Featured Essay: Heavy Metal in the Age of Trump

Standing in a metal bar just three days after Trump’s election, the American flag should’ve been a clear sign that the show I was at was about to get weird.

The place was a stickered and dimly lit dive where I’d gone for the first time to see a friend’s band. Over the course of a life lived in metal, I’d set foot in hundreds of places just like it. That night, I’d worn my battle gear: Earth trucker-hat, Mayhem t-shirt, black hoodie. My wife was out of town for work. With my son babysat, I’d be good until midnight.

Uncommonly warm out, it still felt like winter. Daily life was poised and tense.

The day before the show, at a nearby café, my wife and I had argued with a vocal Trump-supporter; a debonair man with a coif of white hair who’d been airing his views to a wary barista. The encounter between us banked steeply on rage when the man turned to me, telling me to, “Fuck off.”  

The American flag, which was massively draped behind the small stage where the band would perform, didn’t mean anything out of sorts on the surface.

I do live in Louisiana. The American flag, in some parts of New Orleans, is as common as the Fleur-de-lis. And anyway, metal has always been playful. It’s forever reclaiming and repurposing symbols to augment its thematic ends.

Psychedelic black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room play in front of black banners with twisted trees on them not because they’re sylvan kings enacting the rites of some Wicker Man-cult; they’re organic farmers from Washington state cultivating an aura of terrified awe. It’s a given that some bands step over the line such as black metal veterans, Taake, from Norway, who were hounded by scandal in 2007 when singer Hoest appeared on stage with a swastika painted on his chest.

Hoest’s public response to the blowup was weak-sauce. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “we are definitely not Nazis. We only used that symbol as another symbol for evil. The usual symbols, the pentagram and inverted cross, don’t invoke reactions anymore.”

While his antics were risky, in terrible taste, they were also fairly par for course.

As a Jew and a liberal, I keep this in mind whenever I engage with metal. Nine times out of ten, metal’s appropriation of certain kinds of charged imagery or ideology isn’t meant to preach or indoctrinate so much as to shock, to immerse in aesthetics. Bowie had his “Thin White Duke” years, and Joy Division—well, just look.

The band started up. To be honest, they rocked: like Queens of the Stone Age trade bong-rips with Melvins while Hawkwind and Trouble look on, nodding sagely.

Ignoring the flag, I bobbed my head.

A few songs in the band’s leader singer, a dark-haired, rangy guy with a handlebar ‘stache, started spouting some shit about how psyched he was about the events of the last couple days. “Things are finally going our way for once!” he announced.

There might’ve been a few thin claps.

Then the singer followed that with something about how anyone who disagreed with him was welcome to come take it up with him out in the parking lot.   

I felt myself growing acutely aware of a frown on my face that I couldn’t control; of the way I was standing, hips awkwardly canted and not at all sure what to do with my hands; of my visibly Semitic features.

I grew paranoid, quickly.

Was it on me to show my dissent and walk out? Or was it on me to stand there and bear witness? Or wasn’t I maybe just overreacting, still tender from Election Night, hurt and appalled and unsure of the future?

These guys were hardly neo-Nazis; one of them was my close friend. So maybe a few of them voted for Trump. That’s not a crime, and not my business.

But the singer’s announcement had filled me with dread.

Because even though playing against stars-and-stripes in this or any other age is a far cry from slapping on Swastika chest-paint, in the wake of his words the flag felt charged, like the sinister ensign of some new world order.

It’s a feeling I’d imagine that many Americans of color have experienced for generations. Yet that moment of dread in the club was my first. And—I cringe at my naivete—it shocked me.  

Thanks in no little part to a few speedy beers, I remained where I was through the band’s final song. A few minutes later my buddy came out and immediately made a beeline for me.

My son, two-and-a-half, and his, three, are best friends.

“Thanks for coming, brother,” he said. We shook hands. “Sorry about the rant.”

With an hour of paid babysitting to spare, I went for a solo cocktail to chill out. On my way to the bar two college girls passed me, assessed me as friendly and called back: “Fuck trump!” They’d also been drinking. “Fuck Trump, right?”

I might’ve over-compensated. “Double fuck him!” I called back.

As a left-leaning hesher, that night at the bar is far from the only FMS (Fraught Metal Situation) I’ve experienced.

I recently went to see Taake play live at a club not unlike where I saw my friend’s band. Before going to see most metal bands, especially black metal bands from Norway, I always try to do my research.

What are the band’s politics? Hmm: not great. Are they not-great enough that their music rocks less?

If the answer is yes, then I probably won’t go.  

With Taake, I was on the verge, especially given the Swastika story, but then I saw another pic that, frankly, put that one to shame.  It’s a photo of lead-singer Hoest in corpse-paint on stage at some show shrieking into the mike. He’s wearing black jeans full of holes. His cock-and-balls poke out the bottom. It’s perhaps the most un-metal pose in existence—certainly far from the “evil” Hoest courts, like so many “trve kvlt” black metal outfits: Darkthrone, Emperor, Carpathian Forest.

“Trve kvlt” (read: true kevelt, which now that I write it sounds passably Yiddish) is the truest iteration of the black metal sound and the amoral, blasphemous lifestyle that girds it, like a Euro-centric version of Original Gangster.  

But the dic-pic allowed me to go to the show with what would amount to a mostly clean conscience; it was far too absurd to be actually threatening—anyway I told myself.

Live, Taake was fucking awesome. No Swastikas and veiled hate-speech, just tremolo riffage, blast-beats and death-shrieking. Withered and shirtless, in runny corpse-paint, wind-milling their hair, Taake looked the part, too.

“Those opening bands look like they just spent twelve hours on a tour bus,” said the friend who I’d gone to the show with that night, “but Taake looks like they just emerged from a fucking fissure in the earth.”

They were dyed-in-the-wool, “trve kvlt” black metal.  

But I couldn’t escape a post-show shame that that ignoble dick-pic of Hoest had excused him; that by going to see the band play live, by paying them tribute and, partially, money, I’d been somehow complicit in what the band stood for, even if it wasn’t clear.

I felt like a coward, a self-hating Jew.

And maybe in some way I’m both, given what I’ve always known: retrograde views are no stranger to metal.

I don’t know really why they are or why, to this day, they continue to be.

It might have something to do with the fact that the aesthetics and thematic content of many metal bands are so strongly allied with the hateful and macabre side of life, they embrace bigotry as a natural extension. Or, that the scene as a whole is so protective of its philosophical mandate to “freedom”—living your life on your terms, will or nil—that even the most outre views get a pass, though encouraging hate based on gender, sexual orientation or race is probably the least rebel stance I can think of. Or simply because, like many subcultures, metal tends toward tribalism; the largely white, male crowds at shows and in the studio together is how it’s been these many years and metal is partial to keeping it that way.

Whatever the cause, it’s a thing in the scene.

And not just black metal, the genre’s “extreme,” where avowed neo-Nazi Varg Vikernes of Burzum (released from prison in 2010 where he was serving a 16-year jail sentence for murder) was convicted in 2014 of publishing bigoted attacks against Jews and Muslims on his blog. Or where Jan Axel Blomburg, the drummer of Mayhem, has been quoted as saying, ““I’ll put it this way, we don’t like black people [in Norway] Black metal is for white people.” Blomburg’s sentiments have been echoed by New Orleans’ own Phil Anselmo (formerly of Pantera, currently Down and Superjoint Ritual), who in March of 1995 at a Pantera show in Montreal went on a whackadoo rant wherein he claimed that while “Pantera are not a racist band,” it rubbed him the wrong way when rappers “[pissed] all over white culture,” and that white people in general need to take more pride in what unites them. “Tonight,” he said, presumably referring to the show itself, “is a white thing.” And as early as 2016, at a festival appearance with Down, Anselmo threw up a Nazi salute while yelling, “White Power!” Anselmo’s subsequent defense of his actions, although less adamant than Hoest of Taake’s, was on some level more telling when it comes to metal’s philosophy of equal-opportunity misanthropy.

“There’s plenty of fuckers to pick on with a more realistic agenda,” he said. “I fucking love everyone, I fucking loathe everyone, and that’s that.”

Though in interviews Anselmo has been justifiably cagey about who he supported in the 2016 presidential election, Slayer vocalist Tom Araya has made his alliance with Trumpism clear. When he’s not making jokes about Mike Pence’s gay conversion therapy “turning fruits into vegetables,” Araya has been working hard at policing anti-Trump sentiment among his fans. “…I never would have guessed there were so many snowflakes commenting their distaste for the new president,” Araya said.

For a band that in its early days adopted an unwashed, go-fuck-yourself stance toward the Reagan administration, Araya’s pronouncements are deeply ironic. Because, in spite of campaign bluster selling Trump as the anti-establishment pick, Trump is the establishment. Always has been. Just as America long has clung fast to hetero-normative, patriarchal, white supremacy. You can’t rebel against what is by failing to recognize what always has been.

But politics aren’t uniform, especially among band-mates; case in point my drummer-friend, who’s got no love for “45.” Which is why heavy metal’s are hard to pin down.

Slayer guitarist Kerry King, as vital to Slayer’s legend-status as Araya, has publicly called Trump “a sideshow,” “the biggest liar I’ve ever seen in politics.”

And politics and taste are seldom mutually exclusive.  

I swear by the movies of Roman Polanksi. Roald Dahl’s twisted novels are dear to my heart. H.P. Lovecraft intrigues me—like, really intrigues me, to the point where I’ve written Lovecraftian stories and more than one essay debating his legacy. R. Kelly’s “Ignition” is pure sunny joy. Joseph Conrad was a genius.

A lot of the time, I’m content to acknowledge what makes the artist problematic, confront where these views show themselves in the work, and once I have to journey past it. Indeed, there can even be something rewarding in grappling with fucked-up art, because when you’re done grappling, you’ve earned your enjoyment,

My ongoing quest to interrogate metal has now become a book I’m writing.

It’s a homoerotic black metal crime novel that alludes to The Great Gatsby’s plot architecture, except in my book the doomed lovers are men. In it, a New Orleans-based black metal band’s front-man has been murdered. All the surviving band member’s are suspects. The bassist, who’s also the novel’s narrator—a nerdy Jew not unlike me when I was in my early 20’s—is arrested at first for committing the crime, but released when the evidence turns circumstantial. Working against a grand jury indictment, he finds himself caught in the role of detective; he must find out who killed his friend before the DA can arrest him again and make the gruesome charges stick.

If I’m doing it right, not only will the novel be steeped in the wrathful iciness of black metal music and culture but it will also seek to interrogate and subvert that same music and culture by putting it in conflict with its more extreme viewpoints. Thus, the inclusion of characters who in real life have traditionally existed on the outskirts of the scene, yet have always been there. In my novel, an African-American keyboardist, a woman guitarist, gender-queer men, and a whole bunch of Jews. And, because it’s set in post-Katrina New Orleans, specifically the hyper-gentrifying Bywater neighborhood with its legions of crusties and hipsters on fixies displacing the folks who have lived there for decades, the novel will also seek to reckon with the roles of, well, people like me in changing New Orleans in unforeseen ways.

In these many respects, it’s a personal novel and draws heavily from my life as I’ve lived it.

I grew up in San Diego, an experience I’ve often likened to trying to adhere to a slick windowpane. As my wife who grew up there as well likes to say: “There isn’t any there-there, really.” (Perhaps that’s why I’ve landed here, where the “there-there” is nothing if not unmistakable) Whatever San Diego lacks, in the 90’s it had an amazing punk-scene; Three Mile Pilot, Drive Like Jehu, Heroin, Antioch Arrow, The Locust, Run For Your Fucking Life, Cattle Decapitation, Durga —all of them from San Diego. All, together, forged its sound. As a teen, I grew addicted to it.

Most weekends, there was a show and I usually made it my business to be there.

In his mesmerizing essay for Defiant, “Punching Nazis Totally Works,” Darien Cavanaugh uses the frame of the Richard Spencer Inauguration Day-face punch to interrogate his own experience physically combatting Nazi-punks in the Florida hardcore scene. “It took several years of fighting,” Cavanaugh writes, “but we had created a safer?—?though still not perfect?—?space for our community. Yes, we used violence, but that violence was already there. We simply redirected it back at the source until the source relented and the violence dissipated.”

While there might’ve been the occasional skirmish between red-laces (non-racist) and white-laces (racist) skinheads at the local coffee shop, or minor dust-ups in the pit, not to mention a scene that, while culturally diverse, in gender makeup skewed toward men, San Diego’s hardcore/metal/punk scene was pretty progressive. It was mostly, already, the kind of safe space that Cavanaugh had to punch dudes to carve out. Indeed, upon asking a friend from back in the day if he could recall any shitty behavior toward women or queer folk or people of color, all that came to mind was that “one metal band who came through—you know, the one from Louisiana with the super-misogynistic lyrics who we hotboxed your Volvo with?”

My friend was referring to the band Soilent Green, who came to San Diego in 1999 as part of the Relapse Records Contamination Tour.

Though Soilent Green is now defunct, their legacy in New Orleans metal lives on. They’re part of a tightly knit scene of sludge bands (the signature New Orleans sound) that includes Down, Crowbar, Corrosion of Conformity, Superjoint Ritual, and genre-titans Eyehategod. Among them, there’s pervasive incest. Jimmy Bower, for instance, has played drums in Crowbar and Down, and guitar in Eyehategod and Superjoint Ritual, while Soilent Green and Eyehategod share guitarist Brian Patton. Sludge metal, like anything made in New Orleans, really has its own thing going: enormous blues riffs that could be used for fracking vie with punk breakaways under heavy distortion.

It’s like smoking a blunt overlooking a swamp when—buzzkill!—your toes get chewed off by a gator.

Though these days the O.G. sludge-maestros are scarce, there’s a host of new bands on the scene just as awesome. Mountain of Wizard, Fat Stupid Ugly People, Thou, Mehenet, Barghest (from Baton Rouge) and sui generis Cauche Mar (who have to be seen to be believed) are just some of the new generation of bands who I strong-arm myself to come out for on week-nights. Much like in San Diego, the scene in New Orleans seems fine, at a glance. Predictably, it skews toward men, and most of those you see are white. But the treacherously provocative and exuberantly un-PC nihilism of Soilent Green, Eyehategod and Anselmo’s side-projects have drained into something that’s more self-aware—more attuned to the vast, tangled web of our world.

Which isn’t to say Eyehategod still don’t rock.

I saw them play live for the first time, in fact, just a few months ago at a benefit show for the singer Mike “IX” Williams, who recently had a liver transplant. The festival-bill, several days in duration, read like some hesher cream-dream of New Orleans metal: Goatwhore, Down, Crowbar, Superjoint Ritual, Thou and, that night, Eyehategod. I’d gone to the show with two buddies of mine, one of them the drummer from the band at the dive.

We all had drinks and shot the shit.   

The show, at a venue on St. Claude, was packed. Masses of metal t-shirts swarmed the curb; we took our place among the throng. We’d been talking about the Muslim ban, which all of us thought was an inhumane mess when our talk shifted gears, naturally, to Anselmo, his “white power” statements and Nazi salute.

Superjoint Ritual with Anselmo on vocals was just about to take the stage.

“If he tries to pull any of that bullshit tonight,” said the other friend I’d come with, “I’ll probably walk out.”  

Like the Hydra or Cerberus, Cthulhu or Kraken, metal is a complex beast—an obliterating force of art that sometimes oversteps what’s just. With fascism on every tongue, vigilance starts to feel that much more urgent. Symbols, language—these things matter, even when they’re half in earnest, or yelled in a mic when you’re half in the bag. In particular now with Jewish graves being toppled, immigrant families ripped apart, trans people, already afraid for their lives, being gradually stripped of the merest protections—when a sitting, U.S. Congressman, Iowa’s Steve King, can publicly air that “demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”  

In a recent essay for the A.V. Club, “Metal Music Still Has an Unaddressed Nazi Problem,” David Anthony writes: “…at a time when fascism and Nazism aren’t just things kids play with for shock value—when they are, hard as it is to believe, actual growing concerns here in America and abroad—metal bands should no longer get a pass on this stuff.”

I believe we can take this resolve a step further.

We never choose the art that grips us. What we can choose, however, is how to discern it—how to reclaim that art when it outright rejects us, or rejects how we’re trying to be in this world. Just as metal embraces ideas and aesthetics that may drive us outside ourselves, it’s up to us to reclaim metal, to make it our own in a manner that suits us. And the first step toward this is acknowledging our complicity in a genre of art that can be indefensible.

I’m a Jew and a lefty, a feminist and an activist. I’m the husband of a woman progressive faith leader.

I’m also a head-banging, weed-smoking, beer-drinking, illegible-long-sleeved-black-t-shirt-clad hesher.

Always have been, will continue to be.

Will continue to worsen my chronic tinnitus, continue to rock my inverted cross necklace, continue to holler while throwing the goat in dives from New Orleans to Oslo, Norway. And so if metal wants to grow while still remaining loyal to its disaffected roots, it needs to see plainly that what might appear to be non-status-quo is the opposite, really. It needs to embrace those that dwell at its edges, and the complex connections that govern our lives.

At a time in our history when hate is a given, love is way more “trve kvlt.”