Some inflammatory comments made by (now ex-)Cobalt vocalist Phillip McSorley online over the past week have recently re-ignited debates over extreme views within extreme music – but it’s time to stop giving black metal musicians a free pass for being intolerant and abusive, argues Terrorizer’s Kez Whelan.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Terrorizer as a whole.
The metal related portion of the internet flared up again recently over an interview Kim Kelly conducted with Caïna’s Andrew Curtis-Brignell, in which he very eloquently and articulately explained why he thinks the hoary old black metal tropes about “rejecting humanity” are somewhat absurd, and why concepts like feminism are extremely important, not just within metal, but society at large. I’ve done a pretty terrible job of paraphrasing that, so you should just go and read it if you haven’t already; as well as raising a lot of good points, Andrew’s answers are far more honest and interesting than the standard quasi-Satanic guff that a lot of black metal musicians fall back on.
This, depressingly enough, brought all manner of idiots out of the woodwork, as Cobalt/Recluse vocalist Phil McSorley fired up his keyboard to bark sexist and homophobic slurs at Andrew and Kim on Facebook, whilst Loss vocalist/guitarist Mike Meacham opined “Why all of a sudden is feminism a thing to be discussed in extreme music? Once you put limitations on anything it ceases to be extreme. Fuck off all Kim Kelly’s[sic] of the world.”
Thankfully, most of the internet seemed to respond by telling Phil how much of a total pillock he is (kudos to his Cobalt cohort Erik Wunder too, who wisely ousted him from the band shortly afterwards), although small pockets of the metal community chimed in with support for Phil’s statements. Whilst most of this consisted of the same old hate filled and barely articulate gibberish, there was one recurring theme that seemed to gain a bit of momentum – namely, the idea that there should be no taboos in extreme metal, and that we should adopt a kind of “anything goes” approach when it comes to the views held by the people that make this kind of uncompromising art.
Now, on the surface, it almost seems like a compelling argument, not least as it’s usually shrouded in the kind of emotive language that appeals to most metal fans’ tribal sense of unity – after all, throughout its history metal has made a point of challenging the status quo and both tackling and relishing in potentially offensive subjects like blasphemy, violence, depression, etc, and a lot of great metal has been made by individuals who subscribe to utterly abhorrent belief systems – but in this context, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Like, none. If you truly believe that there should be no taboos in metal, then why are you treating concepts like feminism and tolerance as such and refusing to discuss them, instead either resorting to childish name calling or hiding beneath a veneer of pseudo-diplomatic “we’ve got to tolerate intolerance” rhetoric?
Look, I can see the angle you’re pretending to come at this from (some sort of “if you tolerate feminism, your pentagrams and severed goat’s heads will be next!” scaremongering), but why not just come out and say it; that for years you’ve been able to somewhat underhandedly espouse your racist, misogynist or homophobic behaviour within metal circles without ever being called out on it or asked to explain your views, and now that people are challenging you on them, you’re not at all happy about it. You don’t actually care about metal being a place in which anything can be expressed, or you wouldn’t be immediately trying to shut down any discussions that threaten to expose your ignorant, self-centred world view for what it really is. “Anything goes,” so as long as you’re a white, heterosexual guy who wants to continue doing whatever you damn well please, right?
Whilst I don’t really want to single out Meacham here (as his remarks are really indicative of a much wider problem) or give his blatherings any more attention than necessary, they happen to illustrate my point quite succinctly, so let’s take a quick look again; “Why all of a sudden is feminism a thing to be discussed in extreme music? Once you put limitations on anything it ceases to be extreme.” Uhh, you mean like the limitation you just proposed right there? That we should all cease discussing feminism within the context of extreme metal immediately? Marking the entire subject of feminism as a taboo not only seems like a rather major limitation to me, but also a pretty odd thing to suddenly take issue with. I didn’t see Meacham complain when Varg starting spouting off about national socialism all those years ago. I didn’t see Meacham complain when Faust stabbed a gay guy to death. But when Kim Kelly and Andrew Curtis-Brignell discuss the merits of feminism? Woah there, hold up – that’s a step too far apparently. Treating women as if they’re actual human beings? Metal is no place for such an extreme world view, right?
There’s this rather unpleasant trend in certain areas of extreme music (black metal and power electronics, in particular), where fascistic imagery is used as a lazy shorthand to appear hateful or edgy – and when these artists are then asked to explain themselves, it’s more often than not the same line they fall back upon. “Oh, but this is extreme music, you know? It’s really extreme so we should be able to discuss anything without limitation.” Well, duh. That’s why we’re currently having this conversation – but that’s not actually answering the question, is it? Why are you using this imagery, beyond the basic assertion that it’s simply because you can? What statement are you trying to make? Do you support these ideals, and if not, why are you brandishing the imagery so readily? What do you hope to achieve? I do think it’s possible to engage with these themes in a meaningful way (The Meads Of Asphodel’s ambitious 2013 concept album about the atrocities of Nazi Germany, ‘Sonderkommando’, certainly has its flaws, but it’s at least a more interesting and thought provoking usage of this kind of imagery than some repressed white-power berk desperately trying to hide his racism behind some poorly thought out “oh, it’s like, to do with freedom of speech, and stuff” non-argument) and I’m not going to try and silence you or say that these things should be off-limits, but if you’re literally just bandying about offensive imagery to get a rise out of people, then I’m going to take every available opportunity to tell you that I think your shtick is tired, trite and severely lacking in artistic merit.
It’s almost as if we give black metal musicians a free pass for harbouring prejudice because it’s come to be expected of the genre. If you came here through our Facebook page, go back and check the comments and I guarantee there’ll be some variation on the old “people getting upset about something a black metal band said? NEVER!” routine, as if being able to reheat a couple of old Mayhem riffs means that you’re somehow immune to criticism or challenges from those who disagree with the utter tripe spilling out of your bigoted mouth. And so, when someone speaks out against what they perceive as intolerance in the genre, people are quick to leap on them and quite patronisingly argue that anything goes in black metal, whilst also painting the accuser as some kind of big cry baby – but when the inverse happens, and someone speaks out against what they perceive as tolerance in the genre (as Phil just did with regards to Andrew’s comments), these same people are nowhere to be found. If anything goes, then why aren’t you supporting our right to discuss feminism as vehemently as you do for other, more right-wing ideologies?
I believe black metal should reject the status quo and continue to explore taboo themes, and that’s exactly why it needs to tackle this last great taboo; equality. It’s also why those who are punching down and preaching prejudice need to be called out for re-enforcing the same old power structures that have traditionally sought to silence minority voices time and time again.
If metal is supposedly a place where anything can be discussed, then let’s keep at it. Let’s hear those voices that are often silenced. Let’s look at what we can learn from feminism and how it can improve all of our lives. The next time you hear an individual lambasting someone because of their sex, gender expression, skin colour or sexual orientation within our little community, confront them. Call them out on it. Pick apart their argument and show them exactly what you think is wrong with it and how damaging it is. Because for far too long, black metal’s supposedly “anything goes” approach has meant little more than “you’re not allowed to confront prejudice”, and that’s not extreme; that’s just fucking cowardly.
Words: Kez Whelan