Bölzer, the swastika and ill-advised reclamation

Like most things in life, I caught on late to Bölzer, the Swiss death/black metal duo whose music has been received rapturously by metal critics over the last year or so. But having listened to a track off their soon-to-be-released Soma EP, I quickly came to the conclusion that the hype was justified. With a teeming, overwhelming sound for a two-piece, aided by refreshingly naturalistic, analogue production, both of the band’s short releases to date show a lot of promise, at times bringing to mind a version of Blut Aus Nord that favours direct bursts of aggression over long-form experimentation. It’s little wonder that these recordings, and a smattering of well-received live shows, have metal sites the world over eagerly awaiting a full album.

But, given recent events involving other underground bands who turned out to hold extremist views, a part of me was cautious about becoming too enthusiastic. What if this group, too, had some skeletons in their closet? In an extreme metal world that more often than not fails to adequately defend against the infiltration of dangerous far right ideology, this caution is not always excessive.

And then, last night, I came across an interview with the band on Stereogum that seemed as though it might confirm some of these fears. Among various other topics, interviewer Kim Kelly questioned guitarist/singer Okoi Jones (aka KzR) about tattoos of his depicting swastikas, as well as other symbols used by ancient religions. I have excerpted the relevant passages below:

STEREOGUM: I have one more question. I wanted to talk about your tattoos, specifically the swastikas and sunwheels. I know you and I know what you’re about, but not everyone who sees you play has that background. I want to just get it all out there before anyone sees a picture of you and makes assumptions. So. What’s up with the swastikas?

KzR: Please, I’m very happy you asked me because only a few people have asked me in interviews and I’m more than happy to tell people because I don’t want to be misunderstood. My sunwheels, my swastikas, my whatever you call them, it’s an ancient symbol used by basically every culture on this planet at some time or another for more or less the same reason, to express their adoration for the sun, the solar power. Most of them were sun-worshipping peoples, or held respect for the balance of the sun. It’s also a lunar symbol in itself for the sun cultures. Its right or left form reversed is a lunar symbol, too, and it’s a female as well as a male symbol; it represents a lot of different energies. It’s a continuum, it can be a destructive force, it takes a lot of natural philosophies into one. If you read about it, it’s really fascinating.

(…)

STEREOGUM: It also recently dawned on me that the title of your much-loved song “Entranced By The Wolfshook” is actually referencing the wolf’s hook symbol, which has got a very heavy history of usage by the Nazis as well as in Hermann Löns’ book Der Wehrwolf and by forestry workers in Germany. You even incorporate the wolf’s hook into the Bölzer logo itself. Can you tell me why you decided to highlight that particular symbol?

KzR: Indeed, man’s lusting for power is as a wolf’s for meat … often leading to self destruction. For us the wolf’s hook, or Wolfsangel, is one of the many symbols of antiquity to become caustically stigmatized as a result of their usage within a fascist-era Europe, something we are soberingly aware of but do not condone. Enough systematic cultural lobotomization has taken place in the past to make any such further demonization of values and symbolism acceptable within a modern and supposedly tolerant society. We promote the growth and enlightenment of the individual, the last thing on our agenda would be to glorify the implements of power involved in the collective enslavement of a people and their individualism. Fascism and racism in that sense are pretty unattractive for us.

Given my previous writing on another band’s association with Nazism and related imagery, some readers might expect that I would be quick to similarly label Jones a neo-Nazi as well. In this case, however, I am not entirely sure that this is so- at least, not yet. It is true that a white person with tattoos of a symbol that has come to be associated with perhaps the world’s most infamous fascist regime is extremely suspicious. The dig at “modern and supposedly tolerant society” also rings at least a couple of alarm bells- it does not seem to come from a position critiquing the hypocrisy of modern capitalist societies which preach the rhetoric of tolerance while still remaining fundamentally unequal and white supremacist in nature. And despite Jones’ proclamation that his band favours individualism over the collectivism of fascist ideologies, and the implication that they are therefore opposed to Nazism, this could be merely a cover for the truth. As contradictory as it seems, the rhetoric of individualism is not always incompatible with fascism, as can be seen in the phenomenon of libertarian types allying or forging ideological links with far-right movements. Certainly, his explanation comes off better than the infamously incoherent equivocation offered by Inquisition’s Jason Weirbach when asked whether he was a neo-Nazi– it would be hard to come up with something worse. But this could simply indicate that Jones is better at hiding his true beliefs than Weirbach.

Nonetheless, I do not think there is conclusive evidence here to declare with reasonable certainty that Okoi Jones is a white supremacist or a neo-Nazi. While there was at least one eyewitness account of the fascist views of Inquisition’s members to add to the evidence of Nazi and anti-semitic imagery and allusions in that band and its associated side projects, nothing similar has yet appeared in relation to Bölzer, at least as far as I am aware. As such, the possibility remains that the band’s leader may be “merely” extremely ignorant of the swastika’s impact, and genuinely (if misguidedly) attempting to “reclaim” the symbol’s older meaning. While I remain skeptical of Jones’ explanation and half-expect to hear more questionable statements in future, I am not yet prepared to suggest that we shun the band immediately.

This does not mean, however, that the best case scenario- that Jones is extremely misguided, rather than an outright fascist- is a harmless one. The fact remains that, in spite of its thousands of years of use in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, as well as in ancient Europe, the swastika is mostly associated in present-day Europe and North America with Nazism and other fascist and far-right movements. It is extremely unlikely that its appearance in a tattoo on a white person will be taken as anything other than support for those movements and their associated violence against marginalised peoples, given the white supremacist views that lurk in such circles.  The Third Reich’s heinous crimes are not even a century old; it seems impossible to hope that isolated efforts to detoxify or reclaim the symbol they appropriated will have any effect after such a short time. And if such a reclamation were to be attempted, it seems far more appropriate that it would be spearheaded by the religious movements who used it in the past* than by people in a musical subculture which has a frankly shameful record in terms of combating the sort of ideology that corrupted the symbol’s meaning in the first place.

As such, regardless of whatever Jones’ intentions are, his usage of an ancient symbol tainted by fascist ideology and its accompanying brutality cannot hope to achieve what he seems to want them to. His championing of individualism in the Stereogum interview leads me to believe that he would fervently disagree with this view, perhaps claiming that his personal motives and interpretations of the symbols should override what others would assume based on what they see (and I’ve no doubt that commenters on this piece will offer similar defences). Unfortunately, I am not swayed by these arguments, which seem to imply a person’s intentions have the magical ability to erase any harm that might arise from their actions. Like it or not, when used in the form of a tattoo on a person who looks like Jones, the swastika is likely to mean only one thing to a survivor of the Holocaust, or to a member of any group targeted by contemporary fascists. Even if his intentions genuinely are to use this symbol in a way entirely unrelated to fascism, history looms larger than our individual desires.


* The swastika is, of course, still frequently used throughout Asia, where its association with the region’s religions is stronger than the taint of Nazism. It should go without saying that this cultural context is vastly different from the situation in Europe, and that any talk of reclamation applies primarily to areas where the symbol is still a reminder of a horrific regime and the crimes it committed.

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25 responses to “Bölzer, the swastika and ill-advised reclamation

  1. Great article brother!

  2. Great article, your writing is A+

  3. Reblogged this on BRAIN TRUST MUSIC and commented:
    Another possible Nazi connection with a new black metal band. Much like Coldwar, the band claims to be attempting to reclaim the Swastika from it’s fascist twentieth century meaning to it’s peaceful origins in other countries and religions. Historically, the symbol has been associated with peace, most notably in India, but, like many symbols, was co-opted by the Nazis, which tarnished the image beyond repair. The only Nazi symbol I can think of that was able to be reclaimed by the group it represented was the pink triangle for the gay community. The pink triangle is slightly different, however, as it was something created by the Nazi regime to identify homosexual prisoners. It will be interesting to see how people react to Bölzer.

  4. Does his father being a famous blues musician of African descent have any bearing on your opinion, and the fact that he says he is a “Proud bastard of three different cultures, one of the them African” ?

    This is his father
    http://www.paulubanajones.com/

    • I discussed this before in this piece with regards to Inquisition’s Jason Weirbach and his attempt to claim that, being half-Latino he could not be a white supremacist. As I said before, I don’t think that being a person of colour or having mixed racial heritage excludes one from espousing or indirectly supporting white supremacy. In this case, of course, it is not clear that Jones is anything more than ignorant of or insensitive to the impact of the swastika. Nonetheless, I do not think his black heritage would be a reassuring or mitigating factor people for whom the symbol is a painful reminder of Nazism. It does add some complexity to the case, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter my opinion.

  5. Maximum douche overload. Please kill yourself.

  6. He has a massive one on one of his elbows as well I think. Noticed it when I saw them live.

    Cautiously optimistic for now that they really do just have some sort of spiritual significance to him, as he seems like he genuinely is into mysticism/spiritualism etc. Although I have to say, the “in that sense” qualifier here makes me a bit uneasy: “Fascism and racism in that sense are pretty unattractive for us.”

    Idk, I know this is probably an awful thing to say, but I’m sort of bored of worrying about whether bands are nazis or not. Obviously no time for the out-and-out NS/racist bands, but I struggle to get worked up about the borderline cases, and Bölzer seem pretty safe to me, dodgy tatts or no.

    Also, I can’t deny those riffs.

    • As I said in the piece, I’m a fan of their stuff too, and I don’t think it’s clear yet that Jones is a neo-Nazi, so I wouldn’t insist people stop listening to them or anything. I think even these “borderline cases” are important to document and analyse, though. If we can afford to struggle to get worked up about people using these symbols then we’re very lucky, I feel like.

  7. Getting the impression from the comments he left on Stereogum that he’s an arrogant cock, but not a nazi. I think he’s so wrapped up in his own beliefs that he can happily ignore the meaning the swastika has acquired. People who challenge him about it and are sceptical of his response are just too dense to understand his complex spiritual beliefs or something. He’s moaning about “willful misinterpretation”.

    Also someone raised an interesting point about his chest tattoo on twitter. Wonder whether it’s a cover-up…

  8. The whole “oooh, _____ MIGHT be a Nazi” schtick you have going on is pretty tired at this point.’

    You social justice types should go volunteer at a soup kitchen or something. Do some real good and make a real difference in the world instead of polluting the internet with this kind of drek.

  9. The most “sketchy” of his tattoos- that is to say, the one that actually most closely resembles one used by the Third Reich- is the one for which he offers the most succinct and meaningful response. I struggle to believe that there’s anything cryptofascistesque about tattoos of other ancient European solar symbols which go by the same name as the one adopted by the Nazis. None of his tattoos are actually a Nazi swastika. Some of them are close, and people who really want to dig for politically questionable beliefs will no doubt connect the two, but for someone who chooses to make the distinction it’s night and day.
    This whole cryptofascist witchhunt is getting pretty tiresome to be honest. In a genre where genuine Third Reich enthusiasts such as Lemmy and the Slayer dudes get a pass, picking out obscure symbols with similar origins to those later bastardized by the Nazis seems pretty ridiculous.

    • As I said in the blog, I don’t think Jones necessarily supports Nazism- his stated reasons for having the swastika tattoo may well be sincere. But his intentions, noble as they might be, do not erase the reality of what the swastika now most commonly represents for victims of Nazi war crimes and their descendants. Certainly, that is not Jones’ fault at all, and you could argue it’s unfair his choice cannot be seen in and of itself. But with that context immovably there, unable to be removed, we have to judge his choice of tattoos within it. And regardless of his reasons for getting it, I still maintain that it was an ill-advised choice.

      In this particular case, I’m not trying to engage in a witch hunt for fascists, crypto- or otherwise. Rather, my intention is to try to show that our actions, our choices, have consequences we might not intend, so we need to take care over what we say and do. As to Lemmy and Slayer, they certainly don’t get a pass from me- again, I doubt they’re fascists themselves, but I still think their use of swastikas and other Nazi iconography is irresponsible. One reason for that, for example, is how their use might embolden genuine admirers of Nazi Germany to think that others- famous, respected artists- share that admiration and the likely fascist politics accompanying it.

  10. Which if his tattoos, specifically, is problematic in your view? I see lots if solar iconography, I don’t see a Nazi swastika. The connection could only be made by someone who a) didn’t actually know what precisely a Nazi swastika looked like, or b) knew enough about the symbol to identify others of similar origin, and chose to assume it represented the same in the wearer’s perspective.

  11. Hi there nice blog!

    I think the most problematic tattoos and symbol of them all has to be the Wolfshook, or Wolfsangel (german), which is not a universal symbol like the Swastika, which existed before the Nazis of course, but has a very specific geographical and cultural limitation to Germany.

    There, this symbol is forbidden, it is prohibited to show it publicly, to display and publish it in any way besides the hunting meaning it has in rural northern Germany.

    The Wolfshook has a broad history of use within the Nazis, Nazi Germany and the Neonazi scene.

    According to another interview, Okoi Jones pointed out that it is about wolf and men, about the original trapping symbol, but in his response, seemed weak, simple and not really convincing.

    I’d also like to know what he means by his song “Entranced by the wolf hook”.

    All in all, I think it’s just plain stupid to play with such burdened symbols, as you pointed out, it won’t help the cause of defusing them, as most people will be affected by the shock value, which must be intended, them being innocent little metal songbirds lost in mysticism or not.

  12. Hallo, first of all I’ll let you know that I applaud the effort that you are doing here, especially in regards to researching the extreme right wind tendencies of metal. This is a topic that is also spend much time thinking about lately. If I have any criticism to do, it would be that you are focusing too much on the grey area that tends to be more innocent rather than “guilty”. While I don’t want to understate the importance of fighting the “seeds” that have not yet blossomed, my problem with heavy metal lies on much deeper stuff, on a kind of standard conception that has been realized, that may not show interest in actual nazi imagery. but is as regressive and conservative nonetheless.

    I mean, you are showing bits and pieces here and there, but what is your opinion of heavy metal and extreme metal in the big picture? Personally, trying to answer this question, I have came up with that there may be a reactionary essence in the “DNA”, so to speak, of every heavy metal band that upholds some standards close to the “core” of the genre. In older heavy metal its a less extreme and self-conscious kind of individualism and separatism from society that is often, although not always, manifested with macho-ism, sexism and lust-of-power, “warrior ideology”. In black metal (which I see mostly interests you) this goes to its extreme end, as I would consider the bm-er as the absolute reactionary; the reactionary by ideological belief (which is what luciferianism is, being eternally in opposition with the society, because you consider yourself as naturally superior or different). It seems to me that every band that adheres to the standards of traditional, early 90’s bm falls into this category, for example even Cobalt that you’ve posted, and that this is the real binding thread between bands that show seemingly different ideologies such as anti-christianism, paganism, or even medieval fantasy or futurism. A kind of individualist, elitist, escapist neo-fascism, if taken on a literal, political level. But, of course, because of its escapist and ego-fulfilling, rather than social role, the fascism is always implied, or in the details. As the musician and once member of the local black metal scene, I very seldom witnessed nazi confessions. However, I always witnessed irony and ridicule whenever left-wing opinions were stated. In essence, it seems to me that without a radical and at least partly political re-statement like the ones Wolves in the Throne Room did, associating with the genre should be a no-no for any progressive-politics inclined individual.

    Although generalized opinions are always to be partly untrue, I’m interested beyond your general assessment of metal culture, to read deeper, more political insights as to what bands are saying, something which is terribly missing in the heated discourse between nazi-or-not. Sure, Bolzer may state their aversion to nazism, but they are wielding symbols of heavy meaning. Let’s go along with their take; they may not be nazi symbols, but they are certainly symbols of power. So, what are they trying to say about power? What do the symbols, the lyrics mean?

    • Thanks for the response. I think it’s fair to point out that I haven’t written any really in-depth, structural critique of metal and its connection to reactionary politics, but I would probably agree that there is a deeply-embedded aspect of it that is amenable to reactionary thought. I don’t know if it’s a necessary element of what it is to be “metal”- I’d like to think bands explicitly engaging with revolutionary thought could at least challenge the trend- but it is definitely there. I’ve written previously about how I perceive the structure, demographics and narratives of metal as reflecting the patriarchal nature of our society, and while that’s not exactly the same thing I see similar factors at play. Reactionary politics will, I think, always involve a defence of patriarchy and the inequalities that go along with it; I see patriarchy as being partly a legitimation of inequality, which is a large component of conservative and/or reactionary thought as well.

      I apologise for not being very coherent here; I don’t think I currently have the mental energy to give this topic the attention it deserves, either in a dedicated post or here in the comments. Basically, I think as long as metal reflects the structural arrangement of patriarchy in its demographics, and reifies it with the macho posturing and rhetoric of bands and fans, it will remain a hotbed for reactionary politics. I do think it can be changed, that this doesn’t have to be an essential characteristic of the music and its scene. But it will take a lot of work, and an honest look at what we as musicians and fans of metal want it to achieve or stand for.

  13. There is a saying that ‘you become what you surround yourself with’. A band I was involved with released a cd with a pagan sunwheel in the artwork some years ago. We discussed it beforehand, and felt we could justify it intelligently. However upon release we were soon attracting ‘adoring’ friends from the far right. And some of these people are NOT nice, believe me….there are some seriously nasty pieces of shit in that world. They particularly like ‘useful idiots’ from the arts looking to act out their masculinity for cheap points over the ‘mainstream’ ( a large % of metal fans, lets be honest ). Long story but we eventually got rid of them by boring them to death and befriending lots of porn stars on our myspace profile page.

    I’ve got some rune tattoos, and have always wanted a sunwheel tattoo, and I could easily justify having one, but I don’t want to be ‘friends’ ( ie on THEIR terms ) with lunatics, so I don’t – end of story.

  14. Pingback: Protecting the Precious Flower That Is Music Journalism | LURKER

  15. Let a little Sun wheel in your heart and lighten up my intellectual Friend…this is a classical Example of “Overthinking” and biased Judgment disguised as inquisitive Criticism. Your Actions also have consequences. Now some little Metal Fella might suddenly see Nazism in a Band where there is none..Good JOB !

  16. Great article and also some of the intellectual comments that followed. I really like the band’s sound, but all of the little things pointed out do make the guy seem like a bit of a dunce, whether he’s a fascist or not.
    I will go with a wait and see approach. Thank you for your insights.

  17. A very shallow and blinkered article.

    The real point is in your little disclaimer at the bottom. Those cultures you so easily dismiss as irrelevant represent BILLIONS of people.

    Saying that it ‘only applies in asia, but that doesnt count cos we’re talking about europe’ is the height of fallacy. How does that even apply to someone of multiracial descent who grew up in oceania?

    You’ll think what you want to think about the tattoos but to suggest that they must be racist because the people and cultures of the most populace continent on the planet are irrelevant is very arrogant and anglocentric – you are in this instance what you claim to loathe.

  18. Omg what an unnecessary discussion! Leave Okoi alone and my photos too!!! You got no permission to use my pictures in this piece of crap.
    Regards, Soile Siirtola

  19. Maybe relevant? An interview with (a younger) Jones in the context of an earlier band. .

    http://www.metalcrypt.com/pages/interviews.php?intid=174

    *I will acknowledge that people’s opinions can change over time but he does seem fairly unequivocal with regard to right wing ideologies in this particular case.

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