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  • Words by Faye Coulman

SCARS OF THE CRUCIFIX (Part. I): Power struggles in extreme metal and organised religion

It is the year 2010 and Adam 'Nergal' Darski, frontman to the notorious, controversy-courting black metal act Behemoth, is currently awaiting trial in his home country for a criminal offence that could see him spending the next two years of his life behind bars. His crime? Offending Roman Catholics by publicly ripping pages from a bible and branding Christianity "the most murderous cult on the planet" during a 2007 show that will likely live on in infamy for many years and subsequent decades to come. Following a long and arduous court case, charges will eventually be dropped, only for Nergal and co. to clash with the Polish government yet again in 2012 over allegations that the band’s darkly emblematic cover art makes a twisted mockery of the country's beloved national coat of arms.

While there are many who'd dismiss these controversial stunts as the stuff of mindless, attention-seeking shock-rock, it's clear that, beyond the heavily publicised headlines and courtroom drama, a silent, altogether more quietly insidious war is waging...

In a nation where an oppressive far-right wields organised religion as a weapon to stifle and attack the basic civil liberties of its own people, art - with its principles of limitless self-expression and individualism - becomes the ultimate symbolic rival, enemy and opponent. With its deliciously sinister aesthetics, violently abrasive audio and rich, heretical plethora of satanic, pagan and nihilistic philosophies, extreme music has long been perfectly equipped to counter such poisonous, politically oppressive ideologies. And from the ritualistic majesty of Batushka to the raw and crippling elemental power of Hate and Behemoth's blastbeat-laden liturgies of death and mass destruction, it's unsurprising that Poland is awash with such brimstone-scorched subterranean gems. Among the many angry, fiercely individualistic dissenting voices comprising Poland’s darkly thriving underground metal scene, Joanna Stebel of Polish death metal act Moulded Flesh kindly agreed to talk in depth with us about these toxic and frighteningly regressive ideologies.

“To be honest, never before have I seen Polish society so divided,” remarks Moulded Flesh bass player Joanna Stebel on an increasingly tense and problematic political climate that, following the re-election of President Andrzej Duda earlier this year, looks set to be moving into ever stormier territories. With the far right leader’s political ideologies couched in the aggressive demonisation of the LGBTQ+ community as a poisonous threat to traditional family values, the narrowly won success of Duda’s campaign confirmed for many Polish citizens a deeply troubling truth that had been evident long before his re-election back in July – that the prevalence of far right politics had manifested to such an overwhelmingly pervasive degree as to impinge upon even the most basic and fundamental of civil freedoms. Be it curtailing women’s reproductive rights, fostering racial hatred, spreading malicious homophobic propaganda and even seizing control of the country’s mainstream media outlets, it’s little surprise that these hateful and oppressive ideologies are all but interchangeable with those of the Catholic Church.

“The government, led by the party called Law and Justice, implements socialist policy, at the same strongly sticking to conservative values and tightening the bonds between the state and the Catholic Church,” Stebel explains. “The most controversial issues today are as follows:

The approach towards the LGBTQ+ community – although a lot of Poles are actually friendly or neutral towards LGBTQ+ people, the government, supported by the Church, humiliates them on a regular basis. The most recent example is calling the LGBTQ+ community ‘ideology’, not people. What follows is accusing the LGBTQ+ community of various ‘transgressions’, as seen by Law and Justice and the Church, for example encouraging toddlers to masturbate (sic!) and ‘forced sexual education’. Clearly, every citizen has the right to have their own views and opinions; however, the government’s behaviour seems to fuel the aggression towards certain minorities. Speaking of sex ed...

Lack of sexual education at schools. Technically, there is a subject called ‘family life education’. Nonetheless, it is often conducted by... religion teachers. And I don’t mean religious studies or ethics – I mean teachers of Catholic religion, which formally is not a mandatory subject at schools, but in reality virtually everyone, especially in public schools, attends Catholic religion lessons. Okay, coming back to sex ed. Frequently, ‘family life education’ classes concern topics such as what it means to be married, how to be a good wife/husband, etc. Most importantly, however, no physiological issues are discussed. Often, if the topic of contraception is mentioned, teens are encouraged to apply the methods approved by the Church or are told utter nonsense, such as rinsing the vagina with coke and vinegar to avoid impregnation.”

“Abortion law – currently, it’s formally possible to have an abortion if the pregnancy is the result of being raped, if the foetus is terminally ill or if the pregnancy is dangerous for the woman. Still, the Law and Justice government has been trying to change this law for years, which has caused dozens of protests already and even a new social movement emerged a few years back – ‘Girls for Girls’ (Polish 'Dziewuchy Dziewuchom'). At the moment, they haven’t managed to imply any new or updated laws strictly in this field, but they have managed to create new laws regarding doctors. Simply, a doctor who has conservative views is now perfectly allowed to refuse to make an abortion and justify it with his/her ‘conscience’. (By the way, the same applies to pharmacists who are allowed to refuse to sell contraceptive pills.) Of course, all this is merrily approved by the Church. People who rebel against the new regulations are often referred to as ‘child murderers’ and the current narration imposed suggests that a foetus should be called a ‘baby’ and a pregnant women should already be recognised as a ‘mother’ (SIC!). Needless to say, ladies who are against the new regulations are especially hated. The word ‘feminist’ is often used to describe them in a negative way, completely depriving the feminist movement of its values of equality and liberty, depicting a feminist as an ugly creature with hairy legs and rotten teeth, or a nymphomaniac... So yeah, here we go with another ‘threat’, as perceived by the Church and Law and Justice: feminism. Seen in their own, wicked way.”

“Hiding paedophile scandals in the Catholic Church,” the bassist continues. “I strongly recommend the movie ‘Tell No One’ (2019) by the Sekielski brothers. For years, paedophiles among priests were (or... have been? The process is still going on...) transferred between different parishes to blur the traces of their deeds. Finally, more and more people decide to pluck up their courage and admit that they were hurt by priests as children. I’m not saying that all priests are bad, on the contrary – I know that many of them are devoted to their cause in a positive sense. What I criticise are all those disgusting years of idleness, including local societies who knew what their priest was like and often even helped him escape... Clearly, most of the politicians from Law and Justice criticised the aforementioned movie, calling it ‘leftist’ and ‘mendacious’. No comment is needed here.”

Indeed, even in this most progressive modern era of cutting-edge technology and ground-breaking scientific advancement, one can’t help but stop and marvel at how easily apparently civilised human beings can revert to acts of mindless barbarism; how willingly they bend and submit to a ‘higher’ authority, swallowing down their every extravagant pledge and false promise with blindly unquestioning compliance. And in this terrifying new age of civilisation-ravaging disease and crippling austerity, it seems COVID-19 is only adding fuel to the all-consuming fires of mass hysteria and stupidity that continue to rage ever onward into this exceptionally dark new decade. But what of those who choose, instead, to wander on the fringes and far peripheries of this witless and faithfully subservient flock? Insofar as the extreme metal underground is concerned, such unearthly philosophies should, ideologically speaking, be as drastic a departure in mindset as one could possibly imagine. Not necessarily, says Joanna.

“Art has proved to be a powerful tool in fighting for freedom countless times in history. Still, as you have mentioned in the question, there are different fractions among fans of black/extreme metal. Of course, most BM fans are firm opponents of the Catholic Church; however, there are striking differences when it comes to politics. As you said, there is a large group of NSBM followers – and although they are opponents of the Catholic Church, they do support far-right ideas such as National Socialism. I guess that the popularity of far-right ideas among Polish BM fans started around the year 2000, when the most popular skinhead band changed the genre from RAC to heavier music and recorded their album ‘In Flames of the Rising Power’ (‘W płomieniach wschodzącej siły’) and a split album with a Polish BM band, Graveland, entitled ‘Raiders of Revenge’. Those albums merged the issues of politics and pagan beliefs, which I personally dislike as a Slavic pagan – I don’t think that something as personal as religious beliefs should be firmly assigned to any political fraction. Thus, a large group of people – fans of extreme music – is actually heavily divided. Still, the choice is yours when deciding who to follow.”

So while some of those allegedly sworn to the left-hand path may lean considerably further to the right than initially first assumed, there is, of course, no underestimating the immeasurable value of art and its liberating principles of creative self-expression. And be it temporary escapism from the unrelenting drudgery of human existence or a wittily incisive attack on unspeakably corrupt political systems, it’s these strikingly insightful acts of creative brilliance that continue to push human civilisation forward, even in its darkest and most wretched state of being. Indeed, as any avid metal fan will no doubt eagerly attest, the seemingly unending tide of misery and misfortune that’s been visited upon humanity of late is exceptionally rich fuel for such gritty, darkly arresting masterpieces.

“Yes, and it actually happens all the time!” Stebel notes of the curious inspirational link between human suffering and groundbreaking works of creative genius. “Not necessarily in the field of extreme music. Oppression and poverty gives birth to powerful pieces of art which frequently become voices of their generation. Let’s take into account works of art such as ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ by Francisco Goya, the literature of the Polish romanticism, or – more contemporarily – different kinds of protest songs, be it gentle ballads like those performed by a Polish poet, Jacek Kaczmarski, who became a voice of anti-communism, or raw punk rock sounds from all over the world. Perhaps I’m crazy, but I still have faith in a better tomorrow. Europe lost so much due to World War 2 and Cold War. We can’t allow conflicts to escalate just a few decades later!”

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