This article first appeared in Tablet magazine in December, 2013. It is republished here as part of Alt-Right Week.
Austin, Texas, where I live, exhales a live-and-let live philosophy that precludes violence and conflict as experienced by other medium-to-large American cities. Some argue that the city is segregated by invisible lines, but the fact remains that Austin has not been touched by the racial strife and pungent militarization of hate groups that mark the histories of other cities across the nation—Chicago, Montgomery, even Dallas. We live in a bubble here.
But all bubbles can be punctured. My own education into those histories began accidentally and indirectly, while browsing through the 2012 lineup of the Austin music festival Chaos in Tejas, itself a diverse, multivenue event featuring punk, metal, indie, hip-hop and more. In addition to the New Orleans “bounce” of Big Freedia, the fervent anti-racists in The Mob and Antisect, and even the mainstream-crossover of Best Coast, Chaos billed an El Paso black metal band called Nyogthaeblisz. Black metal doesn’t have much of a toehold in Texas, and both a homegrown black metal band and the prospect of visiting musicians aligned with that genre—a furious, intensive, and extreme form of metal that arose in Europe in the 1980s and ’90s—felt welcome. But a cursory Google search of “Nyogthaeblisz” made me think again: The band had appeared on a 2006 compilation called Declaration of Anti-Semetic [sic] Terror; Declaration’s album cover features a portrait of dead men, women, and children dragged from the Nazi gas chambers, and song titles include “Smash the Fucking Jewish Kikes” and “14 Showerheads, 1 Gas Tight Door.”
I wrote about my find in a blog I keep about black metal bands, and then I communicated directly with Timmy Hefner, who founded Chaos; obviously Nyogthaeblisz’s inclusion on the bill with a transgender artist from New Orleans and a band like Antisect must have been an oversight, or a joke that fell flat. I had interviewed Hefner the year before, and he was not into gruesome Holocaust worship. “They are Mexican dudes, so I’m sure they aren’t racist,” Hefner replied. My subsequent research would prove Hefner wrong—and lead me down a rabbit hole into a hate-filled world, where a fashionable genre of metal music that gets mentioned on NPR is actively being used by people whose primary interest in music is as a vehicle for spreading hate.
The label responsible for Declaration was an outfit called Satanic Skinhead Propaganda (hereafter SSP) which primarily released limited runs of albums and accessories by members of the black metal underground. Their style is distinctive and upsetting: They regularly conjoin music with neo-Nazi and racist messages or packaging (a sister label called Audial Decimation specialized in noise, some of which was also openly hostile and racist). The label was formed in 2001 by an individual going by the pseudonym “Antichrist Kramer” (likely an allusion to Nazi criminal Josef Kramer) in the Chicago area. The albums, T-shirts, and more released by SSP were produced in small batches, and aside from his distributors, Kramer was careful with whom he did business, asking that potential customers email directly to obtain permission before paying. (Occasionally, Kramer went as far as barring minorities from purchase.) Kramer was also behind other releases that promote ethnic cleansing—this includes new music from bands like Finland’s White Wolves Kommando and re-releases from nascent ’90s hatecore bands like Mudoven.
The SSP/Chaos connection, it turned out, didn’t end with Nyogthaeblisz. Disma, a death metal band with an increasingly high profile, also had ties to SSP through the project Sturmführer, the solo outlet of new vocalist Craig Pillard. As Disma’s 2011 release Towards the Megalith was being profiled by NPR and more, that same year SSP re-released Sturmführer’s Niemals Vergessen, featuring a compact disc emblazoned with a swastika and the music following a predictably similar trajectory. These revelations, now made public, resulted in Nyogthaeblisz not playing Chaos in Tejas, Disma bowing out on their own to avoid “drama,” and only the unintentionally clownish Black Witchery remaining on the bill (and under the label) to uphold the SSP banner. Hefner was angry from the fallout and blackballed me from festival coverage. An employee of a venue downtown hosting Chaos shows took to their official Facebook page, calling me a “piece of shit” and more before the post was pulled and a semi-retraction was offered in its place.
For what it’s worth, Kramer wasn’t happy about Nyogthaeblisz’s inclusion in the festival to begin with: “NYOGTHAEBLISZ are not ‘NS’ and they are not even white,” he wrote on the online forum of label Nuclear War Now!, using the abbreviation for National Socialism. “They are Satanic, and openly anti-semitic. This is extreme Black Metal and this is EXACTLY why fests like this should not exist in the first place. Keep Black Metal dangerous and away from these liberal scum. This is a smear campaign with ad hominem attacks simply because the band is openly ANTI-JEW.”
While this story began to coalesce, a similar controversy featuring some of the same actors was already flickering across other media outlets. The charges were much less pronounced, but the extent of scrutiny was relatively enormous compared to any press that has thus far been devoted to SSP. The hype centered on a band called Iceage, a group of Danish teenagers who have been accused of appropriating white nationalist imagery and content into a sort of Axis-chic/punk rock melange. Timmy Hefner books shows for the band, and unsurprisingly they played the Chaos festival last year and again thisyear. When Matador records released their second full-length album You’re Nothing, even The Guardian piled on. The root of some of the criticism is that young people will glom on to the band’s questionable aesthetics and, by extension, will readily accept harder, unwaveringly hateful material—like the band Absurd, for example, which Iceage recommends.
Kramer’s releases inspire less than they separate; he tends to his flock more than he reaches to expand it.
The music press half-buried the issue in passionate blog posts and then congratulated themselves on a job well done, but the primary difference between the two narratives is one of estimated insinuation and influence versus clearly stated intention followed by demonstrated action. Holding Antichrist Kramer responsible for hate is not a matter of parsing allusions, chasing symbology, or a “PC witch hunt.” SSP’s releases are cooperative projects with actors of violence and discrimination, not misunderstood creative efforts to explore “evil” themes. Kramer’s releases inspire less than they separate; he tends to his flock more than he reaches to expand it. Kramer puts out his music, and the music of others, because it reflects what he believes and how he lives; SSP is the blueprint of his ethos, not an excuse for transgressive fashion or some aesthetic opportunity. His music isn’t “fuel” for anything; it is the reflection of the fire itself. Meanwhile, a growing number of distributors and listeners and members of the press have convinced themselves that “non-white” necessarily computes as “non-racist,” a patchwork defense that serves only to obscure the suffering that fascism inflicts on individuals who don’t have the option of not taking it seriously.
With help from the social-justice advocate Center for New Community, I was able to trace SSP to a very specific nexus of hate, located in Chicago. Tracing the work and artists on the Declaration compilation was key. An artist by the name of Xenophobia contributed a song called “Silent Brotherhood,” whose lyrics reference Robert J. Mathews, the founder of The Order—the violent white supremacist group that murdered Jewish radio host Alan Berg in 1984. The images that accompany the lyrics include swastikas, the World Church of the Creator insignia, and a photo of a man holding a gun at the camera lens, flanked by a photo of Hitler. The man in the photo—and behind Xenophobia—turns out to be Illinois resident Brian Moudry, arrested in May last year for the attempted arson of his African-American neighbors’ home in 2007. Of the nine people in that home, eight were children (Moudry pleaded guilty to the arson last January). Aside from his collaborations with SSP, Moudry also put out the neo-Nazi publication Hatemonger Warzine, and his connection with white supremacy is well-documented.
Michael Eisenhauer, whose project Evil Incarnate is also featured on Declaration, is even more overt in advertising his overtly racist, anti-Semitic politics. In his section of the liner notes, he included not just World Church of the Creator images but a copy of a citation (with his full name included) that he received in 2006 for a hate crime. According to the documents and a write-up in the Waukegan, Ill., News Sun, he attacked and battered his neighbor Brent Bandalin while berating him as a “fucking Jew” after an argument related to the volume of Eisenhauer’s music.
One specific connection that both Eisenhauer and Moudry share is The New Church of the Creator or “Creativity,” a “racial religion” begun in 1973 by former real-estate investor Ben Klassen. An American entrepreneur who patented the wall-mounted electric can opener, Klassen immigrated to the United States from Ukraine; with the earnings from his patent and work in real estate, he was able to retire in the ’70s to his North Carolina home, where he sketched out his plans for a new racist ideology. His 1973 book Nature’s Eternal Religion posited that the “White Race” was “Nature’s Greatest Miracle” and that “the White Man, with his inborn and inbred genius … has given form to every government and a livelihood to every other people, and above all, great ideals to every century.” Klassen wrote seven books on the subject of white supremacy and—perhaps more alarmingly—founded a home for boys in the early ’80s. A 1992 lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center resulted in the sale of his North Carolina compound “at a fire-sale price to William Pierce, founder and leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance.” Klassen then committed suicide in 1993, overdosing on sleeping pills.
Creativity floundered after Klassen’s death. But by 1996 Bradley University graduate Matthew Hale (born 1971) ascended as successor to the movement, rebranding it as The World Church of the Creator. Hale was something of a media darling during his position at the top of the Church of the Creator—defended by Glenn Greenwald, the clear-spoken and clean-cut white supremacist stood in sharp contrast to the tattooed, thuggish military types that dominated the neo-Nazi movement. Hale tried diligently to push his movement into a more prominent, public vantage, as this video from an ill-fated attempt at a meet-up at the Peoria, Ill., public library indicates (you see Hale enter around 30 seconds in, and again at 1:04). Hale made public reassurances that his, and his organization’s, intentions were nonviolent, though the movement promotes racial holy war, “RaHoWa,” and its separatist, exclusionary philosophy only flirts with the idea of nonviolence (“It is not our objective to declare a war of violence against the Jews, niggers and other mud races,” he wrote) as a precursor to massive bloodshed.
During the apex of national interest in his movement, Hale was interviewed by CNN, Court TV’s Nancy Grace, and more. In most cases, he presented his opinions calmly despite open hostility from other guests or the news organizations themselves. Hale wanted to break into a larger audience through legitimate channels, but his aspirations were spiked on June 31, 1999, when he was denied a license to practice law in Illinois. This was the beginning of a spate of legal woes. In 2000, Hale’s group lost a trademark case that would have allowed them to retain the name “Church of the Creator,” and in the wake of that loss an FBI sting revealed that Hale had asked for the head of Joan Lefkow, the district court judge who ruled against his organization. In 2005, Hale was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years behind bars.
The Creativity Movement’s ascent may have been the catalyst for a 21-year-old devotee of the movement, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, to take RaHoWa into his own hands during a three-day shooting spree—a hypothesis that Hale himself believes. On Friday July 2, 1999, at 8:20 p.m., Smith drove his car into the predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of West Rogers Park in Chicago, stopped at the intersection of Estes and Francisco, exited his vehicle, and shot nine individuals who fit the profile as they left Shabbat services. Smith fired a hailstorm of bullets from both a .22-caliber handgun and .380 semi-automatic, and while he connected with a few of his targets—high-school teacher Hillel Goldstein, 34, took a bullet to the stomach—no one was killed.
Smith continued his shooting spree for two more days. On Saturday he murdered Ricky Byrdsong, a black 42-year-old resident of Skokie, Ill., and Won-Joon Yoon, 26, an Asian doctoral student at Indiana University, the latter while he was on his way to church in Bloomington, In..On Sunday, Smith traded in his blue Ford Taurus for a stolen van off of Highway 57 and made his way through Indiana. While fleeing police in the city of Salem, Smith crashed his vehicle and ran off course. Police later confirmed that Smith had shot himself in the head but the bullet had bypassed his brain, and it took another self-inflicted shot to the chest before he bled to death.
After Hale’s imprisonment and Smith’s suicide, the aboveground presence of the Creativity movement dissipated. But closer examination reveals that select white nationalist ideals live on with or without Hale: When the aboveground world of TV punditry and open-air gatherings proved hostile, portions of Creativity and its white nationalist successors found a nurturing home in a bleak subset within the black metal underground, where fundamentalists of extreme sound and extreme ideology make easy bedfellows.
Twenty years on, black metal itself is inescapably influential and multifaceted but also embroiled in a kind of tumult exercised by the warring parts of the music’s trajectory; this struggle may be best exemplified by the simultaneous respect and scorn heaped onto the figure of Varg Vikernes, one of the founders of black metal’s Norwegian second wave. No fan of black metal underestimates the influence of Buruzm, Vikernes’ primary musical project, but just as frequently the man is mocked for his shifting philosophy and attempts at Viking play-acting on film and in interviews. Vikernes’ legacy has been intensely scrutinized, and while this one man takes the brunt of criticism, other actors have cemented a bridge between white nationalism and black metal more successfully (and more quietly) than he. National Socialist Black Metal, or NSBM, is a parasite that feeds on that part of black metal steeped in bigotry and violence.
Hendrik Möbus, born 1976, is well-known as a binding agent between the world of American racist movements and the outgrowth of European black metal. Möbus founded the German NSBM band Absurd in the early ’90s and gained infamy in 1993 when he and his bandmates—all under 18 at that point—first knifed and then strangled 15-year-old peer and “race defiler” Sandro Beyer with electrical wire and then featured Beyer’s tombstone on their release Thuringian Pagan Madness. Sent to prison, Möbus became increasingly ideological, and after his parole in 1998 he fronted the German wing of the Heathen Front movement and founded Darker Than Black records. When his parole was revoked for “distributing national socialist propaganda” in his homeland, Möbus fled to Seattle in 1999, where he joined up with several American-based labels to disseminate NSBM.
While the close proximity of black metal and white power is well-documented, it is through Möbus and the aforementioned William Pierce (1933-2002)—best known as the author of The Turner Diaries—that we find a direct connection between white hate and black metal. According to Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s Black Sun, Pierce demonstrated his devotion to hate music when he purchased the white power/hatecore Resistance Records in 1997 when it was in danger of declaring bankruptcy. Pierce saw the ascendancy of black metal as something promising for white power, and in 2000 Möbus moved to Pierce’s West Virginia compound for two months, where, according to Matthias Gardell’s Gods of the Blood, he “helped Pierce secure entry into the black metal scene in the United States and Europe.” In April of 2012 Kramer and Möbus collaborated on a re-release of Absurd’s Asgardsrei, and Darker Than Black has also served as a distributor of SSP recordings.
We can even place SSP within one of Europe’s more healthy breeding grounds of present day European fascism: According to Sofia Tipaldou’s Rock for the Motherland: White Power Music Scene in Greece, Golden Dawn is the most visible of the neo-fascist parties operating in Greece, professing “anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and anti-Western” ideology while offering admiration for “the big man of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler.” In June, 2012, the party has 18 seats out of 300 in the Hellenic Parliament, Greece’s legislature. In 2010, Kramer released a live compilation by the Greek band Der Stürmer called Carelian Pagan Madness.As Tipaldou writes, “Der Stürmer” is a loaded reference, and the “influential band … has been trying to revive the Greek nationalist music scene.” Furthermore, “its members also support Golden Dawn.” Violence against immigrants and minorities has increased with the growing prominence of Golden Dawn, while Kramer is not only offering up an explicit endorsement of this band’s ideology, but also affords them an international outlet for their releases (they also appear on Declaration). As of December 2012, SSP releases had more than 40 distributors, from Belgium to Japan. And if Kramer may oppose mainstream showcases for his bands, he has no problem operating within a growing global network that plies hate.
SSP continued to release albums at a quickening pace up until the beginning of 2013, when Kramer abruptly shifted his strategy. In February, Kramer pronounced his two labels dead. “Since October 2012, SSP and ADR were under constant bombardment and investigation from the US Postal Service, US Homeland Security and Paypal,” he explained, adding for good measure that “It was not until the last 6 months that this happened. As to WHY and HOW, that is a moot point at this stage.”
But Kramer wasn’t retiring: He was simply restructuring. All of his music would now be released through a new label called Deathangle Absolution, and his physical operations moved outside of the state. When the net began to close in on his base, he began again. “The onslaughts will never stop,” he promises.
But a greater sense of urgency and consequences among promoters and fans alike might do something to stem the tide of the disgusting and deadly ideology that Kramer and like-thinking white supremacists and Neo-Nazis are using black metal music to promote. When I first saw the cover of Declaration my eyes were drawn to a young girl among the pile of bodies: The Schragin family lost our own to the Holocaust. The youngest member of our family, Arlette, was 2 years old when we believe she was murdered at Auschwitz. Looking at the image, I had to remind myself that this wasn’t just wallpaper to a story but a record of something real and awful that happened to millions of innocent people. It’s the slow creep of the awful into the familiar that is most alarming.
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Adam Schragin is a writer based in Austin, Texas.