There are two kinds of people* – those who like forewords, introductions, prefaces, author’s notes, footnotes, appendices, bibliographies, notes on the text, maps etc, and those who don’t. But we’ll get back to that shortly.

* there are more than two kinds of people. Possibly infinite kinds of people. Or maybe there’s only one kind; I’m never sure

A few times recently, I’ve come across the idea (which I think is mainly an American academic one, but I might be completely mistaken about that) that parentheses should only be used when you really have to (but when do you really have to?) because anything that is surplus to the requirements of the main thrust of one’s text is surplus to requirements full stop, and should be left out. But that’s wrong. The criticism can be and is extended to anything that interrupts the flow* of the writing. But that is also wrong. Unless you happen to be writing a manual or a set of directions or instructions, writing isn’t (or needn’t be) a purely utilitarian pursuit and the joy of reading (or of writing) isn’t in how quickly or efficiently (whatever that means in this context) you can do it. Aside from technical writing, the obvious example where economy just may be valuable is poetry – which however is different and should probably have been included in a footnote, because footnotes are useful for interrupting text without separating the point you’re making (in a minute) from the point you’re commenting on or adding to (a few sentences ago), without other, different stuff getting in the way.

*like this¹                                                                                                                                                                ¹but bear in mind that people don’t write footnotes by accident – the interruption is deliberate²                        ²and sometimes funny

Poly-Olbion – that’s how you write a title page to pull in the readers

I would argue (though the evidence of a lot of poetry itself perhaps argues against me – especially the Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion kind of poetry that I’m quite fond of) that a poem should be** the most economical or at least the most effective way of saying what you have to say – but who’s to say that economical and effective are the same thing anyway?)

** poets, ignore this; there is no should be




Clearly (yep), the above is a needlessly convoluted way of writing, and can be soul-achingly annoying to read; but – not that this is an effective defence – I do it on purpose. As anyone who’s read much here before will know, George Orwell is one of my all-time favourite writers, and people love to quote his six rules for writing, but while I would certainly follow them if writing a news story or article where brevity is crucial, otherwise I think it’s more sensible to pick and choose. So;

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Absolutely; although sometimes you would use them because they are familiar, if making a specific point, or being amusing. Most people, myself included, just do it by accident; because where does the dividing line fall? In this paragraph I have used “by accident” and “dividing line” which seem close to being commonly used figures of speech (but then so does “figure of speech”). But would “accidentally” or something like “do it without thinking” be better than “by accident?” Maybe.

Never use a long word where a short one will do. The key point here is will do. In any instance where a writer uses (for example) the word “miniscule” then “small” or “tiny” would probably “do”. But depending on what it is they are writing about, miniscule or microscopic might “do” even better. Go with the best word, not necessarily the shortest.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Note that Orwell wrote ‘always’ here where he could just have said If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out. Not everything is a haiku, George.

Never use the passive where you can use the active. Surely it depends what you’re writing? If you are trying, for instance, to pass the blame for an assault from a criminal on to their victim, you might want a headline that says “X stabbed after drug and alcohol binge” rather than “Celebrity kills X.” You kind of see Orwell’s point though.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. Both agree and disagree; as a mostly monolingual person I agree, but some words and phrases (ironically, usually ones in French, a language I have never learned and feel uncomfortable trying to pronounce; raison d’etre or enfant terrible for example) just say things more quickly and easily (I can be utilitarian too) than having to really consider and take the time to say what you mean. They are a shorthand that people in general understand. Plus, in the age of smartphones, it really doesn’t do native English speakers any harm to have to look up the meanings of foreign words occasionally (I do this a lot). The other side of the coin (a phrase I’m used to seeing in print) is that with foreign phrases is it’s funny to say them in bad translations like “the Tour of France” (which I guess must be correct) or “piece of resistance” (which I am pretty sure isn’t) so as long as you are understood (assuming that you want to be understood) use them any way you like.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. It’s hard to guess what George Orwell would have considered outright barbarous (and anyway, couldn’t he have cut “outright”?) but anyone reading books from even 30, 50 or a hundred years ago quickly sees that language evolves along with culture, so that rules – even useful ones – rarely have the permanence of commandments.

So much for Orwell’s rules; I was more heartened to find that something I’ve instinctively done – or not done – is supported by Orwell elsewhere. That is, that I prefer, mostly in the name of cringe-avoidance, not to use slang that post-dates my own youth. Even terms that have become part of normal mainstream usage (the most recent one is probably “woke”) tend to appear with inverted commas if I feel like I must use them, because if it’s not something I would be happy to say out loud (I say “woke” with inverted commas too) then I’d prefer not to write it. There is no very logical reason for this and words that I do comfortably use are no less subject to the whims of fashion, but still; the language you use is part of who you are, and I think Orwell makes a very good case here, (fuller version far below somewhere because even though I have reservations about parts of it it ends very well):

“Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. This is an illusion, and one should recognise it as such, but one ought also to stick to one’s world-view, even at the price of seeming old-fashioned: for that world-view springs out of experiences that the younger generation has not had, and to abandon it is to kill one’s intellectual roots.”

Review of A Coat of Many Colours: Occasional Essays by Herbert Read. (1945) The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 4. Penguin 1968, p.72 

the fold-out map in The Silmarillion is a thing of beauty

Back to those two kinds* of people: I am the kind of person that likes and reads forewords, introductions, prefaces, author’s notes, footnotes, appendices, bibliographies, notes on the text, maps and all of those extras that make a book more interesting/informative/tedious.


*I know.


In one of my favourite films, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990), the protagonist Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), says “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.” Well, that is not me; but I do love a good bit of criticism and analysis as well as a good novel. One of my favourite ever pieces of writing of any kind, which I could, but choose not to recite parts of by heart, is the late Anne Barton’s introduction to the 1980 New Penguin Shakespeare edition of Hamlet*. I love Hamlet, but I’ve read Barton’s introduction many more times than I’ve read the play itself, to the point where phrases and passages have become part of my mind’s furniture. It’s a fascinating piece of writing, because Professor Barton had a fascinating range and depth of knowledge, as well as a passion for her subject; but also and most importantly because she was an excellent writer. If someone is a good enough writer**, you don’t even have to be especially interested in the subject to enjoy what they write. Beyond the introduction/footnote but related in a way are the review and essay. Another of my favourite books – mentioned elsewhere I’m sure, as it’s one of the reasons that I have been working as a music writer for the past decade and a half, is Charles Shaar Murray’s Shots from the Hip, a collection of articles and reviews. The relevant point here is that more than half of its articles – including some of my favourites – are about musicians whose work I’m quite keen never to hear under any circumstances, if humanly possible. Similarly, though I find it harder to read Martin Amis’s novels than I used to (just changing taste, not because I think they are less good), I love the collections of his articles, especially The War Against Cliché and Visiting Mrs Nabokov. I already go on about Orwell too much, but as I must have said somewhere, though I am a fan of his novels, it’s the journalism and criticism that he probably thought of as ephemeral that appeals to me the most.

*All of the New Penguin Shakespeare introductions that I’ve read have been good, but that is in a different league. John Dover Wilson’s What Happens in Hamlet (1935, though the edition I have mentions WW2 in the introduction, as I remember; I like the introduction) is sometimes easy to disagree with but it has a similar excitement-of-discovery tone as Anne Barton’s essay

** Good enough, schmood enough; what I really mean is if you like their writing enough. The world has always been full of good writers whose work leaves me cold

a scholarly approach to comics

All this may have started, as I now realise that lots of things seem to in my writing did, with Tolkien. From the first time I read his books myself, I loved that whatever part of Middle-Earth and its people you were interested in, there was always more to find out. Appendices, maps, whole books like The Silmarillion which extended the enjoyment and deepened the immersion in Tolkien’s imaginary world. And they were central to that world – for Tolkien, mapping Middle-Earth was less making stuff up than it was a detailed exploration of something he had already at least half imagined. Maybe because I always wanted to be a writer myself – and here I am, writing – whenever I’ve really connected with a book, I’ve always wanted to know more. I’ve always been curious about the writer, the background, the process. I’ve mentioned Tintin lots of times in the past too and my favourite Tintin books were, inevitably, the expanded editions which included Herge’s sketches and ideas, the pictures and objects and texts that inspired him. I first got one of those Tintin books when I was 9 or so, but as recently as the last few years I bought an in many ways similar expanded edition of one of my favourite books as an adult, JG Ballard’s Crash. It mirrors the Tintins pretty closely; explanatory essays, sketches, notes, ephemera, all kinds of related material. Now just imagine how amazing a graphic novel of Crash in the Belgian ligne claire style would be.*

*a bit like Frank Miller and Geof Darrow’s fantastic-looking but not all that memorable Hard Boiled (1990-92) I guess, only with fewer robots-with-guns shenanigans and more Elizabeth Taylor

a scholarly approach to cautionary 1970s semi-pornography/horror: the expanded Crash

A good introduction or foreword is (I think) important for a collection of poems or a historical text of whatever kind. Background and context and, to a lesser extent, analysis expand the understanding and enjoyment of those kinds of things. An introduction for a modern novel though is a slightly different thing and different also from explanatory notes, appendices and footnotes and it’s probably not by chance that they mainly appear in translations or reprints of books that already enjoyed some kind of zeitgeisty success. When I first read Anne Barton’s introduction to Hamlet, I already knew what Hamlet was about, more or less. And while I don’t think “spoilers” are too much of an issue with fiction (except for whodunnits, which I have so far not managed to enjoy), do you really want to be told what to think of a book before you read it? But a really good introduction will never tell you that. If in doubt, read them afterwards!

Some authors, and many readers, see all of these extraneous things as excess baggage, surplus to requirements, which obviously they really are, and that’s fair enough. If the main text of a novel, a play or whatever, can’t stand on its own then no amount of post-production scaffolding will make it satisfactory.* And presumably, many readers pass their entire lives without finding out or caring why the author wrote what they wrote, or what a book’s place in the pantheon of literature (or just “books”) is. Even as unassailably best-selling an author as Stephen King tends to be a little apologetic about the author’s notes that end so many of his books, despite the fact that nobody who doesn’t read them will ever know that he’s apologetic. Still; I for one would like to assure his publisher that should they ever decide to put together all of those notes, introductions and prefaces in book form, I’ll buy it. But would Stephen King be tempted to write an introduction for it?


* though of course it could still be interesting, like Kafka’s Amerika, Jane Austen’s Sanditon or Tolkien and Hergé (them again) with Unfinished Tales or Tintin and Alph-Art


That Orwell passage in full(er):

“Clearly the young and middle aged ought to try to appreciate one another. But one ought also to recognise that one’s aesthetic judgement is only fully valid between fairly well-defined dates. Not to admit this is to throw away the advantage that one derives from being born into one’s own particular time. Among people now alive there are two very sharp dividing lines. One is between those who can and can’t remember the period before 1914; the other is between those who were adults before 1933 and those who were not.* Other things being equal, who is likely to have a truer vision at the moment, a person of twenty or a person of fifty? One can’t say, though on some points posterity may decide. Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. This is an illusion, and one should recognise it as such, but one ought also to stick to one’s world-view, even at the price of seeming old-fashioned: for that world-view springs out of experiences that the younger generation has not had, and to abandon it is to kill one’s intellectual roots.”

*nowadays, the people who can or can’t remember life before the internet and those who were adults before 9/11? Or the Trump presidency? Something like that seems right



2024 – welcome to the/a future(s)


Another year – and the actual name of the year itself gets ever stranger and more unlikely and exotically futuristic, if you grew up in the era when the film 2001: A Space Odyssey was still set in the future. And here’s the annual attempt to get something onto this site at the beginning of the year – just made it in the first week this time – and hopefully, to post more often. The goal is a minimum of once a month but I think goals are better than resolutions so that’s as far as I will go.

2023 was the usual mixed bag of things; I didn’t see any of the big movies of the year yet. I have watched half of Saltburn, which so far makes me think of the early books of Martin Amis, especially Dead Babies (1975) and Success (1978) – partly because I read them again after he died last year. They are both still good/nasty/funny, especially Success, but whereas I find that having no likeable characters in a book is one thing, and doesn’t stop the book from being entertaining, watching unlikeable characters in a film is different – more like spending time with actual unlikeable people, perhaps because – especially in a film like Saltburn – you can only guess at their motivations and inner life. So, the second half of Saltburn remains unwatched – but I liked it enough that I will watch it.

Grayson Perry – The Walthamstow Tapestry (detail)

I didn’t see many exhibitions last year but am very glad that I caught Grayson Perry’s Smash Hits in Edinburgh. I didn’t really plan to see it as assumed in advance I wouldn’t like it, but in fact I loved it and ended up having a new respect for GP that only partly evaporates whenever I see him on TV.

Kristin Hersh by Peter Mellekas

I can’t be bothered going in depth about my favourite music of the year because the year is over and I’ve written about most it elsewhere. Old teenage favourites came back strongly: Kristin Hersh’s superb run of albums continued with Clear Pond Road. I hadn’t thought a lot about Slowdive in years but I really liked Everything is Alive and was very pleased to see them get the kind of acclaim that mostly eluded them when I was buying their first album a million years ago. Teenage Fanclub’s Nothing Lasts Forever and Drop Nineteens’ Hard Light were good too, and The Girl is Crying in her Latte by Sparks was probably my favourite of theirs outside of their early 70s classics. There were some excellent black metal (or black metal-related) albums too; much as I don’t like to think of Immortal without Abbath, Demonaz did himself proud with War Against All. Niklas Kvarforth returned to form with the brilliant Shining and Skálmöld’s Ýdalir is as good as anything they’ve recorded. In less guitar-oriented genres, I loved Kid Koala’s Creatures of the Late Afternoon and the latest Czarface record but my favourite album of the year if I had to choose one was the loveably lo-fi and enigmatic compilation Gespensterland.

I read lots of good books in 2023 – I started keeping a list but forgot about it at some point – but the two that stand out in my memory as my favourites are both non-fiction. Lauren Elkin’s Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art  is completely engrossing and full of exciting ways of really looking at pictures. I wrote at length about Elena Kostyuchenko’s I Love Russia here. Kostyuchenko introduced me to a country that I only knew via history and stereotypes and her book is an exercise in what good journalism should be – informative, interesting, compassionate and readable. Both of these books cut across a wide range of subjects and examine unfamiliar things but also analyse the familiar from unfamiliar points of view; you should read them, if you haven’t already.


It’s no great surprise to me that my favourite books of the year would be – like much of my favourite art – by women. Though I think the individual voice is crucial in all of the arts, individuals don’t grow in a vacuum and because female (and, more widely, non-male) voices and viewpoints have always been overlooked, excluded, marginalised and/or patronised, women and those outside of the standard, traditional male authority figures more generally, tend to have more interesting and insightful perspectives than the ‘industry standard’ artist or commentator does. The first time that thought really struck me was when I was a student, reading about Berlin Dada and finding that Hannah Höch was obviously a much more interesting and articulate artist than (though I love his work too) her partner Raoul Hausmann, but that Hausmann had always occupied a position of authority and a reputation as an innovator, where she had little-to-none. And the more you look the more you see examples of the same thing. In fact, because women occupied – and in many ways still occupy – more culturally precarious positions than men, that position informs their work – thinking for example of artists like Leonora Carrington, Kay Sage or – a bigger name now – Frida Kahlo – giving it layers of meaning inaccessible to – because unexperienced by – their male peers.

The fact that women know more about themselves but also more about men than men do – because they have always had to – gives their work an emotional and intellectual charge often missing from those who belong comfortably within a tradition. This is a pretty well-worn idea – it’s why outsiders like Van Gogh or dropouts like Gauguin’s work speaks to us more clearly than the academic, tradition-bound art that they grew up with. Anybody on the margins, in whatever sense, of “mainstream society” has to have a working knowledge of that society, just to exist. Society has far less need to understand or even notice those people. – therefore their points of view are likely to not only be more individual, but more acute when it comes to observing the world in which they live. Class, race, gender; all of these things are always fascinatingly central to art and art history and the gradual recognition of that fact is making art history ever more exciting and vibrant. For now at least; we live in a time of conservative backlashes which attempt to restore order to those with a comfortable position within yesterday’s world – there will probably be an art historical backlash at some point, and the reputations of the mainstream stars of art in Van Gogh and Gauguin’s day, like William-Adolphe Bouguereau will find their reputations restored.

If that backlash comes, it will be from the academic equivalent of those figures who, in 2023 continued to dominate the cultural landscape. These are conservative (even if theoretically radical) people who pride themselves on their superior rational, unsentimental and “common sense” outlook, but whose views tend to have a surprising amount in common with some of the more wayward religious cults. Subscribing to shallowly Darwinist ideas, but only insofar as they reinforce one’s own prejudices and somehow never feeling the need to follow them to their logical conclusions is not new, but it’s very now. Underlying  ideas like the ‘survival of the fittest’, which then leads to the more malevolent idea of discouraging the “weak” in society by abolishing any kind of social structure that might support them is classic conservatism in an almost 19th century way, but somehow it’s not surprising to see these views gaining traction in the discourse of the apparently futuristic world of technology. In more that one way, these kinds of traditionalist, rigidly binary political and social philosophies work exactly like religious cults, with their apparently arbitrary cut off points for when it was that progress peaked/halted and civilisation turned bad. That point varies; but to believe things were once good but are now bad must always be problematic, because when, by any objective standards, was everything good, or were even most things good? For a certain class of British politician that point seems to have been World War Two, which kind of requires one to ignore actual World War Two. But the whole of history is infected by this kind of thinking – hence strange, disingenuous debates about how bad/how normal Empite, colonialism or slavery were; incidentially, you don’t even need to read the words of abolitionists or slaves themselves (though both would be good to read) to gain a perspective of whether or not slavery was  considered ‘normal’ or bad by the standards of the time. Just look at the lyrics to Britain’s most celebratory, triumphalist song of the 18th century, Rule Britannia. James Thomson didn’t write “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves; though there’s nothing inherently wrong with slavery.” They knew it was something shameful, something to be dreaded, even while celebrating it.

But anyways, the kind of avowedly forward-looking people we that are saddled with now, with their apparent concern for the future of the human species – especially the wellbeing of thus far non-existent future humans, as opposed to actual real living humans are, unlike the Amish, okay with progress, in the material sense of cars, computers, aircraft, spacecraft. But that only makes their core concern with traditional values and what is natural/unnatural even more nonsensical. If the defining thing about human beings is nature – men are like this, but not like that, women are like that, but not this; that nature dictates that compassion and medical science ate wasted on the weak and inferior, etc, then why draw the line at controlling gender and reproduction? Why get excited about the use of vaccines, or whether or not people “should” eat meat? If nature/”natural” really is the be all end all of human existence, why wear clothes, drive cars, cook food, use computers, build houses?  At what point does nature dictate what we do or can or should do? Isn’t everything humans do inherently natural because we have the capacity to do it and actually do do it?

Again, despite the supposed rationalism that fuels the superiority complexes of so many powerful people in whatever sector, their bullshit traditional ideas are dictated against – and always have been – by the lived experience of almost everyone in the world. If ‘real men’ are strong, rational and above all heterosexual, how come most of us will have met, throughout our lives, emotional, irrational men who can’t cope with pressure, who aren’t in control of themselves or their environment? How come homosexuality has existed since the beginning of recorded time and does not go away no matter how traditional or repressive society becomes or how much generation after generation insists that it is unnatural? If ‘real women’ are weak, gentle, sentimental, maternal, submissive and above all heterosexual, how come (etc, etc, etc, etc) Because of decadent western society? Well Western society is partly founded on the ideas of Ancient Greece, which though pretty misogynistic, famously did not have quite the same views on sexuality. And how come these people equally exist in every other society too? Could it be that traditional ideas of ‘human nature’ have nothing to do with actual nature but have always existed in western patriarchal societies simply to reinforce the status quo in the interests of those at the top of the hierarchical tree? From monarchies to oligarchies to modern democracies and communist states – all of which have their own ruling class, even when it is explicitly labelled otherwise – it’s been in the interest of those in charge to prevent anything which fundamentally changes the way things work.

For similar reasons, people in western society (perhaps elsewhere; I am no expert) who live unremarkable and mediocre lives within essentially complacent, and often apolitical circles are increasingly drawn to right rather than left wing extremism to gain prominence and (importantly) material success. Extremist views across the spectrum are entertainingly “edgy” and titillating to people who like to be entertained by controversy and/or shocked by outrageous behaviour, but right-wing views are far more acceptable within the media – and therefore are far more lucrative and rewarding – because they don’t threaten the financial basis that underpins the media and political structure.

So in short – only joking, this will be a long sentence (deep breath). If comedian or podcaster A) gains millions of followers who are excited about disruptive ideas that undermine the state by questioning the validity of the (sigh) mainstream media, by interrogating ideas of media ownership and the accumulation of wealth and power and so on, that represents a genuine threat to Rupert Murdoch, Viscount Rothermere, Meta and Elon Musk in a way that comedian or podcaster B), gaining millions of followers who lean towards ideas that disrupt society by attacking progressive, egalitarian or (sigh) “woke” culture does not. Regardless of the actual or avowed political beliefs of these media magnates, is comedian/podcaster A or comedian/podcaster B going to be the one they champion in order to tap into the zeitgeist (which media magnates have to do to survive)?

BUT ANYWAY, it would be nice to think that these things would be less central or at least more ignorable in 2024. It would also be nice if people in power could not enable the worst elements in society (where the two things are separable). It would be more than nice if the governments of the world would listen to people and end the butchering of helpless civilians. It’s important to remember that it is in the interests of governments – even relatively benign ones – that people in general feel powerless. But we’re not. If making resolutions works for you then make them, if not then don’t, if you have goals then aim for those and you may achieve something even if not everything you want to achieve. But if something is unacceptable to you, don’t accept it. You may have money, power, time or you may have little more than your own body and/or your own mind, but those are 100% yours and the most important things of all. Happy New Year and good luck!

NSBM (and possibly NSFW)

 bmhitlerIt’s not National, to my knowledge it’s rarely socialist, but it mostly is black metal; National Socialist Black Metal (hereafter, NSBM) annoys people by being ‘too evil’, or at least evil in the wrong way. As the snuff movie is to the horror movie, it seems, NSBM is to BM. There are a couple of flaws in this analogy; firstly, it suggests that black metal in general is, like horror movies, some kind of fantasy (which it certainly often is, but isn’t necessarily) and secondly, that NSBM isn’t some kind of fantasy (see previous parentheses). The Nazis of World War 2 probably represent the ‘ultimate evil’ to people of the post-war generations, because whereas even the worst serial killers of the 20th century ‘worked’ on an individual, localised scale, the Nazis made murder into an ideology and ultimately an industry; that is, they functioned in ways that are relevant and relate-able to the daily lives and experiences of most people; the mundane quality of extermination, of ‘death factories’ is ultimately more frightening than a lone maniac. So is Nazi black metal the embodiment of that evil and therefore the ultimate in musical terrorism? Let’s see…

Defining NSBM

Let me be clear; I am not discussing heathen/pagan/folk BM that may or may not be perceived to have a Nazi angle to it; interesting though that scene is (and Graveland is the classic example of a sometimes great band whose career has been blighted by the media’s – and indeed the band’s own – inability to differentiate between history and ideology) the term ‘Nazi’ is too specific and anachronistic to be very useful when discussing paganism, heritage etc. Here, I am more concerned with bands whose work fully intends to glorify that specific NS ideology, and whose output can be represented by artwork like this:



The first question is, is NSBM any good? Just like any black metal, the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. On occasion, the mixture of the classic sound of orthodox BM with the particular (and let’s not beat around the bush, racist and especially, anti-Semitic) kind of extreme bile that a Nazi band projects can be extremely effective. Even a modestly-talented middle-of-the-road orthodox BM band like Poland’s Ohtar were able to make something nightmarishly gripping out of tunes that, had they been devoted to Satan, would have just been too familiar. In that (but not only that) respect, NSBM is comparable to Christian Black Metal – it may sometimes be okay as sound, but that doesn’t make it right.


Given the existence of such subgenres as ambient BM and folk BM, perhaps the only essential ingredient of black metal is Satanism, in one form or another; and the good thing about Satanism is that it can mean many things to many people. Therefore you have the kind of religious goats ‘n’ horns Satanism that is the polar opposite of Christian metal, exemplified I guess by Watain. Related, but not necessarily requiring any religious belief, there is Lucifer, the fallen angel, analogous to humankind; the cosmic light-bringer with the key to forbidden knowledge. As the philosophical figure of the adversary, Satan can simply be seen as the ultimate rebel; the perfect icon for black metal.

Misanthropy: a group activity?


In fact, some of the best black metal, even by those with Nazi links (Burzum being the best and most obvious example) is metaphysical and above all personal. Like any music that people put their souls into, BM isn’t ‘just music’ – and no-one could deny that in the early 90s, people like Dead and Varg Vikernes lived the music they made. Whatever his political views were or are, Varg Vikernes has the sense to realise that, while his views may be shared by many, his thoughts and feelings are his alone and at its best, Burzum’s music is an expression of those feelings. Filosofem, probably his finest work, expresses a kind of solitary desolation through lyrics that are almost abstract in their elemental bareness, making it endlessly appealing to those metal fans (and not just metal fans) who feel alienated from modern urban society and the mainstream music scene.

As an alternative (or even an accompaniment) to this kind of individualistic Satanic philosophy, National Socialism is highly inadequate; it’s too specific, too political, too ephemeral, too small. Anyone reading Mein Kampf can have no doubt that, to Adolf Hitler, National Socialism was a deeply felt personal philosophy. But anyone following it now should be aware that that’s exactly what they are doing – following someone else’s ideology, living someone else’s dream. Not to be too dictatorial about it, but surely although BM isn’t all that some of its proponents make it out to be, following a failed idea from the recent past is fundamentally not what the genre is supposed to be about.

Wolfenhords+107665_photoAnother key band who helped to ignite the idea of NSBM while definitely not belonging to it were Darkthrone, but as is obvious from looking at their work, their brief flirtation with the language of NS, even evaluated from a politically neutral point of view, actually undermined the impact of their music. The album which caused the controversy is also the one which cemented the band’s reputation as scene leaders, despite the fact that it is significantly weaker than the two which preceded it; 1993’s Transilvanian Hunger. The title track is one of the band’s best ever songs, but it also helps to illustrate where they went wrong. The (not surprisingly) vampiric lyrics are classic black metal, an almost romantic view of misanthropy, forever making cold one of the keywords of the genre. The narrator is utterly divorced not only from society but from humanity. And yet, at the same time as putting forward this image of inhumanity/antihumanity, the band chose, famously, to include the statement Norsk Arisk Black Metal (‘Norwegian Aryan Black Metal’) on the album’s sleeve. What the Aryan or Iranian (or Indo-European or however you choose to interpret ‘Aryan’) people have to do with Norway is anyone’s guess, and if we are to presume that the vampire of Transilvanian Hunger believes in some kind of racialist ideology it can only undermine the song with baggage it most definitely doesn’t need. Which raises another problem with National Socialist ideology in relation to BM; it’s too nice.

Nazism is too nice

This statement clearly needs elaboration. Misanthropy, whether or not it is a viable design for life, is all-encompassing. Nazism is definitively unpleasant, but – examining even the term ‘National Socialism’ – it most definitely cannot be said to be anti-social, let alone misanthropic. Therefore NSBM, although at first it may seem like the ne plus ultra of darkness, actually has a reductive effect compared to the stance of the classic ‘second wave’ of BM. As a misanthrope, you can’t ‘belong’, to be a member of some kind of elite society, you must ‘belong’. Sweet.

The Inclusiveness of true evil?

Standing for ‘all the darkness of humanity’ (variations of this dedication have appeared on album sleeves since the dawn of the 90s and are still going strong; a recent one in my own experience being Malaysians Nefkarata’s (very good) Morts, dedicated to “All Evil In Man”) would by necessity include Hitler & Co alongside Jewish serial killer David Berkowitz and Caligula, Idi Amin, Margaret Thatcher etc, etc, but the most strident NS bands are so dedicated to that vague and misunderstood thing, ‘Aryanism’ that basically it’s all about one short, albeit turbulent, period of the 20th century. And for all the true NSBM band’s xenophobic, elitist rhetoric, it should be remembered that historically, Nazis were not only mainly Germanic (whereas NSBM bands are as or more likely to spring from North or South America as anywhere else) but also – and for a totalitarian ‘might-is-right’ philosophy this is extremely important – the losers.

The glamour of atrocity


Like it or not, it’s undeniable that Nazism and especially the holocaust, have a certain frisson; hence the existence of Nazi exploitation movies like Salon Kitty, Ilsa, She-wolf of the SS and (slightly more ambitiously) The Night Porter.

Awareness of this frisson is at the heart of one of Stephen King’s better pieces of writing; the opening chapters of Apt Pupil, and a disapproving awareness of it was behind the predictable moral panic which greeted Martin Amis’ deeply non-exploitative Time’s Arrow. This special atmosphere is definitely part of the allure of certain kinds of NSBM; mostly the sillier kind made by bands with ‘Aryan’ in their name – and an album cover that features a photograph of Nazi atrocities with a black metal logo has a kind of spurious impressiveness that makes it stand out amidst the hordes of unreadable scrawls, inverted crosses, enthroned goats etc.

“Nazi Moods”

Perhaps the most artistically successful Nazi-themed or related BM is the ambient kind, partly because, however unappetising it may sound from a pop-music perspective, the mix of  sombre, wintry and minimalist electronica with martial themes and archive recordings of WWII-era radio broadcasts, speeches and music is incredibly evocative and paradoxically, strangely emotionally involving.

Similarly, the kind of artwork that accompanies these releases tends to be evocativwewele rather than visceral; black and white photographs of landmarks like Zakupy Chateau, Schlöss Wewelsburg, the Wolf’s Lair; crumbling monuments, statues or ruins. This kind of aesthetic has a deep appeal which matches the music, boring if you don’t like it, but strangely moving if you do, even for those who completely reject the ideology behind it. Compared to standard NSBM, this is a very grey area; whereas a record with a cover image of a mountain of emaciated corpses and a name like ‘Aryan Sturm’ can be reasonably presumed to be an NSBM album, a masterpiece like Tronus Abyss’ Kampf – which has many of the hallmarks of an NS ambient project as listed above cannot (and shouldn’t) be easily labelled NSBM. The band do explore avenues of mysticism associated with the Third Reich, they do use martial themes and evoke the ruins of postwar Europe, but it would be difficult (and futile) to try to demonstrate that Kampf is a ‘Nazi album’, any more than Oliver Hirschbiegel’s superb and similarly evocative Der Untergang is a ‘Nazi film’.

tronus_abyss_kampf600    Untergang,-Der

Banning Nazism; the ultimate irony

In recent times, the escalating paranoia about right-wing extremity (alongside, ironically or maybe obviously, a tolerance among people for actual right-wing extremity) has led to some high-profile cases of BM bands being prevented from playing live, especially in Germany. Most of these bands have of course not been Nazis at all – and it is intolerable that these bands have had their livelihood threatened over what is basically the same kind of metal-phobic ignorance that led to US burnings of Number of the Beast in the early 80s.

Banning any kind of art is a ridiculous, futile gesture which has (to my knowledge) never had any positive results except to energise those opposing the regime in charge. On the other hand, actual NS bands should be quite pleased; banning is a classic Nazi trait, which should give them hope for the future of the reich.