True Kvlt? The Cultural Capital of “Nordicness” in Extreme Metal

Catherine Hoad, Samuel Whiting

Abstract


Introduction

The “North” is given explicitly “Nordic” value in extreme metal, as a vehicle for narratives of identity, nationalism and ideology. However, we also contend that “Nordicness” is articulated in diverse and contradictory ways in extreme metal contexts. We examine Nordicness in three key iterations: firstly, Nordicness as a brand tied to extremity and “authenticity”; secondly, Nordicness as an expression of exclusory ethnic belonging and ancestry; and thirdly, Nordicness as an imagined community of liberal democracy.

In situating Nordicness across these iterations, we call into focus how the value of the “North” in metal discourse unfolds in different contexts with different implications. We argue that “Nordicness” as it is represented in extreme metal scenes cannot be considered as a uniform, essential category, but rather one marked by tensions and paradoxes that undercut the possibility of any singular understanding of the “North”. 

Deploying textual and critical discourse analysis, we analyse what Nordicness is made to mean in extreme metal scenes. Furthermore, we critique understandings of the “North” as a homogenous category and instead interrogate the plural ways in which “Nordic” meaning is articulated in metal. We focus specifically on Nordic Extreme Metal. This subgenre has been chosen with an eye to the regional complexities of the Nordic area in Northern Europe, the popularity of extreme metal in Nordic markets, and the successful global marketing of Nordic metal bands and styles.

We use the term “Nordic” in line with Loftsdóttir and Jensen’s definition, wherein the “Nordic countries” encompass Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland, and the autonomous regions of Greenland: the Faroe Islands and the Aland Islands (3). “Nordic-ness”, they argue, is the cultural identity of the Nordic countries, reified through self-perception, internationalisation and “national branding” (Loftsdóttir and Jensen 2).

In referring to “extreme metal”, we draw from Kahn-Harris’s characterisation of the term. “Extreme metal” represents a cluster of heavy metal subgenres–primarily black metal, death metal, thrash metal, doom metal and grindcore–marked by their “extremity”; their impetus towards “[un]conventional musical aesthetics” (Kahn-Harris 6).

Nonetheless, we remain acutely aware of the complexities that attend both terms. Just as extreme metal itself is “exceptionally diverse” (Kahn-Harris 6) and “constantly developing and reconfiguring” (Kahn-Harris 7), the category of the “Nordic” is also a site of “diverse experiences” (Loftsdóttir & Jensen 3). We seek to move beyond any essentialist understanding of the “Nordic” and move towards a critical mapping of the myriad ways in which the “Nordic” is given value in extreme metal contexts.

Branding the North: Nordicness as Extremity and Authenticity

Metal’s relationship with the Nordic countries has become a key area of interest for both popular and scholarly accounts of heavy metal as the genre has rapidly expanded in the region. The Nordic countries currently boast the highest rate of metal bands per capita (Grandoni). Since the mid-2000s, metal scholars have displayed an accelerated interest in the “cultural aesthetics and identity politics” of metal in Northern Europe (Brown 261). Wider popular interest in Nordic metal has been assisted by the notoriety of the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s, wherein a series of murders and church arsons committed by scene members formed the basis for popular texts such as Moynihan and Søderlind’s book Lords of Chaos and Aites and Ewell’s documentary Until the Light Takes Us.

Invocations of Nordicness in metal music are not a new phenomenon, nor have such allusions been strictly limited to Northern European artists. Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden displayed an interest in Norse mythology, while Venom and Manowar frequently drew on Nordic imagery in their performance and visual aesthetics.

This interest in the North was largely ephemeral–the use of popular Nordic iconography stressed romanticised constructions of the North as a site of masculine liberty, rather than locating such archetypes in a historical context. Such narratives of Nordic masculinity, liberty and heathenry nevertheless become central to heavy metal’s contextual discourses, and point to the ways in which “Nordicness” becomes mobilised as a particular branded category.

Whilst Nordic “branding” for earlier heavy metal bands was largely situated in romantic imaginings of the ancient North, in the late 1980s there emerged “a secondary usage” of Nordic identity and iconography by Northern European metal bands (Trafford & Pluskowski 58). Such “Nordicness” laid far more stress on historical context, national identity and notions of ancestry, and, crucially, a sense of extremity and isolation. This emphasis on metal’s extremity beyond the mainstream has long been a crucial component in the marketing of Nordic scenes.

Such “extremity” is given mutually supportive value as “authenticity”, where the term is understood as a value judgement (Moore 209) applied by audiences to discern if music remains committed to its own premises (Frith 71). Such questions of sincerity and commitment to metal’s core continue to circulate in the discourses of Nordic extreme metal. Sweden’s death metal underground, for example, was considered at “the forefront of one of the most extreme varieties of music yet conceived” (Moynihan and Søderlind 32), with both the Stockholm and Gothenburg “sounds” proving influential beyond Northern Europe (Kahn-Harris 106).

Situating Nordicness as a distinct identity beyond metal’s commercial appeal underscores much of the marketing of Nordic extreme metal to international audiences. Such discourses continue in contemporary contexts–Finland’s official website promotes metal as a form of Finnish art and culture: “By definition, heavy metal fans crave music from outside the mainstream. They champion material that boldly stands out against the normality of pop” (Weaver).

The focus on Nordic metal existing “outside” the mainstream is commensurate with understandings of extreme metal as “on the edge of music” (Kahn-Harris 5). Such sentiments are situated in a wider regional narrative that sees the Nordic region at the geographic “edge” of Europe, as remote and isolated (Grimley 2). The apparent isolation that enables the distinctiveness of “Nordic” forms of extreme metal is, however, potentially undercut by the widespread circulation of “Nordicness” as a particular brand.

“Nordic extreme metal” can be understood as both a generic and place-based scene, where genre and geography “cross cut and coincide in complex ways” (Kahn-Harris 99). The Bergen black metal sound, for example, much like the Gothenburg death metal sound, is both a geographic and stylistic marker that is replicated in different contexts.

This Nordic branding of musical styles is further affirmed by the wider means through which “Nordic”, “Scandinavian” and the “North” become interchangeable frameworks for the marketing of particular styles of extreme metal. “Nordic metal”, Von Helden thus argues, “is a trademark and a best seller” (33).

Nordicness as Exclusory Belonging and Ancestry

Marketing strategies that rely on constructions of Nordic metal as “beyond the mainstream” at once exotify and homogenise the “Nordic”. Sentiments of an “imagined community of Nordicness” (Lucas, Deeks and Spracklen 279) have created problematic boundaries of who, or what, may be represented in such categories.

Understandings of “Nordicness” as a site of generic “purity” (Moynihan and Søderlind 32) are therefore both tacitly and explicitly underscored by projections of ethnic purity and “belonging”. As such, where we have previously considered the cultural capital of the “Nordic” as it emerges as a particular branding exercise, here we examine the exclusory impetus of homogenous understandings of the Nordic.

Nordicness in this context connotes explicitly racialised value, which interpellates images of Viking heathenry to enable fantasies of the pure, white North. This phenomenon is particularly evident in the context of Norwegian black metal, which bases its own self-mythologising in explicitly Nordic parameters. Norwegian black metal bands and members of the broader scene have often taken steps to continually affirm their Nordicness through various representational strategies. The widespread church burnings associated with the early Norwegian black metal scene, for instance, can be framed as a radical rejection of Christianity and an embracing of Norway’s Viking, pagan past.

The ethnoromanticisation of Nordic regions and landscapes is underscored by problematic projections of national belonging. An interest in pagan mythology, as Kahn-Harris notes, can easily become an interest in racism and fascism (41). The “uncritical celebration of pagan pasts, the obsession with the unpolluted countryside and the distrust of the cosmopolitan city” that mark much Norwegian black metal were also common features of early fascist and racist movements (Kahn-Harris 41).

Norwegian black metal has thus been able to link the genre, as a global music commodity, to “the conscious revival of myths and ideologies of an ancient northern European history and nationalist culture” (Lucas, Deeks and Spracklen 279). The conscious revival of such myths materialised in the early Norwegian scene in deliberately racist sentiments. Mayhem drummer Jan Axel Blomberg (“Hellhammer”) demonstrates this in his brief declaration that “Black metal is for white people” (in Moynihan and Søderlind 305); similarly, Darkthrone’s original back cover of Transylvanian Hunger (1994) prominently featured the phrase “Norsk Arisk Black Metal” (“Norwegian Aryan Black Metal”). Nordicness as exclusory white, Aryan identity is further mobilised in the National Socialist Black Metal scene, which readily caters to ontological constructions of Nordic whiteness (Spracklen, True Aryan; Hagen).

However, Nordicness is also given racialised value in more tacit, but nonetheless troubling ways in wider Nordic folk and Viking metal scenes. The popular association of Vikings with Nordic folk metal has enabled such figures to be dismissed as performative play or camp romanticism, ostensibly removed from the extremity of black metal. Such metal scenes and their appeals to ethnosymbolic patriarchs nevertheless remain central to the ongoing construction of Nordic metal as a site that enables the instrumentality of Northern European whiteness precisely through hiding such whiteness in plain sight (Spracklen, To Holmgard, 359).

The ostensibly “camp” performance of bands such as Sweden’s Amon Amarth, Faroese act Týr, or Finland’s Korpiklaani distracts from the ways in which Nordicness, and its realisations through Viking and Pagan symbolism, emerges as a claim to ethnic exclusivity. Through imagining the Viking as an ancestral, genetic category, the “common past” of the Nordic people is constructed as a self-identity apart from other people (Blaagaard 11).

Furthermore, the “Viking” itself has cultural capital that has circulated beyond Northern Europe in both inclusive and exclusive ways. Nordic symbolism and mythologies are invoked within the textual aesthetics of heavy metal communities across the globe–there are Viking metal bands in Australia, for instance. Further, the valorising of the “North” in metal discourse draws on the symbols of particular ethnic traditions to give historicity and local meaning to white identity.

Lucas, Deeks and Spracklen map the rhetorical power of the “North” in English folk metal. However, the same international flows of Nordic cultural capital that have allowed for the success and distinctiveness of Nordic extreme metal have also enabled the proliferation of increasingly exclusionary practices. A flyer signed by the “Wiking Hordes” in May of 1995 (in Moynihan and Søderlind 327) warns that the expansion of black and death metal into Asia, Eastern Europe and South America posed a threat to the “true Aryan” metal community.

Similarly, online discussions of the documentary Pagan Metal, in which an interviewee states that a Brazilian Viking metal band is “a bit funny”, shifted between assertions that enjoyment should not be restricted by cultural heritage and declarations that only Nordic bands could “legitimately” support Viking metal. Giving Nordicness value as a form of insular, ethnic belonging has therefore had exclusory and problematic implications for how metal scenes market their dominant symbols and narratives, particularly as scenes continue to grow and diversify across multiple national contexts.

Nordicness as Liberal Democracy

Nordicness in heavy metal, as we have argued, has been ascribed cultural capital as both a branded, generic phenomenon and as a marker of ancestral, ethnonational belonging. Understandings of “Nordic” as an exclusory ethnic category marked by strict boundaries however come into conflict with the Nordic region’s self-perceptions as a liberal democracy.

We propose an additional iteration for “Nordicness” as a means of pointing to the tensions that emerge between particular metallic imaginings of the “North” as a remote, uncompromising site of pagan liberty, and the material realities of modern Nordic nation states. We consider some new parameters for articulations of “Nordicness” in metal scenes: Nordicness as material and political conditions that have enabled the popularity of heavy metal in the region, and furthermore, the manifestations of such liberal democratic discourses in Nordic extreme metal scenes.

Nordicness as a cultural, political brand is based in perceptions of the Nordic countries as “global good citizens”, “peace loving”, “conflict-resolution oriented” and “rational” (Loftsdóttir and Jensen 2). This modern conception of Nordicness is grounded in the region’s current political climate, which took its form in the post-World War II rejection of fascism and the following refugee crisis.

Northern Europe’s reputation as a “famously tolerant political community” (Dworkin 487) can therefore be seen, one on hand, as a crucial disconnect from the intolerant North mediated by factions of Nordic extreme metal scenes and on the other, a political community that provides the material conditions which allow extreme metal to flourish. Nordicness here, we argue, is a crucial form of scenic infrastructure–albeit one that has been both celebrated and condemned in the sites and spaces of Nordic extreme metal.

The productivity and stability of extreme metal in the Nordic countries has been attributed to a variety of institutional factors: the general relative prosperity of Northern Europe (Terry), Scandinavian legal structures (Maguire 156), universal welfare, high levels of state support for cultural development, and a broad emphasis on musical education in schools.

Kahn-Harris argues that the Swedish metal scene is supported by the strength of the Swedish music industry and “Swedish civil society in general” (108). Music education is strongly supported by the state; Sweden’s relatively generous welfare and education system also “provide [an] effective subsidy for music making” (108). Furthermore, he argues that the Swedish scene has benefited from being closer to the “cultural mainstream of the country than is the case in many other countries” (108). Such close relationships to the “cultural mainstream” also invite a critical backlash against the state. The anarchistic anti-government stance of Swedish hardcore bands or the radical individualism of Norwegian black metal embodies this backlash.

Early black metal is seen as a targeted response to the “oppressive and numbing social democracy which dominated Norwegian political life” (Moynihan and Søderlind 32). This spurning of social democracy is further articulated by Darkthrone founder Fenriz, who states that black metal “…is every man for himself… It is individualism above all” (True Norwegian Black Metal). Nordic extreme metal’s emphasis on independence and anti-modernity is hence immediately troubled by the material reality of the conditions that allow it to flourish. Nordicness thus gains complex realisation as both radical individualism and democratic infrastructural conditions.

In looking towards future directions for expressions of the “Nordic” in extreme metal scenes, we want to consider how Nordicness can be articulated not as exclusory ethnic belonging and individualist misanthropy, but rather illustrate how Nordic scenes have also proffered sites for progressive, anti-racist discourses that speak to the cultural branding of the North as a tolerant political community.

Imaginings of the North as ethnically homogenous or pure are complicated by Nordic bands and fans who actively critique such racialised discourses, and instead situate “Nordic” metal as a site of heterogeneity and anti-racist activism. The liberal politics of the region are most clearly articulated in the music of Swedish hardcore and extreme metal bands, particularly those originating in the northern university town of Umeå. Like much of Europe’s underground music scene, Umeå hardcore bands are often aligned with the anti-fascist movement and its message of tolerance and active anti-racist, anti-homophobic and anti-sexist resistance and protest. Refused is the most well-known example, speaking out against capitalism and in favour of animal rights and civil liberties. Scandinavian DIY acts have also long played a crucial role in facilitating the global diffusion of anti-capitalist punk and hardcore music (Haenfler 287).

Nonetheless, whilst such acts remain important sites of progressive discourses in homogenous constructions of Nordicness, such an argument for tolerance and diversity is difficult to maintain when the majority of the scene’s successful bands are made up of white, ethnically Scandinavian men. As such, in moving towards future considerations for Nordicness in extreme metal scenes, we thus call into focus a fragmentation of “Nordicness”, precisely to divorce it from homogenous constructions of the “Nordic”, and enable greater critical interrogation and plurality of the notion of the “North” in metal scholarship.

Conclusion

This article has pointed towards a multiplicity of Nordic discourses that unfold in metal: Nordic as a marketing tool, Nordic as an ethnic signifier, and Nordic as the political reality of liberal democratic Northern Europe–and the tensions that emerge in their encounters and intersections. In arguing for multiple understandings of “Nordicness” in metal, we contend that the cultural capital that accompanies the “Nordic” actually emerges as a series of fragmented, often conflicting categories.

In examining how images of the North as an isolated location at the edge of the world inform the branded construction of Nordic metal as sites of presumed authenticity, we considered how scenes such as Swedish death metal and Norwegian black metal were marketed precisely through their Nordicness, where their geographic isolation from the commercial centre of heavy metal was used to affirm their “Otherness” to their mainstream metal counterparts. This “otherness” has in turn enabled constructions of Nordic metal scenes as sites of not only metallic purity in their isolation from “commercial” metal scenes, but also ethnic homogeneity. Nordicness, in this instance, becomes inscribed with explicitly racialised value that interpellates images of Viking heathenry to bolster phantasmic imaginings of the pure, white North.

However, as we argue in the third section, such exclusory narratives of Nordic belonging come into conflict with Northern Europe’s own self image as a site of progressive liberal democracy. We argue that Nordicness here can be taken as a political imperative towards socialist democracy, wherein such conditions have enabled the widespread viability of extreme metal; yet also invited critical backlashes against the modern political state.

Ultimately, in responding to our own research question–what is the cultural capital of “Nordicness” in metal?–we assert that such capital is realised in multiple iterations, undermining any possibility of a uniform category of “Nordicness”, and exposing its political tensions and paradoxes. In doing so, we argue that “Nordicness”, as it is represented in heavy metal scenes, cannot be considered a uniform, essential category, but rather one marked by tensions and paradoxes that undercut the possibility of any singular understanding of the “North”. 

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Keywords


Nordicness, cultural capital, heavy metal



Copyright (c) 2018 Catherine Hoad, Samuel Whiting

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