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.