A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review about the way that my lifelong interest in heavy metal and ongoing career as a metal journalist had equipped me with a very specific skill set—namely, spotting Nazis, especially when they would prefer not to be found. In this respect, I am nothing special; the metal world is so riddled with closet racists, undercover Nazis, esoteric cryptofascists, and full-blown fascists that nearly any metal fan with a conscience already possesses an intuitive sense of which bands to avoid (and the fellow travelers that these garbage people are trying to attract can already hear their hateful message loud and clear). As I noted in the CJR piece, for a politically conscientious metalhead, vetting an exciting new band is like playing a terrible version of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game where a Polish neo-Nazi or racist death metal guy from Florida is lurking around every corner.
There are a few things to remember when discussing metal’s cultural and political positioning. Outside of nuts-and-bolts factors like production and distribution, the extreme metal world is quite disconnected from the rest of the music industry and the mainstream media, and remains thoroughly misunderstood thanks to decades of propaganda (remember Tipper Gore?), bad press, and the relative inaccessibility of the music itself. Most metal fans prefer it that way; as Morbid Angel proclaimed back in the grimy ‘90s, this is extreme music for extreme people, and metal’s annoying affinity for gatekeeping is alive and well. However, this widespread lack of fluency with metal’s visual language and broader political culture is why white supremacist bands run rampant on streaming platforms like Spotify, Soundcloud, TIDAL, Apple Music, Last.FM, and even Bandcamp (though they do a much better job of filtering out Nazi scum than most). One would think that even the most lackadaisical content moderator would have the wherewithal to kick Nazi bands as blatant as Adolfkvlt or M8l8th off their turf, and yet both (and many more) are readily available on some of the biggest streaming platforms in the world. Seems like they should do something about that, no?
I’ve been covering metal’s darkest corners for almost two decades now, and one of the few constants of this work (besides all the death threats) is the emails, messages, and DMs from nice people asking me very earnestly how to find out if a band they like is made up of fascists, or whether or not a given band is “okay.” On the latter point, I cannot help you; that’s a line that each individual needs to draw for themselves, though erring on the side of not materially supporting Nazis is highly recommended. On the former, though, I can offer some advice. There aren’t enough hours in the day or bottles of whiskey in the world to allow me to fully vet every metal band in existence for you, but I can share a few tricks of the trade to make it easier for folks who want to be responsible in their consumption of heavy metal, but aren’t sure where to start.
Luckily, for those who actually care, the signs are easy enough to spot once you’ve learned where to look, and there are very few secrets within the metal community, which has a tendency to squabble and gossip amongst itself like a village full of angry fishwives. Sometimes a band will just go full swastika on their album cover or be caught throwing a Roman salute onstage, but most of today’s metal fascists are a bit cagier, relying on more cryptic symbols, misappropriated runes, dogwhistles, “free speech/anti-antifa” rhetoric, garden variety racist boomerism, and esoteric imagery to advertise their intent. The recent (and very welcome) proliferation of an explicitly anti-fascist metal framework spearheaded by queer metalheads, Black metalheads, and metalheads of color has had a welcome impact on the scene itself, as artists and fans alike have banded together to identify, deplatform, and denounce metal fascists, but there is still much work to be done.
Square one: the Encyclopedia Metallum. Think of it as a metal Wikipedia, but with much more stringent criteria for inclusion (no ‘core besides grindcore allowed!). This long-running and utterly exhaustive directory catalogues thousands upon thousands of bands, living and dead, from dozens of countries; it boasts 144,261 entries and counting, and each band page offers a wealth of information for the curious, from full discography to lyrical themes to band members’ past affiliations—all of which is extremely useful for the enterprising sleuth. Want to find out if that rad new Belarusian tech death band you just discovered has any sketchy ties, or figure out how many degrees of separation lie between a spooky Polish black metal band and their local neo-Nazis? The Encyclopedia Metallum holds the answers. Of course, this only works if you already hold a working knowledge of whichever genre you’re exploring, and even then, the trail can go cold, but for seasoned metal aficionados, this should always be your first stop.
I realize that not every music fan has necessarily sold their soul for rock’n’roll, sworn themselves to the dark, or followed the left-hand path into the riff-filled land, and becoming adept at identifying fascist metal bands can only be of so much use to the average decent person. However, there are still a few tricks almost anyone can use to figure out if that weird new band your friend just recommended is worth your time. Simply plugging in spicy search terms like “band + controversy” or “band + assault” or “band member + arrest” can be very illuminating indeed, and reading old interviews from before they attracted the limelight is a good way to parse their political views (or see if they have since evolved). Looking at their touring history to find out which festivals they’ve booked and which bands they’re played with can be awfully interesting, too, especially for European bands; at some festivals, it still not uncommon to see an ideological mishmash of anti-fascist, “apolitical,” and outright fashy bands all occupying the same bill (like for example when several artists threatened to cancel their 2011 Hellfest appearance until Finnish neo-Nazis Satanic Warmaster were booted off).
Combing through a band’s Discogs page to see if they’ve released music on any dodgy labels or worked with any contemptible artists is another way to spot potential issues, and if they’re particularly active on social media, taking a peek through their likes and follows never hurts, either. If you’re not sure if a label is fash-friendly, do some research on them, too; there are precious few metal-oriented labels that have taken a real stand against fascism in metal, but there are a profound amount who have no problem laundering white supremacist content under the guise of being “apolitical” or simply not giving a shit as long as it sells. When dealing with a more esoteric crowd, pay attention to which writers and philosophers they quote (Julius Evola? Do not pass go), which books they cite, and which occult groups they align themselves with (the Order of the Nine Angles is a big honking blood-red flag). Pay attention to what they decide to wear in their band photos, their tattoos, which bands’ logos appear on their T-shirts and patches, and which flags and imagery show up in their photo backgrounds. It all matters, and it should all factor into your decision over whether or not to support them.
Does this sound like a lot of work just to listen to some goddamn music? Yes, but I promise all of this tumbling down the rabbit hole soon becomes reflexive. After awhile, after you’ve spent some time accruing knowledge and solidifying your own own personal political stances it’ll only take a few seconds to decide whether or not to buy that album or press play on that music video, and you will feel so much better knowing you’re not supporting something (or someone) toxic or harmful. Also, the absurd yet enduring notion that we can “separate the art from the artist” is bunk, and not worth entertaining here. If you care about your fellow human beings, don’t give your money to Nazis. If you did so before, and then realized that that was a bad idea, and regret that you did that, that’s okay; people make mistakes. Just don’t give them any more money or oxygen, and share what you learned with your friends so they don’t, either.
Of course, if you’re one of those special privileged flowers who “don’t care about politics” and think I am a joyless harpy trying to suck all the fun and danger out of heavy metal, that’s fine; I’ve been hearing that since before I could drink, and it has yet to make an impact. And for those on the wrong side of history who are actively seeking out white supremacist content on purpose, and resent the implication that other people—especially the kind of people they’d like to genocide out of existence—might not approve of their fascist cheerleading, don’t worry. I’ve still got my eye on you.
None of this is about watering down the music or the scene; it’s about protecting the good, and excising the rotten to ensure survival. Metal should stay weird and ugly and unpleasant and gross. Like any subculture that has been targeted by the fascist creep, heavy metal should be dangerous enough to scare off the squares—but it should also be safe for all of the misfits and weirdos who have found ourselves drawn to its intoxicating racket, as well as a wholly inhospitable environment for bigots. Heavy metal is too good for Nazis.