TO Mgła OR NOT TO Mgła – ON METAL AND HATE
THE MGLA DEBATE
The Israeli metal scene is astir these days, following the announcement that the Polish black metal bands Mgła and Deus Mortem will be playing Tel Aviv this summer. To those out of the loop, the reason for the controversy lies in the alleged links both bands have to Nazi or white supremacist ideologies or bands. For both bands, it seems, the problems lie not in the direct aesthetics of symbolism of those bands themselves but ties, whether in the past or the present, with musicians who have voiced, to say the least, unappetizing political views regarding Jews, their place in European culture, and sometimes even the Holocaust.
For Mgła, a band that has never professed any interest in either white nationalist politics or symbolism, the problem is double. The first part is the one-time past participation of both leading band members in the, shall we say, problematic black metal project Clandestine Blaze led by, shall we say, problematic Finnish musician and label leader Mikko Aspa. You can read some of Aspa’s “wisdom” here and in this piece written about him recently. The other source of controversy is the former solo project of Mgła member Mikołaj Żentara, Leichenhalle, that has put out an album by the starkly inelegant title of Judenfrei (Jew-free) in 2000, and that includes such hits as “1942,” and “Jerusalem in Flames.” For Deus Mortem the butt of the issue is band drummer Paweł Pietrzak, who is a member of the band Infernal War (formerly Infernal SS), whose vocalist has, surprise surprise, some opinions he wants to share, with Pietrzak also being the past/part live member of Honor, an outright Nazi metal group [update: Deus Mortem released a statement denying Nazi and fascist affiliations, and so have Zentara and Mgla].
Anyone listening would know all about this by now. Not because the fact that these bands are coming to Israel is such big news, but because Mgła shows have recently been cancelled as a result of these issues, which leads some to suspect the upcoming Israeli shows are both an attempt to make up for lost money and save face internationally.
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But, to recap: neither Mgła nor Deus Mortem are in fact, in any shape or form, Nazi bands, nor do they tout a white supremacist agenda. However, as fair or unfair as that may be, both bands are anchored, and to an extent rightfully so, by their passive or active participation in a scene that seems inherently invested in ideas of superiority, power, and Euro-centrism. And this is not, nor has it ever been, just an internal-Israeli-scene debate, I thought it worthwhile to articulate me own thoughts on the matter in English.
JEWS IN METAL, A JEW IN METAL
For me personally this issue has always been a part of a very important larger internal debate, since I have often gravitated toward artists and musicians that tend to straddle the line of this kind of controversy. And this is, I guess, the place to say that I love Mgła's music, and think, as I have been saying, that their 2015 album Exercises in Futility is a modern metal classic. And so, knowing what I know about Mgła's past, combined with how strongly I feel about their music, leaves in the very familiar position akin to a broken heart. And is part of a life-long back and forth I have had regarding my artistic tastes and the shady politics that those tastes sometimes lead me to.
And so while this is very much the debate du jour here in Israel, it is also a part of my own personal attempt to make sense of this recurring duality in my experiences with European and to an extent Western culture: beautiful art made by imperfect people. And it is a debate informed, deeply, by my own position as a consumer of European and to an extent Western culture, that is the position of a Jewish man.
It has been my experience, as a Jewish man, that the road into Western culture, whether be it the literature (I have a PhD in English literature, I guess this would be a good time to bring that up), the philosophy, or the music of Europe and the West means the developing of an essential skill to read the best and brightest of that culture while ignoring or suppressing their views on Jews and Judaism, or at the very least ignore their simplistic, sometimes chauvinistic views on “Europe” and “power.” To read Celine, and Pound, and Eliot, and Voltaire, and to investigate to comings and goings of European culture both old and new, is to accept the fact that this is not going to be always pretty, and that sometimes one’s favorite authors, such as Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, are in fact, to be somewhat blunt, pieces of human excrement.
So following a lifetime of being fascinated by the allure of different aspects of European culture, and feeling the sharp edge that culture at times points at who I am, and following a lifetime of listening to metal, I thought I’d begin these thoughts with a few axiomatic statements. Axiomatic to me, of course, and as with most personal conclusions, much too broad perhaps, but nonetheless the result of a long hard conversation I have had on this subject with myself over the years:
— Metal music, by and large, is a conservative, white, Euro-centric genre, dominated by representatives of that culture or those fascinated by that culture. Obviously exceptions exist, but that is the rule. It is about Europe, it is from Europe, and, for all intents and purposes, Jews are not Europe. American metal has steered clear from that for a long time, though there are signs that is beginning to somewhat change (i.e. American black metal band Nightbringer sampling Italian Fascist Julius Evola on their album, and hailing his influence in a now infamous interview with Decibel magazine).
— Any “progressive” element of that culture, and any participation of what Europeans might consider minorities in that culture (and that group would include Jews) is by and large the result of the influence of punk and hardcore on metal, as well as the continued development of genres related to punk and hardcore in metal, which include thrash, crossover, metal-hardcore, grindcore, and the like.
— Jews, whether in a related or unrelated fashion, do not play in metal bands unless those bands come from a punk/hardcore background and/or from the immigrant-heavy North American scene. Period. This obviously does not include the Israeli scene, but in general. If you’re a jew in a metal band today, especially a metal band that is bigger than just its local scene, the odds that you are a former punk and/or American-Canadian are quite staggering, at least in my experience. So metal scenes that have a relative high percentage of Jewish participation do indeed exist, but are usually the product of both the north American and punk/hardcore lineage. An easy example would be the crossover-thrash-hardcore scene in New York City in the 1980s.
I should add, of course, that the fact that Jews don’t play in your band is not proof that your band is antisemitic. There are many non-nationalist, non-supremacist bands that would never have a Jewish member for more mundane reasons, such as geography, community, social circles, and the like. But it clarifies, I think, the sense that I, as a Jewish man, in terms of studying European culture and music am very much on the outside looking in.
To those general points I’d like to add one other more specific to the current debate regarding bands coming to Israel:
— Bands suspected of white supremacist or white nationalist affiliations do not disprove those claims by playing in Israel. If indeed the European metal scene is as exclusive and conservative as I have just claimed, then the political issue at the core of that conservatism is the perceived threat to authentic European culture by “non-European” elements (i.e. church burnings). These can include anything from the all-too famous Judeo-Christian influence all the way to immigrants and members of non-European societies. In other words, Jews living together, in a separate national setting, removed from Europe and from influence on everyday European culture, could be considered something of a blessing in to those potentially xenophobic elements in the metal community, and the choice to come and play here says less about the level of political tolerance these bands have and are placing on display, and more about their curiosity about a perceived cultural “Orient.” To say it perhaps more clearly: those bands that are suspected of ties to white nationalism and that still come and play in Israel are not playing a benefit for the local synagogue in Poland, nor would they ever.
I have loved, listened to, and have been inspired by heavy metal music ever since I was a very young boy. Now that I write about metal almost daily, and have the opportunity to interview metal musicians, I am often intrigued by what draws people to this harsh, abrasive kind of music, and various individuals point of entry into that world. For me it is a collection of points in time: the video for Metallica’s “One” blaring on TV, mesmerizing me with images of war and sounds of chaos; listening to the intro to Rage Against the Machine’s “Bombtrack” at a friend’s house, and feeling my entire body flame up as soon as the guitars and drums kicks in; Layne Staley’s strange and to me frightening beard in the video to Alice in Chains’ “Them Bones.” It was as if someone had grabbed my attention and pinned it to the floor. It was, and remains at times, exhilarating.
And yet it is perhaps this power, that exhilaration, that is where my own complicity in the metal game begins. Where I can no longer claim to just be an innocent consumer of power or supremacy focused European literature and music. No one is telling me what to like, just as no one forced me to listen to Mgła or read Journey to the End of Night or Growth of the Soil. I have chosen to interact with those works because they had a certain appeal for me, perhaps even, maybe, a certain otherness. And perhaps I was too, like many a young person who hears distorted guitar for the first time, entranced by the hook of powerful-sounding music.
Maybe it’s the feeling of being a part of something bigger. By which I do not mean “the scene.” For better or worse I have never been one to fall easily into scenes, blame it on my skeptical grandparents who warned me against any group of any kind. But you don’t have to be a part of a tribe or scene in order to see how powerful music transports you into the metal space of power, even if that power is neither communal nor political. Just personal strength, which, it should be said, is a prominent feature of a lot of metal – individuality, anti-authoritarianism, solitude, and self confidence. I think that may be one of the things that’s beautiful about metal, this focus on the individual, though sometimes, perhaps often, it comes at the expense of others.
I have no easy answers for those who wish to boycott the Mgła/Deus Mortem show or to those who don’t see any problem with the show, and sense a deep sense of repulsion from the self-righteousness of both sides. In addition, obviously, to my repulsion from bullshit like Jundenfrei or Mikko Aspa's irresponsibly hateful nonsense. Either the self righteousness of teaching morals to those who are, first and foremost, fans of the music and not of the political views, or the self righteousness of assuming that listening to extreme metal bestows one with inordinate intellectual or spiritual supremacy. It is, after all, just music, that is, I think, something that has been lost in the mix. And from that standpoint, again, Mgła is one of the best bands out there doing what they do. A music that would be best served if the band made it clear they want nothing to do with any of the above hateful nonsense.
But I do think that more discussion should take place that goes beyond that mutual self-righteousness and that takes an honest look at the sometimes serious games metal plays with its own extremity. No, not all or even most metal bands support white nationalist or supremacist views. They may indulge a bit too happily in the “anti PC” reactionary zeitgeist, and perhaps may have drunk too deeply from the goat-horned Kool Aid cup, but they are not, by and large, Nazis or fascists. They are, however, playing with fire, engaged in an ever-escalating game of who is more extreme, who is more outrageous, who is more “anti-social” or hateful to the point of missing the fact that they are a part of a culture that sometimes quite irresponsibly glorifies power, glorifies creed, and glorifies violence.
One noted metal writer, who shall remain anonymous, has made it a point to prove that only a small minority of metal bands, mostly black metal at that, are Nazi, and that talk of a “Nazi” problem is the “whining” of certain “non-metal” groups. And yet the issue, as the Mgla story proves, is not just who is a literal Nazi, who places swastikas on their album art (or tattoo a “sunwheel,” as modern parlance would have it), but instead to take a long hard look at the level of complicity every and each person in that scene has. Whether it’s just getting a kick out of some bizarre anti-Christian rant, enjoying the thrill of someone saying something he shouldn't, or just playing in a band with someone who believes in a lot of hateful nonsense. To watch and see whether or not metal has become, or has always been, that place where there is cultural capital to be had if you're hateful or dismissive or sometimes outright violent.
In other words, these are not jokes. They are entertaining at times, yes, and we must be vigilant as listeners to detect the source of our enjoyment from power – as is my own – and to watch for when that line is crossed. And to be mature enough and critical enough as a community to be able to say when something is just not right, without fear of being labeled a traitor to the culture or, worse, a poser.