On Marduk & Antifa: The Heavy Metal Balkans
In this article we’re going to speak mostly about World War II, but to begin we ought to talk about the first world war. I’m not talking about the storied Western Front, the grinding expanse of barbed wire and trenches which swallowed nearly a whole generation of French and German soldiers, among others. I’m talking about the Balkan peninsula.
At the beginning of the 1900’s, the land mass directly north of Greece was ruled, almost totally, by the same Ottoman Empire which nearly brought Europe to its knees under the command of Suleiman the Great. An old and unstable nation-state, the Empire died during World War I, and without it, the Balkan peninsula fractured into several smaller countries, many of whom entered into combat with one another. This process of a unified whole breaking down into warring parts is called Balkanization.
The Oakland Metro Operahouse in Oakland, California cancelled a February 18th concert headlined by Swedish black metal outfit Marduk at the insistence of local police concerned about protests by the group Anti-Fascist Action Bay Area. The police raised concerns that the protest might escalate into violence in the wake of a February 1 protest on UC Berkeley Campus surrounding a scheduled public speaking appearance by then-editor at right wing news organization Breitbart and political pundit Milo Yiannopoulos. The Yiannopoulos protest reportedly caused over one hundred thousand dollars’ worth of damage, according to CNN.
Anti-Fascist Action Bay Area’s protest is the latest in a string of such incidents by Anti-Fascist or Antifa organizations specifically targeting black metal bands. Antifa action in France led to Peste Noire dropping off of this year’s now-cancelled Blastfest in Norway, which Marduk was also scheduled to play. In Quebec, Antifa protests against Graveland, the band run by admitted racist Rob Darken, resulted in the cancellation of Messe Des Mort festival. Festival attendees were reportedly accosted and hurt in that protest. Closer to home, a sole perpetrator claiming to be associated with Antifa released pepper spray at a Taake show in Sacramento last June.
At Marduk’s February 20th show at Studio Seven in Seattle, there was no such hint of political violence. In fact there wasn’t a protester to be found. One fan continued yelling “Fuck censorship” during local openers A Flourishing Scourge and death metal legends Incantation, but failed to draw any supporters or start any chants. The crowd seemed to be there simply for the love of the music.
In a roundabout way, that’s why Marduk was there too, according to guitarist and founding member Morgan Steinmeyer Håkansson in an exclusive interview conducted very late after the show. “For me, it's about doing what I do and believing what I'm doing and marching across the world,” Håkansson said. He added that Marduk has played in every populous continent on earth except for Africa, “which we're hoping to have conquered within the nearest year.” His statement, an erstwhile innocent-if-goading bit of black metal PR-speak, recalls the long history of European nations asserting their dominance over that continent. It doesn’t seem like Håkansson intends for that parallel to be drawn, but in the wake of recent Antifa protests, even small edgy euphemisms seem like kindling for another public relations fire.
In all his touring, Håkansson cannot recall of a single show that’s been cancelled for political reasons except the one in Oakland. “There’s not that much to say because [the Oakland show] never happened,” he said. “I really wanted to play the show because I never take threats seriously. If I had a problem with something I wouldn't threaten somebody. I would go there and do it. We were aiming to do everything, but the police didn't know how serious it was, so they decided to shut it down. Otherwise, we would have played.”
Håkansson did not mention the instance of his band being barred from performing in Belarus.
According to Håkansson, no person from Anti-Fascist Action Bay Area reached out to verify his political beliefs, although “We wouldn't answer anyway because I find it all so stupid. Why should I even reply to it?”
In a now-deleted Facebook post, the group outlined their issues with Marduk as follows:
“Heads up: The Oakland Metro Operahouse has scheduled to host Marduk, a black metal band with known white supremacist ties from Sweden that profits off of glorifying Nazi imagery and songs about Nazi SS officers and anti-semitism, on Saturday, February 18th.
Marduk has just kicked off a tour in the U.S. called Frontschwein North America 2017 tour. ‘Frontschwein’ is the name of their latest album which is entirely about the Third Reich. The term ‘Frontschwein’ (meaning Frontline Pig) refers to the nickname given to Nazi field marshal Walther Model because he preferred to lead from the front and was known for his abuse and crudity.
One of Marduk’s album is called ‘Panzer Division Marduk’ (referring to the Nazi armored tank division in WWII). Another Marduk album, ‘Warschau’ (the site of a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust), uses photos of Nazi tanks rolling through the rubble of Poland as cover and booklet artwork. The album sleeve of ‘Iron Dawn’ and album cover of ‘Here’s No Peace’ also show pictures of Nazi tanks. The title on the cover of “Here’s No Peace’ is arranged in such fashion as to resemble an honorific cuff band, a type of distinction badge which the German Wehrmacht allowed individuals who were serving (or had served) in some elite units (Grossdeutschland division, named Waffen-SS divisions) or who took part of renowned campaigns to wear (North African campaign, assault on Crete).”
Marduk is not the first, or even the most famous heavy metal band to flirt with Nazi imagery. Slayer wrote “Angel of Death” about Nazi surgeon Josef Mengele, and often use a mock-up of the german war eagle in their iconography. Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister collected Nazi and Confederate memorabilia. Too many bands to list have written songs about World War II.
Other than a few protesters in Austin, Texas, no other Marduk show was disrupted by anti fascists. So why Oakland? Håkansson had a few ideas: “You have this city filled with students so upset about the situation in their own country. My impression is that they are going after everything that they can find to be something they don't like. Destroy things and smash things; do whatever they do. Those Democrats.”
Håkansson’s remarks, to this writer, seems like something an out-of-touch father would say. In fact seconds later he said that members of Antifa ought to “Get a job. Go out there and live and see how things work.”
However, he does graze two important factors in creating the Oakland-Marduk debacle possible.
First, Oakland has a potent left revolutionary history. The Black Panthers were founded in the city, in response to the police exercising undue force against America’s black population.
Second, never before has violence on the part of the American left been so smiled upon, particularly against perceived white supremacists. After the meme-generating clocking bestowed upon Richard Spencer, a nationwide debate on whether or not it is appropriate to meet fascist sympathizers with physical harm has continued to churn in the public sphere. Spencer coined the term alt-right, which many read as a movement dedicated to normalizing white supremacy.
The term alt-right was also commonly used in conjunction with Milo Yiannopoulos, whose cancelled appearance at UC Berkeley precipitated a career-unravelling sequence of events: uncovered audio of Yiannopolous endorsing pedophelia, Yiannolpolous’s book deal being cancelled, and his subsequent separation from Breitbart. Even though the protest at UC Berkeley destroyed many things, it may have engaged the chain of events that led to the gadfly’s merciless and swift swatting.
Right now left violence is cool. And at least when it comes to snotty authors, it works.
Yiannopoulos doesn’t fit the Nazi stereotype. He’s gay and talks openly about his black boyfriend. He’s got more in common with Daniel Tosh than he does with Hermann Goering, except for the fact that his former boss, Stephen Bannon, is current president Donald Trump’s right-hand man. Marduk play songs about the acts of Nazis, but Yiannopolous espouses fascist values under the guise of playing devil’s advocate.
None of this is lost on Håkansson. “I just assume that [the cancelling of the Oakland show] has to do with the political climate in the States right now. There's nothing they're writing more about in Swedish media today than Trump. I mean it's not up to me to comment. It's internal thing in the States. I don't know enough that I would want to talk about it. I follow the news, but that's enough for me.”
However, despite his awareness of current affairs, Håkansson says he can’t understand why someone would take issue with him performing a song like “Panzer Division Marduk” or “The Blond Beast”, in American in 2017. The first song refers to a german WWII tank division. The second refers to a passage from Nietzsche which the Nazis quoted. Håkansson played both songs on this tour, while selling a shirt featuring a reprint of Nazi propaganda depicting The Statue of Liberty being stabbed in the back.
According to Håkansson, he’s only a history buff. “For me, it's just like another part of history that I have a fascination with. But I have a fascination for a lot of parts of history. In the end when it comes to writing music, I think we're better at writing soundtracks to those stories more than other stories in history.”
When asked if he identifies with Nazi ideology, Håkansson said “No. If you sing about something the way it happened and doing objective writing about it, what's the problem with it?” He went on to appeal to his right to freedom of expression. “If you watch History Channel or if you watch a movie, nobody would ever go after the producer and ask, ‘Do you support that?’ ‘No, I did a movie about it.’ It's been blown out of proportion. I don't wanna sing about white swans swimming in a lake or whatever. I'm not depressed, that does not cut it for me. I really enjoy writing soundtracks to specific happenings because it just comes naturally. I don't even sit down to think what I can't do or can do. For me, it's just about reflecting a story in music.”
However, Håkansson did not explain what he finds so interesting about the Third Reich. He did not, for instance, mention the known fact that his Grandfather was a soldier in the German army in the 1940’s, which gives him some personal stake in these historical events.
Does he have any emotional attachment to The Third Reich? “No, not really. I don't care. For me, it's just like another topic like everything we have done. We did a concept album about Vlad the Impaler as well, nobody cared about that. He killed a lot of Turks back in the day. It's a part of history.”
The irony is, current anti fascists and members of Black Lives Matter, would likely label Vlad the Impaler a white supremacist in 2017.
Which isn’t to say there’s anything de-facto wrong with writing about white supremacists from a historical perspective, except that it’s easy to see Nazis as harmless figments of historical imagination so long as their exploits seem possible only in retrospect. The issue is not that Marduk wrote Panzer Division; it is that the global context that surrounded the album in 1999 doesn’t exist any longer.
Violent anti-fascist activity on the order of Messe Des Morts isn’t new, but it has been rare. Animal rights activist groups set off a pair of bombs at Deicide shows in Manchester and Stockholm in the early 90’s, but that’s as close as the music scene usually gets to partisan political violence. At that time Deicide were co-existing in a scene that supported staunch left-wing vegans such as Napalm Death and Carcass. According to excerpts from Slayer Mag, the fanzine which documented most of the early black metal scene in Scandinavia, Napalm Death even had friendly communication with the godfathers of modern black metal, Mayhem, without whom Marduk probably would not exist, or at least would have no market to peddle stabbed-lady-liberty tee shirts to.
But the founder of Mayhem was a communist. And he was stabbed to death by a white supremacist. When that happened, though, Northen Europe’s prevailing social climate leaned left, and so any counterculture - the counterculture that fostered Håkansson and Marduk - would likely lean right. By contrast, in America, Reagan’s rock-solid Republican base ruled when thrash was king, hence why Megadeth wrote “Holy Wars” (“Killing for religion, something I don’t understand”), and likewise why in his middle age a now-conservative Dave Mustaine seems ridiculous.
In the wakes of Trump’s election and the Syrian refugee crisis, the mainstream in America and most of Europe leans righter than before. If Håkansson’s obsession with WWII is academic and emotionless as he claims, his aesthetic flirtation with fascism is not counter-cultural as it was when Panzer Division was new.
Still, Marduk is only a band. Police may have been right to suspect Yiannopoulos-like violence were it not for the fact that Yiannopoulos was (and might still be) one group-text away from a president who will not acknowledge Jews on the anniversary of the Holocaust. Håkansson has no such rolodex.
It would be easier to dismiss Håkansson if Antifa were a more lovable counterforce, but they are not. Their actions, even given the current political climate, seem misguided when there are actual out and proud fascists to be curtailed. Antifa is tilting against a windmill at best and at worst, as with Messe Des Morts, domestic terrorists.
The people who yelled “Fuck censorship” about Oakland are not completely wrong. Censorship can only be committed by an authoritative body. If the protesters had the concert shut down all by themselves, it would not have been censorship. The involvement of the police is what pushes the events of February 18 into the realm of the US Constitution.
They do not, however, have a great point about freedom of speech. The First Amendment in America has been expanded by supreme court decisions to cover the arts, but the spirit of the amendment, and its original intention, were to preserve political action. The First Amendment exists so that Antifa can do things like protest events.
Had the police never been involved, the Oakland cancellation would never have visited Marduk’s career. In fact we have no reason to believe that Antifa expected their protest to work. Much like black bloc window-breaking, these protests exist to gain attention to Antifa’s cause, and spread word of them to unengaged but like minded people. That said, Antifa are after black metal right now.
The antifascist fixation on black metal shows something: music counterculture has been balkanized. But no Ottoman Empire has collapsed. What major organizing principle have we lost?
What we have lost, in my opinion, is the idea that democratic civilization is a straight line beginning at hunter gatherer, proceeding to republic, skirting past fascism and leading toward an egalitarian, fair, and benevolent society for all. Americans and many Europeans believed that if democratic institutions are safeguarded, then conservatives and progressives alike will maintain their polar dance inching leftward toward all of history, and that each year would take Western Civilization away from the conditions that made what Marduk sings about in “Frontschwein” possible in the first place.
With that assurance shaken to the core by the most recent election, Marduk and bands like them become more intimidating, even if they don’t believe in what they sing about, because there are people that do. Some of the people that do are a few phone calls away from the White House and the nuclear football.
One person who won’t ever have Trump’s digits is Morgan Steinmeyer Håkansson. He’s too busy planning another leg of Marduk’s US tour. He promised us that the band will not cancel any further dates, no matter who they may anger.