Nazis and Heavy Metal

by Robert VerBruggen

As NR’s resident heavy-metal expert, I’ve been asked to weigh in on the news that the Wisconsin shooter played in a neo-Nazi band. Yes, it is a fact that some Nazis play punk and metal. But these acts are almost completely cordoned off from the rest of the metal world.

I’ve been listening to heavy metal since hearing my dad’s record collection in the late ’80s and early ’90s (some of my earliest recollections are of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet), and since then I’ve expanded my tastes to include some truly obscure and extreme material — including lots of bands whose vocalists always shriek or roar instead of singing to pitch, as well as groups with intensely violent lyrics. I can define terms like “grindcore.” And yet my brushes with neo-Nazi bands have been few and far between.

So far as I can tell, there are two distinct Nazi subcultures in the metal world. The first traces its roots to the deeply self-serious Norwegian black-metal genre, which developed in the early 1990s and more or less faded out after a few years. (The only black-metal artist I still pay attention to is Ihsahn, the frontman for the now-defunct Emperor.) You can read the full history of this music in the book Lords of Chaos, but I’d recommend starting with this hilarious (and profanity-heavy) review. Also interesting is the documentary Until the Light Takes Us.

For the most part, black-metal artists focused on their opposition to Christianity, identifying themselves as pagans or Satanists. There was even a string of church burnings associated with the scene. However, one particular band in the black-metal scene was Burzum, fronted by a man named Varg Vikernes. A few years after the band formed in the early 1990s, Vikernes was sent to prison for murdering another black-metal musician and burning several churches. He continued to make music in prison and was released in 2009. He also began promoting a racist ideology. A subgenre of “National Socialist black metal” has developed around Vikernes.

There is a separate strain of Nazi rock, however, and its roots go back to the punk of the late 1970s — in particular a genre called “Oi!” that wasn’t inherently racist but seemed to attract a fair number of white supremacists. Nazis became numerous enough at punk shows to inspire a Dead Kennedys song called “Nazi Punks F*** Off.” More recent bands in this genre work in elements of hardcore punk — most notably, vocalists who scream like drill sergeants. (If I recall correctly, there’s a bit of this music in the movie American History X.) This seems to be the tradition that the Wisconsin shooter fancied himself a part of.

Again, these are obscure trends even to someone who loves obscure metal. So far as I can tell, punk and metal magazines (such as Revolver and Outburn, the latter of which I contribute to occasionally) never cover these artists or review their albums. They are firmly ensconced in a tiny white-supremacist subculture; they are not like Ted Nugent or Bruce Springsteen, artists with strong political beliefs but many fans who disagree. There’s no reason to worry that your kid’s Metallica records — or even his Cannibal Corpse records — will soon have him getting a swastika tattoo.

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