responsibility begin?”
In Baltimore there’s also Terence Hannum, whose corporeal metal band Locrian mixes and matches styles in a way that maybe wouldn’t have happened if not for Mayhem’s kitchen sink black metal, though Locrian’s music is instead humanist, empathetic, and existential. Tracks on 2015’s “Infinite Dissolution” explore the seemingly imminent end of the planet with interludes named after the Keystone Pipeline.
And following the election of Donald Trump, Hannum (who is in the band Holy Circle as well) put together an overtly anti-fascist noise project titled Axebreaker. Recent release “Live Assault II,” is as “brutal” as anything by Mayhem, and so it provides a fairly easy alternative to Nazi-adjacent noise. Axebreaker’s music suggests there are actually things worth getting geeked up over and hating, by the way—just not the honky paranoia of so-called “white genocide” but, you know, the genuine oppression that comes from corporate control, abuse, and fascism. The record’s rage is plainspoken like a black bloc breaking a Starbucks window, and its buried electronic beats hit hard like a fist in Richard Spencer’s face.
Daniel and Hannum aren’t just making #Resist-style musical sick burns. They’re contorting a style and a whole heinous political philosophy in favor of death and pain and occasionally all-out hate, stripping the aesthetic for parts and assembling something new and restorative. There is lots of music out there, and perhaps one way to operate is to stop listening to music made by shitheads, especially when there’s music that goes just as hard that isn’t made by shitheads.
Full disclosure: It is this critic’s perspective that by far, like not even a question, the most expressive piece of black metal of the past 20 years is “Strength and Vision,” a 2007 record from National Socialist Black Metal (in other words, fucking Nazi) group Slavia. It mixes hiss and static punk rock-tinged black metal—echoes of Mayhem’s “Deathcrush”—with extended samples of classical music, middle eastern music, Hitler speaking, and Nazis chanting (it samples the way Kanye West’s “The Life Of Pablo” samples).
But I really bring up Slavia, a fairly obscure band no longer around, because they offer up a windy way back to Baltimore and tacit Nazi support. When Jonas Raskolnikov Christiansen, the sole voice behind Slavia died in 2011 at age 31 of colon cancer, a tribute concert featured, among others, Hoest of the group Taake. In 2007, Hoest smeared as swastika on his chest at a show in Germany and claimed it was to provoke rather than advocate and consistently claims he is apolitical, though occasionally his lyrics have been anti-Islam in a way that would make Sebastian Gorka say “slow up.”
Taake played Maryland Deathfest in 2014, seven years after the swastika shtick. Here’s a quote from Deathfest’s website: “Taake has met with some criticism because of some live performances and controversial song lyrics. Despite the bad press, front man Hoest maintains an apolitical stance, and says that they will continue to express themselves through their music.”
Deathfest for what it’s worth has kicked some National Socialist bands off their lineups over the years, but Nazis, racists, purists of all kinds are well, banal and lame, and their supporters, sympathizers, advocates are weasels—which brings us back to the New York Times, especially that photo of a Nazi shopping at the grocery store, tortilla and black beans piling up in his cart.
Everything is political, and that Times photo makes clear that nothing is “objective” though, like the article, it was meant to declare the opposite. The tortillas in one’s shopping cart are political, especially if you happen to be a Nazi shitbag (or even just a regular old “build that wall”-style Trump voter, by the way) and the tickets one buys to a show at Baltimore Soundstage celebrating a brilliant, terrifying album with death and abuse in the forefront and hey, some Nazi views as well—that’s political too.
Mayhem plays Baltimore Soundstage on Dec. 1. Matmos plays E.M.P. Collective on Dec. 2 as part of a fundraiser for True Vine record shop. Holy Circle plays Metro Gallery on Dec. 14.