Matt Harvey on Why You Can’t Censor NSBM or Those Who Distribute It

Matt Harvey is the frontman of Exhumed, Gruesome, Expulsion and Pounder. This is his guest editorial, but Decibel’s editors endorse his position.

After reading the open letter recently published by MetalSucks to Hells Headbangers Records, I felt that I should take some time to write and clarify some thoughts that have been swimming around my brain. Ultimately, I respect both the opinions of the petitioners and the right of Metalsucks to use their website as a forum to express their views. I also appreciate that the letter rightfully points out that HHR puts out a lot of great music and that there is no evidence that the owners or employees have any far-right views or affiliations outside of the objectionable material that they stock in their distro. I’ve also known the guys that run Hells Headbangers for over 15 years and have never seen nor heard anything that would lead me to believe that they harbor any views in line with these ideologies. I was very proud and excited when they approached me about reissuing Exhumed’s Slaughtercult LP recently and they did an excellent job with it. And lastly, my strongly-held personal conviction is that Nazism, fascism and racism are disgusting, small-minded, irrational and factually incorrect ideologies that belong on the trash-heap of history.

That said, I’m going to defend not only HHR’s choice to carry NSBM stuff in their distro, but the presence of NSBM in the scene and community itself. So, if you want to stop reading here and say, “fuck that guy,” I understand your urge to do so. If you’re at least going to stick with me until the end of this (admittedly lengthy) paragraph, here’s the meat of my argument: Metal is apolitical—insofar as it owes no intrinsic allegiance to a specific ideology like some other subgenres do. For a counter-example: a white-power hip-hop artist is inconceivable, right? Metal doesn’t come with any real fixed socio-political viewpoint that way. Sure, politics have been present in metal since Black Sabbath decried the “War Pigs” of the Vietnam era, but the genre as a whole has no inherent political slant and has—for a very long time—given voice to opinions on all sides of the spectrum. For every “War Pigs,” you can find a song like Morbid Angel’s NRA-ready anthem “Dawn of the Angry” or Manowar’s extremely hawkish “Violence and Bloodshed” (the lyric “we’re going back to ‘Nam because no one else will!” always makes me laugh). Even Metallica went from songs that were at least cynical about war and its consequences (“One” and “Disposable Heroes”) to penning a song like “Don’t Tread on Me,” whose saber-rattling lyrics were directly inspired by the onset of the first Gulf War and read like every gun-toting, pickup-driving American’s personal manifesto. If you expect a genre as diverse as metal, and with the depth of complexity of metal to conform to your particular viewpoint, or any particular viewpoint—left / right, Satanic / Christian—you’re going to be disappointed.

As a metal fan and musician, that I will encounter artists, fans and art that I will disagree with politically and personally (I mean some people out there actually like Finntroll, what the fuck is up with that?) and I’ve made my peace with that long ago. All I can control is my own actions and choices, not those of anyone else, regardless of how wrong those choices may be. Because—make no mistake—bands like Absurd and Graveland are wrong. They are not wrong “in my opinion,” they are straight-up wrong, morally and factually. So, why would I defend their presence in our scene? I think the best way to answer that question will take a bit of patience on the part of anyone reading this. Having begun with metal is not (inherently slanted politically, for those of you I already lost after the first paragraph) it follows that if we take an honest, objective look at what metal is and what it stands for, the (potentially disappointing) answer is that aesthetically, the presence of bands that hold viewpoints that I find odious makes a lot of sense.

The lyrical and visual aesthetic surrounding the music is likewise confrontational and provocative. This is a function of what is known as prosody in music theory—the idea that the music and lyrics should fit together to create a cohesive piece of art. For example, if you write a song called “Your Love Takes Me Higher,” the title itself suggests that the music should be uplifting and full of ascending progressions—just as it would be incongruous for me to write a musically “typical” Exhumed song and couple it with lyrics about the joys of falling in love or the merits of dental hygiene (see the “Lick my Love Pump” joke in This is Spinal Tap). Prosody and logic dictate that aggressive, confrontational music demands imagery and lyrical content that matches. It’s easy to forget that even bands we now hear on the radio, like Iron Maiden, Metallica, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and many others, were once considered very controversial. The success of Number of the Beast played a large role in inciting the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and the various forms of censorship and record-burning that followed. So, to claim that the socially transgressive nature of NSBM is out of character for metal is simply not true. The specific transgressions of NSBM may be very different than those of earlier metal bands, but the tradition of defying norms is consistent.

Metal has aggressively and actively challenged lifestyle, political and religious norms since its inception. When society embraced a return to “Christian family values” with the dawn of the Reagan era, metal gave us Slayer, Mercyful Fate, Venom and Bathory. These bands served to challenge the prevailing consensus about religion. Obviously, I don’t think they sat around and discussed what they were doing in such an academic way, but their gut reaction to societal norms was to push back in opposition. This artistic tradition of challenging accepted dogma and worldviews is the reason why the same genre (in the “big picture” view of styles) can accept art from left-leaning acts like Napalm Death and Dropdead and also from openly racist, pro-fascist bands like Burzum and Graveland. The only thing those acts have in common conceptually is that they are both challenging societal norms. Please keep in mind, I’m not implying any sort of equivalency between these competing visions. Barney Greenway is a congenial guy concerned about 3rd world working conditions, strengthening labor unions, abolishing the death penalty and the environmental effects of the meat industry. Varg Vikernes is racist murderer who thinks that the future looks like a J.R.R. Tolkien novel because Odin is an interstellar super-being.

I’m an atheist, but Luciferian imagery jives particularly well with metal: metal is oppositional, often simply for the sake of opposition. Lucifer, in the Hebrew tradition, is the adversary. He basically served as heaven’s prosecuting attorney. When a person’s soul was judged, Lucifer pointed out their sins. Metal also often serves to judge and call out negatives in society—which, of course, are highly subjective. Your perspective defines what you will push back against. A quick example: In the 1980s, anxiety about environmental fragility and mutually assured destruction were recurring themes in the Thrash genre, standing in stark contrast to the “party” aesthetic that permeated mainstream metal at the time. Thrash pushed back against what they saw as society’s sins. It’s worth noting, lest we look back at the thrash scene incorrectly as a basically left-wing, anti-war movement, that Thrash’s opposition to the “poseurs” of the Sunset Strip scene was as much about re-asserting gender norms (“men shouldn’t dress like women”) as it was about musical substance over style. But in both examples, they were pushing back at what they saw as society’s sins.

Like Lucifer, metal lyrics often serve to present unpleasant “truths” that contradict the deceptive, prettier pictures presented. Death metal for an example, often deals with the biological processes of mortality that we are all subject to, and reminds us that the violent urges that drive the most deviant humans are present in some level in us all. In comparison, the unpleasant “truths” that NSBM bands present may be factually false, but they meet the criteria of being unpleasant, and they certainly challenge societal norms. Within the aesthetic context and tradition of metal as a confrontational, provocative art form where confrontation and provocation are valid ends in themselves, bands expressing NS and far-right ideas make sense, as unpleasant a conclusion as that may be to some. When symbolic evil (Satan) becomes commercially normalized (Soccer moms throwing the horns, Tenacious D movies), some within the genre, to ensure it is truly an outsider art form, find more extreme ideology to adopt to provide sufficient levels of provocation. Again, this is not a validation of white-power philosophy, merely an attempt to place it as logical for parts of the metal scene to understand.

Metal is an art form with 100% artistic freedom in terms of its lyrical and aesthetic components. It’s a style of music where all lyrical and aesthetic concepts can be explored—whether you want to sing about ancient history, cannibalism, politics, aliens or, unfortunately, white power, you can do it here. Popular music, by definition needs to be popular, and generally speaking, lyrics to songs like “Creeping Death,” “Number of the Beast” and “Painkiller” are not safe bets on what becomes popular. I can’t imagine Adele writing a song about a zeppelin crash like Maiden just did, let alone about the ghost of a stillborn baby haunting an inherited house like King Diamond did. Speaking for myself, I want to be able to create art within the completely unfettered realm that metal is, fully aware that that freedom will invariably be abused by a few idiots, rather than have metal sanitized so that it conforms to any ideology or set of standards, even my own.

As a metal artist, I know a large portion of the music being made within the genre (including my own work) is lyrically unacceptable to the majority of society. “But-” you say, “the difference is that you’ve never committed the gruesome acts you’re singing about, but the NSBM musicians believe what they write!” I agree and see your point, but I reject that argument. No one knows another’s thoughts or convictions, and more importantly, that’s a distinction that those on the outside of the scene have historically not been able to make. Just as the typical Trump supporter has no interest in the sectarian differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, people outside metal have no patience for its nuances. When political philosophies outside metal are used to judge it (see: Antifa stopping a Marduk / Incantation gig in Oakland, which is dumb and is not preventing fascism), it inevitably leads to widespread, indiscriminant censorship—because metal is offensive. Provocation is among its defining features. Having seen the “Satanic Panic” firsthand, more outrage translates to more attention.

The overwhelming majority of metal bands and fans are kind, open-minded people who reject racism and far-right politics. I have faith in my fellow metal fans as humans that they are not so weak as to fall for that shit. Someone could tell me that 2 + 2 = 5, and yes, they would be wrong, but I have to be stupid enough to believe them for them to be dangerous. The whole point of the freedom of thought that metal allows (even encourages) is that it leaves you to make up your own mind and assumes you have the presence of mind to do so. Being coerced into a “correct” worldview (i.e. Nazis suck, which is factually correct) is not possible—the fact that coercion is used makes it an incorrect worldview in the first place. You simply cannot justify doing something bad yourself in the name of stopping other people from doing something bad, because then everybody’s bad. Maybe not equally bad, but still…

While the writers of this letter cannot coerce anyone, they are attempting to exert pressure via public shaming. So, despite the admirable intentions of the letter-writers and Metalsucks (eliminating Nazism is unequivocally positive), they will only alienate potential allies and make even a stereotypical “California libtard” like myself write a think piece defending NSBM. Ostracizing racists gratifies your own sense of righteousness, but in doing so, you destroy any common ground there may have been to create a dialogue with them. When you condemn people by association and lump them into a category (the very thing racists do that rightfully disgusts you), you lose any chance to get through to a member of the group-you-perceive as the individual they are. A positive dialogue may at least mitigate their views and help you understand why they hold them, which is a win for everyone. This is not the same as allowing anyone to commit violence towards another person, this is engaging a person in your community with ideas that you disagree with and presenting them with better ideas. Violent actions are completely different.

It’s worth noting that I used to work for Necropolis Records, where we stocked NSBM in our distro. It’s further remarkable that Necropolis was owned by a British immigrant of Indian descent whose family were Sikhs. For us, it was a simple question of finding a demand in the market that others weren’t supplying—It was just about money. NSBM was and is awful music made by assholes, but selling it never bothered me. I also never presumed that everyone listening to those records was ideologically aligned with their philosophies, though I’m sure many were. I can’t control what people think and do and frankly, we needed the money.

I was debating omitting this, but I’ve danced around it already: The “slippery slope” defense that we often hear. “If we take down a statue of Robert E. Lee, what’s next? Take down a statue of George Washington?” I don’t have time or patience to get into why that’s a stupid argument when it comes to confederate monuments that are taken down legally, but with metal, the “slippery slope” defense makes a lot of sense. For the sake of argument, say you’ve stopped all the overtly NSBM bands from having visible places to promote themselves—now what? Where do you draw the line? Is Slayer unacceptable, due to their adaptation of Nazi imagery? Or is Slayer okay, because Tom Araya is Chilean, or because they didn’t explicitly endorse Josef Mengele? Do you reconsider Pantera after Phil Anselmo’s Sieg Heil and sketchy stage banter and Dime’s Confederate flag-emblazoned guitars? Is Viking metal inherently a white-identity based sub-genre? How much distinction is there between the imagery of neo-folk / white power bands and Viking metal / pagan acts, and is it enough? How much behavior do you need to witness before you can judge someone you’ve never met? How much do you believe people can change? And if they can change, can you forgive them? The answers to these questions are all the same: I don’t know, because nobody knows.

Ultimately, these are decisions for individuals to make, and are none of my business. If Slayer t-shirts with the eagle insignia bother you, don’t wear them. If someone you know is wearing one, talk to them about it. You know, a person talking to another person. Don’t go on the internet and demand that Slayer change their merchandising or publish a list of people you know who wear that shirt and try to shame them about it. That’s nosy and rude and makes you look like a tattletale. No one likes a tattletale. Especially one that hides behind an anonymous letter. Personally, that shirt doesn’t bother me, and I’m a huge Slayer fan, but it’s a ready example of how constantly holding things up to political standards leads to a very limiting road and will quickly suck the enjoyment out of metal. I could bring up lots of other objectionable imagery and lyrics by universally loved metal bands, but I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, just make a point.

I hear you, imaginary reader, “for a guy who supposedly hates racism, you spend a lot of time defending racists.” I understand if you feel that way, but I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. I’m defending each person’s ability to make their own decisions regarding the art that they consume as fans, the art they sell as business owners, and the principle of total artistic freedom within a musical sub-culture. This is about music. The rules that apply to art don’t correspond with those that apply to civic life. I’m solely talking about art and not letting politics of any stripe interfere with its creation and consumption. If you’re not comfortable with something, don’t support it. Tons of labels and distros don’t carry NSBM for this precise reason. They’re run their businesses according to their convictions.

I believe the best way to combat Nazism in metal is to let it slink over in its own unlit corner of the genre. The vast majority of its fans are mouth-breathing wimps who haven’t accomplished anything in their virginal existences that doesn’t involve an Xbox controller. Let them have it, because if you take it away, they will whine on the internet and accuse you of being the fascist because of your censorship. Worse, in today’s hyper-politicized media climate, people outside of the metal scene may pick up on it and assume that all underground metal is racist and all fans of it are racist. Right now, if people outside of metal condemn the genre for allowing Nazism to exist within it, you can rest assured that they are not willing to embrace a style of music that allows for total creative freedom, regardless of where it leads. Like they say: “If you are a false, don’t entry.”

You don’t have to support NSBM. It’s easy. Don’t listen to it. And if you only love the music, not the lyrics, don’t buy it. It’s the 21st century, get it for free on the internet like everyone else. Just because someone is an asshole doesn’t mean they can’t make good music—look at Yngwie Malmsteen. Richard Wagner was notoriously anti-Semitic, but the opera still produces Der Ring des Nibelungen. The artist and the art are separate. And the consumption of art and the art are also separate. I can hear music that moves something in me that can be totally different than what inspired the composer. For example, I think Campo de Exterminio by Holocausto is a killer record musically. I wouldn’t wear a t-shirt with the album art on it, because that’s the line I’m comfortable drawing. I hear you when you say, (you talk a lot for an imaginary reader) “that’s an easy distinction for you, a straight, white, male to make, because you’re not the one being denigrated and marginalized” and you’re right. But you can’t make that decision for me, just as I can’t make that decision for you—nobody can, and nobody should want to make that decision for you unless you’re a child. If I know you and I support something that bothers you, talk to me about it and I’ll do the same for you. Fair?

I too would love to see bigotry disappear from the metal community, but I don’t think that’s a realistic goal. And even if it was, columns like the anonymously-penned “open letter” that got me started on this are not an effective means to do so. We cannot police our community for objectionable political beliefs because it’s not a political community, it’s based around an art form. And if we could police people based on their beliefs, we still shouldn’t. Determining guilt by beliefs, not actions, is the definition of “Orwellian.” You can be as racist as you want in your own home. If you go on the street and shout racial slurs at people, then I’ll have something to say to you. But until then, unless I know you, it’s inappropriate for me to tell you what you think is wrong, especially anonymously on the internet.

Once you adhere to a belief system that permeates all aspects of your life (sounds depressing), you’re setting yourself up for a lot of disappointment because

a) most people will not be able to live up to your standards

b) you yourself are bound to fail to live up to them, and become a hypocrite.

Ultimately, we’re all people, and some people are assholes. They’re everywhere, and you can’t get rid of them without becoming an asshole yourself. The good news: assholes are the minority. Stop drawing attention to them. Let people make decisions about the art they create and consume and sell on their own terms. Address people as individuals, give them the benefit of the doubt. Take responsibility for your views, if you say it on the internet, put your name on it and be proud. But remember that having a viewpoint, even a correct one, doesn’t give you power over others. And most importantly: Metal doesn’t owe us allegiance to our viewpoints, no matter what we tell ourselves about “what metal is.” What metal is to each person is unique, and that uniqueness is a beautiful thing. It is we that owe allegiance to metal for all that it’s given us—amazing music, a great community and cool t-shirts with the devil and shit on them.

In closing, one thing I love about metal is that it is apolitical (see the qualification in the second paragraph). It transcends race, nationality, ideology and even religion. I have lots of friends that I disagree with politically (no, I don’t have Nazi friends) but I have a great time hanging out with. We talk metal, pound beers and listen to music. Bringing politics into the discussion of metal is a losing proposition. Instead, focus on the love we have for this art form and the enjoyment it brings—define metal as something that brings us together. If we turn metal into yet another political thing to disagree about we lose something irreplaceable. Let’s keep our disagreements to the fun stuff, like whether or not Janick Gers’ stage presence is awesome. We’ll never agree on everything, and we never should. But we should all agree that heavy metal rules because it has no rules. Let’s keep it that way.