UPDATE: February 2, 2017. Blastfest has been cancelled.
e close to the festival lay part of the blame on the boycott, which lead to enormous financial pressures being placed on the festival, as well as diminished ticket sales.
Every city has a story, and Bergen isn’t the exception. A picturesque coastal town in Norway, Bergen played a big role in the shaping of black metal. This is, after all, where the famous Fanftoft Stave Church erupted into flames in the evening of June 6th, 1992, and whose tabloid, the Bergens Tidende, was instrumental in not only the first arrest of Varg Vikernes, but also in creating a big part of the mythology surrounding the genre. With explosive headlines all over the world about arson, murder and Satanism, Bergen was suddenly not only the setting of the story, but part of the story itself.
Since those early days of Norwegian black metal, things have quieted down a lot. The shock created by those young men who proudly stood as an affront to religion, tradition and even music itself, ended long ago. Black metal, as much as its fans would like to believe otherwise, is no longer surrounded by the controversy and fear that once existed. It is merely part of the landscape, with the corpse paints and shrieks that its founders were so proud of, being often used as mere punchlines for otherwise inane journalists and commentators. Its acceptance is such that Metallica’s use of its aesthetics in their video for “ManUnkind,” down to a decapitated pig, did not get any of the shocked reactions that something like this would have created 10 or 15 years ago. Nowadays, when it is not being used in earnest by black metal musicians themselves, corpse paint seems to be the darling of the many pointless Youtube makeup girls, who are happy to teach their tween viewers how to create the same kind of effect. For better or worse, it seems very clear that shocking an audience is now harder than ever.
It’s not only that it’s harder to shock people, but also that the things that shock and scandalize them have changed dramatically over the years. Inverted crosses and satanic imagery are so common that they almost go unnoticed. They pack none of the punch that they once did. While this could be the result of society as a whole dropping some its values and losing some of its dogmas, in reality it’s just that society became desensitized to these things. The shrieks, the black clothes, the satanic stuff, are all seen as merely parts of the angsty teen startup kit, and so nobody pays any attention to them. Sure, from time to time the occasional religious nutjob will protest a show, and so-called journalists will trample over each other trying to be the first to publish some clickbait nonsense where they get to mock them, but in reality, Western society does not see itself threatened by the values (or lack thereof) of black metal.
Nowadays the only sure way to get yourself a riot, a picket, or even just a lonely protester, is to have someone label you a Nazi or a fascist. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. If they are able to infer something from your artwork or your lyrics, your politics are not left enough, or you are not sufficiently apologetic about your ancestors, you will be given this label. Bands like Moonsorrow, Tyr and Skyforger learned this lesson long ago, when their use of Germanic runes and symbols was seen as sufficient by some ANTIFA groups to seek the cancellation of their shows. Even though no part of their music could be construed as being National Socialist in nature, the fact that they seemed to be too proud of their own countries seemed to have been enough for some ANTIFA agitators. It is no longer the stuck up, Bible-thumping maniac that wants to get shows cancelled; it’s the regressive part of the left that gave up all of its dreams of rebellion and of speaking truth to power, and who are content with trying to homogenize the public discourse. If you step out of what they consider to be acceptable, then they will unleash the hounds.
This brings us back to Bergen. Just like 20 years ago the city played a role in the birth of black metal, in 2016 it found itself at the center of what might very well be the death throes of the genre. Now, of course, the music itself, the melodies and the shrieks, will continue to exist. The underlying philosophy of rebellion, however, might soon be forced to disappear.
The Anonymous E-mails
Peste Noire are an underground black metal band from France that, to the delight of many, had been booked to play at the 2017 edition of Blastfest, in Bergen. Since Peste Noire have been accused many times of being Nazis or right wing extremists, their addition to the festival bothered some people, who did not think they should be given a platform. After Napalm Death decided to pull out of the festival in protest to the inclusion of Peste Noire, French ANTIFA groups then directed their efforts to the sponsors of Blastfest. Facing the prospect of either keeping them on the bill and having no sponsors, and thus no festival, Blastfest decided to drop Peste Noire.
Toni Törrönen, the Festival Manager for Blastfest, expressed to me his sadness at what, in his eyes, they had been forced to do. On the one hand, they liked the music of Peste Noire, and were adamantly against any kind of censorship; on the other, however, there was simply no way in which they would have been able to have a festival if they kept them on the bill.
“There was an anonymous e-mailer that was contacting our partners, the hotel, the venue, and every single one of the sponsors and partners that appeared on our posters. Every single one of them was contacted with a very long e-mail saying that Peste Noire are extreme right wing and nazis.
We were given an ultimatum. Either you have a festival at the venue, or you don’t.”
Asked if there had been threats of violence against the festival if Peste Noire was to perform, Törrönen refused to “reveal exactly what was written.” He did say, however, that although in the past Blastfest had occasionally encountered some controversy with the bands it booked, it had never been this “intense.”
The intensity that Törrönen was referring to is easy to understand when you consider the visceral hatred that some groups have against Peste Noire. Through a french ANTIFA organization known as “La Horde,” I got in touch with one of the people who were involved in the boycott against them at Blastfest.
Under condition of anonymity, Roger (not his real name) explained how thanks to what he labeled an “effective boycott,” Peste Noire had not been able to perform live before. By allowing them to perform at the festival, Blastfest were allowing them to have the kind of platform that, in his view, they should never be allowed to have.
“…far right ideology in music can not be treated like the others, the goal is to submit individuals, not emancipation for individuals…”
The method that they had taken to accomplish this was simple. He had personally alerted Napalm Death back in April about the presence of Peste Noire, and about their alleged ideology. Then, the festival and its sponsors were informed. “The info was reported,” he said; “easy & simple.”
On that point he was right. There are plenty of photos, interviews and assorted material all over the internet that would allow you to discredit Peste Noire. It isn’t hard to put it all together (perhaps filling some blanks with whatever interpretation you want to give) and send it away.
Whatever the exact wording was on their e-mails, Roger would not say. Törrönen had been equally cryptic, promising to forward them to me, but never actually doing it. We can safely assume that they were some variation of “Nice festival you’re having, it’d be a shame if people knew you’re sheltering a neo nazi”
A “Deeply Troubling” Ideology
I reached out to Napalm Death, trying to get their side of the story about what had happened. Through Century Media, their label in Europe, I received a statement from their singer, Barney Greenway that, although had been supposedly released months ago, does not seem to have been posted anywhere.
“Contrary to certain opinions sloshing around the internet, neither Napalm Death nor our agents did attempt to force the promoters of Blastfest 2017 to remove a certain band. Had we known they were playing beforehand, we would have declined the initial invitation to play on this occasion.
In as much as promoters have the right to book the bands they choose, Napalm Death also has the choice – as other bands do – to decline from sharing platforms with deeply troubling ideologies – i.e. ultra nationalism.
Nobody “gets it right” all the time, but we are loathe to bury our heads in the sand. To label outright the band in question as Nazis might be inaccurate, but where the separation is between that and an ideology which aggressively elevates an individual on national identity lines is for other listeners and observers to come to their own conclusions. We did. Thanks for your understanding.”
Toni Törrönen seemed to confirm Barney‘s version of events, explaining to me that Napalm Death said that they simply couldn’t perform at the same festival. “They told us that they would not play if Peste Noire played… [So] we let them go.” This, of course, did not stop some media outlets from reporting, without citing a single source, a more combative version of events when news of the cancellation of Napalm Death first broke out.
But what is the ideology of Peste Noire?
Although nowadays their music seems to stay clear of being openly political, their 2001 demo Aryan Supremacy (featuring Neige, of Alcest, on drums) did not seem to have any qualms in doing so. Even if lyrically they don’t touch politics anymore, their imagery is evocative of neo-nazism itself. The band uses as its logo the symbol of the White Aryan Resistance movement, a neo-nazi organization from the United States formed by Tom Metzger, a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan (because nothing says “this is a legitimate political organization” like having “dragon” as part of your title). Also, Famine, the singer and founder of Peste Noire, seems to surround himself with as much Neo Nazi and white nationalist paraphernalia as possible, from Celtic crosses overlapping the French flag, the Totentkopf of the SS, to the Wolfsangel rune (of Third Reich fame) as used by the controversial Azov division in Ukraine.
In his rare interviews, Famine does try to dismiss the link between Peste Noire and National Socialism. When he does it though, it comes off more as the ramblings of a lunatic, going against the exact point he seems to believe he is making. In an interview he did with with now-defunct Diabolical Conquest magazine, for example, Famine stated that he is not racist, followed by comments about “black eyed, dark-skinned mongrels” and “cross-bred jewmerican liberalism”:
“When, in the past, I used swastikas or other Nazi symbols, it was exactly for the purpose of symbolism: the symbol for the final and decisive battle against all that is prevalent in today’s modern world: the irreversible victory of cross-bred jewmerican liberalism and everything it stands for, i.e. stupidity and the absence of values. Nazism, now more punk than ever, represents the perfect anti-symbol to present-day dominant ideologies (the masochistic human rights movement and cosmopolitan capitalism).”
Similarly, in an interview published in his own site, he speaks against “the Trotskyites of the National educaZION,” showing the same kind of subtlety that you can expect from a bleeding hemorrhoid. That is, none at all. This isn’t dogwhistle antisemitism; it’s bullhorn antisemitism.
While we might be able to have a debate about whether you can speak against “Jewmericans,” use Nazi symbols, and still not be called a Nazi, it seems to be the kind of discussion where the result doesn’t matter. Now, of course, the kind of idiotic hooliganism shown by Famine seems to be the kind of thing that the Third Reich would have labeled, at best, “Entartete kunst,” “degenerate art,” but it’s hard to see why that should matter. The issue for the critics of Peste Noire is not whether Hitler himself would have been a fan, but rather whether their values are similar to what people would mostly associate with neonazis. The answer, for better or worse, appears to be yes.
From his interviews, it seems clear that Famine puts forward a combination of juvenile misanthropy, the edgy 14-year-old-wearing-fingerless-gloves kind of misanthropy, combined with a pseudo-intellectual philosophical racist babble. It’s the kind of thing that will only seem deep if you’re either young, uninformed, or both. It’s not that he is wrong all the time (it’s great to see French people proud of their country, their history and their heritage), but neither is a broken clock.
Who Watches the Watchmen?
Early in our conversations it became clear that Roger hoped that we would simply publish his information about Peste Noire‘s ideology, without asking any questions. He wasn’t happy when I told him that I wanted more than that, and that we wouldn’t act as his echo chamber. I wanted to know the how and the why.
Roger, a Parisian man in his late 30’s working in the music industry, had gotten in touch with me in a rather strange way. After I contacted La Horde, he messaged me both through our site, under a fake name, and then with his real name through Facebook. I pointed this out to him, since even the wording of the messages had been the same on both places, but he pretended not to know anything about it. Until he finally admitted the truth, that La Horde had gotten in touch with him and given him my personal information, he just pretended that stumbling upon our site, and even my own personal Facebook, had been just a coincidence.
When he talks about what the ANTIFA accomplished, Roger does not even try to hide how proud he is about getting Blastfest to drop Peste Noire. “I boycott far right ideology in music,” he said; this time that boycott had taken the form of “alerting” the partners of the festival, the hotels, the catering and the restaurants, that they shouldn’t be associated with what Roger called “neo nazis.” According to him, this was “no ANTIFA terror,” it was merely a campaign of sharing information with the right people.
When I asked him specifically what he disliked about Peste Noire, the list seemed endless. He pointed, for example, at their use of “weapons and neonazi symbols,” and how, even though they did not share it in most of their songs, their ideology represented a “risk” for “the public order.” It was bizarre to hear an ANTIFA speak about Public Order, and to see him decry violent symbols, considering the obvious links that ANTIFA organizations have with Punks and Anarchists. I pointed this out to him, but he didn’t see any contradiction. When violent symbols, or violent actions, were used by their side, they were the product of the “courageous ANTIFA collectives,” and so they could not be placed on the same level as right wingers and nationalists.
The cognitive dissonance that Roger demonstrated then, and which he kept up during all of our conversations, shows precisely why we have to be very careful when we deal with organizations which, like his, have taken it upon themselves to police morality and the “public order.” This isn’t mere whataboutism, it’s not that they are not protesting or boycotting other things, but instead that the things that they defend and justify in their own behavior, are the same that they attack in others.
The ridiculous use of weapons in Peste Noire‘s logos, for example, was seen as a terrible, threatening, thing, whereas the use of molotov cocktails, knives, etc., in ANTIFA imagery, was all acceptable. The same could be said of the calls for violence, which ANTIFA will justify and explain away as the “right” kind of violence.
The hypocrisy demonstrated by people like Roger, the ANTIFA collective that led to the cancellation of Peste Noire‘s shows, and the regressive sector of the left who jumps at the opportunity to censor others, is hard to overstate. In reality, it is not that they are against violence, discrimination, or hatred. Instead, they are happy to tolerate all of those things, as long as their targets are the kind of people they consider unacceptable. So-called progressive commentators, for example, are happy to promote music about “bashing” fascists, defining “fascism” in as broad a way as possible, but would recoil at the sight of a “Rock Against Communism” t-shirt.
Just like Nixon once famously said “if the President does it, then it’s not illegal,” these ANTIFA groups and supporters seem to be constantly saying “if we are the ones doing it, then it’s not intolerance, and it’s not violence.”
Killing Music and Killing a Festival
“What the ANTIFA are doing is that they are sabotaging Yngve’s livelihood,” said Toni angrily, referring to the situation of Ygnve Christiansen, the singer of Blood Red Throne and the man in charge of Blastfest. “He has everything on the line here. He has his house, his life, his car, everything. Every single thing. This is personal for him.”
For a group that lives hiding the identity of their members, ANTIFA do not share the same level of concern for the privacy of their targets. They had posted Yngve‘s personal contact information on ANTIFA websites as soon as the boycott started, and the whole thing had definitely taken a toll on him. People familiar with Yngve told me that the stress was getting to him. It didn’t help that dropping Peste Noire (and then losing Horna, who left in solidarity) had turned the festival into a sort of pariah. They were being portrayed as cowards, people who would not stand by their principles.
“People don’t understand what we had to go through,” said Toni. “They just blame us for not standing up for this issue, but we were unable to do it. We cracked under pressure, true, but we wouldn’t have a venue if we had Peste Noire.“
For many observers, sitting comfortably at home, it was easy to lay the blame on the festival, as if there had actually been many choices left to them. True, they could have given a big middle finger to all the catering companies, the hotels, the sponsors, and the venues, but then they’d be left with a very principled festival that could only take place inside their own heads.
The criticisms against Blastfest were also affecting ticket sales. People resented the actions of the organizers, and were then less likely to buy a ticket. There were also others who, seeing that Napalm Death, Peste Noire and Horna were now out of the bill, thought that it was only a matter of time before the whole festival went under. Ironically, Blastfest now even has a new investor behind them, but apparently there were many people out there who simply didn’t believe that it would happen at all.
There were also other problems, and which had to do with the lessons learned from the boycott. Going through something like this is bound to affect you, and with an organization like Blastfest, with investors and sponsors having an economic stake on the matter, it would be foolish to think that nothing at all would happen. I asked Toni whether, because of this whole ordeal, in the future they’d have to be more careful with the bands they book, perhaps staying away from the most controversial ones. He sounded grim as he said “this is what I’m afraid of. I have to think about the economics, the PR… it’s a bigger picture than being able to book the bands you want.”
Toni isn’t alone in this. I share his fear. I’m afraid that situations like what happened at Blastfest will create a kind of chilling effect among promoters and organizers, and who will then lose the incentive to book controversial acts. While in the marketplace of ideas it should be enough to know that there are people interested in hearing you, to be able to justify getting a platform, what the ANTIFA did with Blastfest, and which they have done in the past with writers, musicians, and politicians, is that they want to be the ones controlling who gets to speak.
Even though this story is about Anti-fascist groups, it is important to remember that it is not limited to them. The ANTIFAs base their boycotts (including those where they mistakenly call someone a “Nazi”) on the fact that they are offended by whatever ideas are being promoted on the stage. The issue is that once you accept “I’m offended” as a reason to cancel talks, cancel shows, and deny platforms to your opponents, you also have to know that it’s only a matter of time until the same justification is used against your people and your ideas. Heavy metal started as a rebellious art form, the devil’s music; from the onset it spoke truth to power, and it offended everyone. If we say that it is acceptable that a band like Peste Noire is dropped from a festival because we find their idiotic ideology offensive, how can we deny the same rights to the Christians, Jews and Muslims who might take offense to metal’s often anti religious message.
During one of our talks, Roger mentioned how revolution was a “national symbol” of France, proudly evoking the guillotine being used against their royalty during the French Revolution. Although in his mind the heroes of the French revolution were similar to his ANTIFA coreligionists, I think that his view is a bit shortsighted. Let us not forget, after all, how the same ideas that had propelled the French Revolution were later used in the fratricidal frenzy of the Reign of Terror, a time when the same people who had marched others to meet “the French razor,” found themselves facing it too. The question is whether these 21st Century revolutionaries, these warriors of the Internet, are willing to continue down that same path, and find their own ideas, in time, fall victims to the same guillotine they advocate for others.
We reached out several times to Peste Noire and Horna for comments, but did not receive any responses.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article Toni Törrönen had been listed as “PR Manager,” whereas his correct title is “Festival Manager.” The article has been amended to reflect this.
Update: Added a video companion piece reflecting on the reaction to this article (Jan 31, 2016)
As an ads-free publication, Metal Blast relies exclusively on the support of our readers. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting us via Patreon, or make your Christmas shopping via one of our Amazon affiliate links.