Thursday, August 11, 2011

American nationalism and heavy metal

I'm going to apologize in advance for the structure of this post- I am not entirely sober while writing it and it involves combining many disparate political, philosophical, and cultural ideas I hold into one (hopefully) cohesive narrative. Still, I have no doubt that there will be points I need to clarify, and that's what the comment box is for: please, ask questions, criticize, be real: at Trial By Ordeal, we want our community involved in what we're doing. We learn as much from you as you do from us.

Nationalism. It's a hot word, though if you look at the dictionary definition, it probably shouldn't be. Still, it's one that carries a lot of baggage with it, and depending on where you live, it can convey a lot of different things. Nationalism has been a major part of extreme metal from a very early age; the earliest interviews with Mayhem heavily mention Norwegian culture and cultural pride, and it extends through the rest of the metal scene in many different forms. We're all intimately familiar (especially if you read this blog) with different NSBM or nationalist scenes across the planet, especially in eastern Europe and South America- bands ranging from Nokturnal Mortum to Campo De Mayo to Forefather, all with different perspectives on what it means to be nationalist and to hold one's country up to ancient standards of good.

There's a curious lack, however, of a nationalist sentiment in American black metal. NSBM naturally suggests a sort of nationalism, but even American NSBM bands seem less concerned with the country itself and more on outward aggression towards perceiving "invaders"- minorities, communists, the "wrong" religion, what have you. Eastern European bands who are nationalist without an NSBM perspective are not at all unknown, but it appears that within the American metal scene, they are almost inextricably tied. Why is this, exactly? America is a culture with an incredibly rich history filled with pride, honor, warfare, and conflict to draw amazing stories and songs from- but why are there so few doing it?

I'll be self-indulgent for a moment: one of my main bands, A Forest Path, was created with the goal of being a powerfully and unapologetically nationalist band. We play something that sounds like a more Taake-influenced spin on the first Amon Amarth- rather poppy, accessible, but still powerful melodic black/death metal. The lyrics we write are firmly nationalist in nature, but we have no interest in racism or xenophobia: simply an upholding of the original ethos of America (as we imagine them.) To be more self-indulgent, a couple excerpts:

From Plymouth land to Augustine
And westward we shall roam
The trumpets sound the thirteen hymns
Of birthright land, my home
From Atlantic ocean current
And east blown winds of time
I close my eyes and breathe in air
Of glorious nation, mine
And though dark battles may fall upon
Our victorious reign
Still our spirits, unshackled, soar
Broadly in the main
And so from northern snow to southern sun
And vastland forest glade
We prepare to defend our home
By point of valiant blade

Though I have traveled to many lands
Still my heart is a forest stream
That echoes with my pride
These waters run with ancestral blood
My fathers spilled
That I cannot deny

~"My Heart is a Forest Stream"

How many years
I've spent enshrouded by fear
Under shadows of war
In hopes that one day
I may return my honor
To its rightful throne
Though ages have passed
I've remained a tower of strength
A pillar of old
And so I proclaim our glory
A legend of victory, a banner untold

~"The Tattered Banners of Hope"

As you can see, the lyrics are forwardly nationalist, not especially couched in metaphor- but why is there so little of this in the metal scene? Many metalheads I've spoken to, even those unaffiliated with national socialism (though I hate to have to say that at all) have expressed powerfully nationalist views from which I think some passionate, stirring music can most certainly be derived. The Ukrainians do it all the time- why can't we? The fact that nationalism and national socialism are so inextricably tied in the mind of the American public is one part of it, but perhaps there's another, deeper reason.

Many people try to suggest that, because of its origins as an immigrant nation, America has no precise culture of its own; not bound together by blood and national heritage, we are at a loss to describe ourselves in terms of a world where most nations have a huge, ethnically-rooted history to draw inspiration from. But are we, as Americans, not connected enough by our immigrant history alone, and the blood spilled for our independence, to create stirring art? Perhaps the overweening emphasis on ethnic unity is the problem; ethnicity need not be the dominant suggestion of culture in the individual. I, and I'm sure most readers of this blog from America, see those of different ethnic backgrounds not as alien, but as other Americans, bound together by our upbringing, cultural roots, and connection as part of the same nation.

I would love to see more expressly nationalistic music coming from America without the seemingly natural rider of racism and xenophobia which appears to accompany it. Considering that our nation (that is, mine) is currently racked with a possible economic collapse, massive cultural divisions, and the perpetual threat of poverty, sickness, and death, it would be only natural for the people of the nation (and the artists within the metal scene) to become bound together by looking back to the origins of the country and its glories, triumphs, and victories in order to propel forward into a new age. I can feel the tides shifting within the metal scene myself: the more people I talk to about politics, the more pro-American sentiment I'm hearing from American metalheads, who are eager to express these feelings but think there's no outlet for them. Of course there is: we were crucial in establishing metal into what it is today, and it's about time we took some pride in ourselves.

(For those interested in nationalist but non-NS American extreme metal: apart from my own project, I've only found an isolated other. Pagan Hammer, a one-man project from North Carolina who I'm close friends with and released several times on my old label, makes expressly nationalist, stirring, victorious black metal influenced by bands like Graveland, Satanic Warmaster, and Branikald, releasing music such as the WWII-hailing "Ode to my Fathers" EP and cementing itself as perhaps the greatest single artist in USBM today. Absolutely worth a look, and I will do a post on him in the near future.)

If anyone else can provide instances of nationalist but non-NS US metal, I would be very interested in seeing it. But let's talk about your perspectives: how do you feel about nationalist music coming from America? Is its lack a problem or a pleasant absence? Discuss, challenge, and THINK in the comments below.


  1. The colonialism and imperialism that came to shape early America is by all means a very plausibly rich source of secular inspiration for the extreme metal ethos. In a way I see it as kind of mirroring the Scandinavian metal parables of Norse mythology and ancient Viking conquest, but for a different region, which has an equally interesting history. Quite original, and not at all a bad thing. I think the reason the whole 'nationalism' notion becomes so misconstrued within the scene, mainly stems from how certain (otherwise mediocre) bands tend to feel the need for a certain niche to fit into, and therefore feel the longing to absorb themselves with something larger than their music has ultimately become. Each niche has their own ideas to what nationalism really should be, and somehow it ends up coalescing with racism, which is why it probably gets such bad baggage as a word. Your idea of American nationalism in metal is probably the most pure and idealistic one idea of it; being what it really is from a true historical perspective. Something I've wondered for a long time is if there's any Native-American themed/influenced extreme metal. How about a black/death band comprised of guys of say, Cherokee or Iroquois heritage - playing Native-American folk influenced metal and writing lyrics about the extermination of their own people at the hands of Europeans? Interesting concept, would be intriguing if it was real, even if it wasn't necessarily the best music.

  2. @B: There's not much glory in conquering a continent with disease, deceit, and firearms. And then forcing Christianity and capitalism on the survivors. But as far as Native American black metal, that'd be cool. There are certainly bands from the Spanish-speaking part of this hemisphere writing about the Maya, etc.

  3. @Noktorn: B's comment reminded me--Cobalt are also TOTALLY a US nationalist BM band. One of them joined the Marines and fought in fucking Iraq because he considered it his destiny to slay the enemies of his homeland. What's cool is that they also draw on tons of Norse pagan shit, but probably aren't racists.

  4. An outsider viewpoint:

    I can't really comment the US side of things, but I would venture that, dictionary definition aside, nationalism is a different creature in the UK to the US.

    A couple of examples of excellent 'nationalist' UKBM bands are Winterfylleth and Wodensthrone - both have been called racist by sections of the press - seemingly by association rather than deed.

    And to summarise - Joe Elliot in Union Jack shorts:

  5. I would think that most american NSBM bands wouldn't be american nationalists because they see this country as a bad thing. Most of those white nationalists types don't want to this country to prosper, they'd rather have it fall apart completely so that it could start anew.
    And I just wanted to add that guy from Cobalt sounds like a big doofus. The Iraqis were never a threat to our "homeland".

  6. @Pavel: Europe's overthrowing of America certainly wasn't anything glorious - Europeans had the major advantage, and there no glory in winning majorly unfair fight.) But it does happen to be a particular historical moment that really jump started the tumultuous early history of America, and I would imagine it could be hot subject matter for any American nationalistic band who actually has a grasp on history. I think that some of the more mystical parts of Native American tribe life wouldn't be too out of place in metal, and the Pantheism many tribes believed in could make for some rather vivid lyricism you would think.

    I also get how you could classify Cobalt as 'nationalistic', but from what I've seen they don't really present that attitude too overtly. I've talked to Phil McSorley and read/seen his interviews, and from how he speaks, he seems driven to war mainly out of immense personal apathy and boredom, not the interests of his homeland as much. He says, "I reenlisted for 5 more years. I fucking love the Army and I am an excellent Soldier. This is where I belong, in another country with a gun in my hand." Also, "It is the best decision I ever made in my life. Politics aside, this is the natural state of man. Fighting the enemy, combat to survive. I have put my money where my mouth was when I named our first album War Metal. I don't have any politics, I don't care. This is reality, everyone else is living in Pepsi-land." It makes me think he does it to feed his own spirit rather than defend his country, thought maybe it's a bit of both.

  7. Yeah, here's Phil talking about why he's in the army - yet there doesn't seem to be any patriotism or nationalistic motives behind him:

  8. re. Cobalt: Ok I was wrong! I guess what stuck in my head was McSorley's saying he belongs "in another country with a gun in [his] hand," and I misremembered the context.

    But I'm actually happy I was wrong. I agree with Andthenthetoast--killing Iraqis/Afghans/whoever to "defend our way of life" is complete bullshit. Going to war as a way of realizing your personal martial ideals is another matter. All I meant was that I respect McSorley for living it instead of just glorifying it.

    And for the record, I am completely opposed to U.S. nationalism (and deeply skeptical of nationalism as such). The settlers destroyed this place's cultural legacy as they destroyed the Native Americans, wiping the continent blank and coloring it in according to the interests of capital. American culture, if you can call it that, is amnesiac and anemic.

    If nationalism has any role in American metal, it should be awaken people to cultural heritages richer and more ancient than anything that's sprouted up amidst this country's concrete and plastic.

  9. there does however seem to be something self-consciously American about Cobalt's style of BM, and the lyrical references to Hemingway etc. Not a manifestation of bellicose imperial nationalism, but a sign of valuing where they come from.

  10. Percival TipplebottomAugust 11, 2011 at 3:42 PM

    This is a very interesting question. I’m going to throw in some speculation here, although it’s based on an outside and perhaps limited or even distorted understanding of American culture (I’m Canadian, and one of our main ways of identifying with our own culture is by saying we’re not American) so let me know if I’m way off base.

    First – is it possible that nationalistic but not xenophobic music will arise more often from a culture is more ethnically homogenous? More specifically, do racial tensions, immigration, and segregation affect how people identify with nationalism? Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it does seem that there are still some very deep divisions in the racial make-up of the USA. Between blacks and whites, and the increasing hispanic population in the south, there isn’t a fully cohesive view of America, what it was/is/should be. So if some of those who are naturally inclined towards nationalism see a schism in the many views of America existing within their own society, some reflecting values that they do not share, that might lead them to the see enemies within their own country. Us vrs. them. They feel that their view point needs to be preserved or protected from other (racially divided) visions of America, and thus a xenophobia creeps into their nationalism and becomes an intrinsic part of it.

    I’ve got another thought, but this one might be a bit shakier. You tell me. I wonder how Christianity, or Christian derived values, have affected American nationalism. I might be reaching here- but see if this makes any sense. I’m thinking of how America portrayed itself during the early parts of the cold war- the godless, scheming commies against the brave, free, and virtuous Americans. Being a god-fearing Christian was a virtue, it was a benefit to the country. It was seen as something that gave American moral superiority over the USSR.

    So take a place like Norway, where nationalism can mean going back to something the predates the church, going back to early cultural roots before Catholicism. It can function almost as an act of rebellion against the church, something which lends itself to heavy metal quite well. But if (in general) America’s nationalism has some connection to Christianity, might that produce an averse to expressing itself through metal? And on the flipside, if some people see religion and nationalism as intertwined in America, as they moved away from the church, maybe they also moved away from nationalism?

    I dunno. My second point doesn’t seem to be on as solid ground as my first. It is an interesting thought though.

  11. I think that one of the problems that political correctness has brought to self reflective, democratic societies is the stupid assumption that because you are interested in your country's history you have to be some hatemonger who shamelessly accepts all of its wrongdoings.

    Well, you don't have to be. You should retain your judgement and approach everything with a critical eye. You should be proud of the good things and condemn the bad ones. There's a fine line between pride and bigotry, but I think it's clearly visible to all rational people. A problem with epic/viking/pagan bands is all they project outwardly is pride, pride, pride, mainly because of the music actually, with all the obvious problems that this brings about. Read the lyrics of "To the nameless dead" (although I have a feeling you already have!) to see how a critical, adult stance on patriotism can be produced. Write a song about the slave trade or the extinction of the Indians (well, not like Arghoslent does!) The tragic stuff deserves the same attention as the triumphs and victories. And even the victory is a democratic society and social welfare, don't be ashamed to speak about it too! Just avoid taking a too literal stance, you don't wanna end up being a punk band. Perhaps a punk band like the latest Amebix song wouldn't be that band though.

  12. Well, my theory would be that this is caused by the distinct characters of American and most European nationalisms respectively. You'll notice that the nationalism expressed in European black metal is mostly of an ethno-nationalist (i.e. völkisch) nature, while American nationalism and patriotism is traditionally more based on the model of state nationalism. To put it more concretely: many European nationalisms (ESPECIALLY those in Eastern Europe) rely on the elemental and inherent traits of a culture (race, language, customs, etc.), while American nationalism relies rather on the relation between individuals and certain institutions: Americans don't feel like one people due to a unity in race or basic cultural traits, but rather that they are united under one banner, that of the United States of America. This is simply because the concept 'nation state' does not exist in the US, whereas it does (or did) exist in Europe.

    Black metal, as you probably know, is a primitive kind of music that evokes instinctive, near primordial sentiments. As such, it is very compatible with the ideas of ethno-nationalism, seeing as that current of nationalism also relies on the most basic of traits: it is, in a way, the most primitive nationalism. State nationalism, on the other hand, is tied much more to institutions, jurisdiction and pretty advanced philosophical/political ideas. It is basically connected solely to elements that have to do with the ratio rather than emotion, while the exact opposite could be said of both ethnic nationalism and black metal.

    I hope that made sense, but that's the most logical explanation I could think of.

  13. @Degtyarov (Matthijs, right?): Excellent shit. I LOVE that you just drop in "the ratio." Great to hear that someone else actually uses that Blake-ism in their thought. Another way of putting it might be that there's nothing artful in American nationalism, and therefore little potential for art.

  14. @pavel I don't know a Matthijs, although he's probably from the same country as me (Holland) going by his name. As for your point, I'm gonna be all avant-garde and claim there's potential art in anything, but American nationalism does have a whole lot less to go by than European nationalisms, purely because the American nation is much younger. It is therefore a bit short on the mystic, obscure and primitive elements that many black metal bands thrive on. You'll notice that many black metal bands, nationalist or not, often refer to medieval times, something which would be less logical for an American musician to do as medieval times are not a part of his country's cultural heritage (at least not directly).

  15. @Degtyarov: sorry for the confusion, mistook you for another Blake-loving Dutch metalhead! and yeah, i agree you can find art anywhere if you look hard enough, i just mean that American nationalism isn't very fertile ground for it. But you do have your Walt Whitmans, your Herman Melvilles, etc. Not sure the latter counts as a nationalistic artist per se, but his work is definitely AMERICAN. Same with jazz. It may be that we're best at creating distinctively American art when we're NOT expressly trying to glorify America.

  16. @pavel I don't think artists have to be counted as nationalist in order to be used in a nationalist context. I mean, nationalism is largely built around the glorification of times when the concept of nationhood as we know it did not even exist. And in this sense, America has quite a lot to go by culturally. I've even seen a writer such as Hemingway, who (going by 'For Whom The Bell Tolls') was actually quite left-wing, be used as representative for some kind of American spirit. So I think you might be right that the most American art is art that doesn't try to be American. That isn't too strange, given that I don't believe the intention of the artist is always key to the comprehension of art, but I'll stop writing before I turn this comment into a pretentious essay on intertextuality.

  17. Here is a hot Heavy Metal highlight reel from Heavy Mtl 2011 summer festival, by Guerrilla Remote.