Sunday, August 03, 2008

Music as Opposition: Akercocke’s Voyage into Northern Ireland

In May 2007, English extreme metal band Akercocke appeared on BBC One Northern Ireland’s Nolan Live, a weekly late night talk show. They were on the show to discuss their impending gig in Belfast, an event that was courting controversy amongst Christian activists in the area who were aghast at the band’s explicit Satanism. The televised debate had host Stephen Nolan conduct questions and exchanges between two members of the band, beamed by satellite link into the studio, and two Christian representatives sitting in the studio. The ensuing debate acts as a microcosm of Northern Irish values, a snapshot of contemporary woes that see one generation attempt to succeed another, and the ethos of modernity striving to break free from the shackles of outdated traditions and revolting dichotomies.

There are no surprises in watching the debate. From the beginning Akercocke are vilified and framed as a danger to the morals of the country. An introductory clip mixes shots of the band playing background to a leather-clad maiden dancing seductively with live footage showing vocalist Jason Mendonca screeching death metal under waves of crimson lighting. Nolan’s first question asks whether the band is indeed intent on summoning the Antichrist to Belfast, self-importance resting unconcealed on each spoken syllable. Akercocke thankfully choose to focus on the real reason for their visit: the fans. They proceed to compliment Northern Ireland’s metal community and the excellent welcome they received on their last visit to Belfast.

Committed to maintaining the idea that the band is an evil virus come to infect the innocent youth of the nation, Nolan flippantly asks, “what’s so great about the Antichrist?” They reply with feigned befuddlement and bemoan the abstract nature of the question. Even when Nolan gets riled up, Akercocke hold their calm demeanour. They are well aware that such a show can’t be taken seriously, that they are the outsiders, that the limits imposed by the televisual sphere will not facilitate them a proper voice, that the only route to take is to demonstrate intelligence and sobriety in the face of spiteful and erroneous preconceptions.

The studio guests express arguments over-rehearsed and long overused, trite words that attack lyrics and imagery, that gesture towards censorship, that wobble haphazardly in tones of moral outrage, vituperation warning of young minds being corrupted by anything that isn’t Christian dogma. Nolan privileges the religious duo, while Akercocke are consigned to the background, left to be spoken over and baselessly accused of iniquitous deeds. The nadir is hit when the prosecuting triumvirate of Nolan and co start injecting spousal violence and racial hatred into the mix, conflating genuine moral issues with puritanical sensationalism and consequently demeaning the former.

But it’s obvious that Akercocke are not going to be hailed as equals on a television show of this type. The formal restrictions that accompany the medium mean that opposing views are disadvantaged: as Noam Chomsky has stated, new ideas require time to explain, to fully disseminate, and the tight time constraints that structure mainstream media, especially television, prevent that process taking place. Fresh viewpoints must battle with consensus, with dominant ideology. It’s an incredibly difficult task to introduce original ideas into the mainstream – immediate dismissal is often the only act precipitated by such ideas. Akercocke receive little chance to combat the conservative invective being spit in their direction, a type of invective already well-known to all who might watch the show.

The most negative representation to come from the show is that the Northern Irish are a group of close-minded, evangelical idiots. One of the studio guests, the fellow in the “Jesus” t-shirt, refers to “Northern Ireland people” as if he speaks for a homogeneous group. The assumption is that “Northern Ireland people” not only wish for Akercocke to stay away from this tiny outcrop of land lying astride the Atlantic Ocean, but that they even care enough to oppose some people playing music in front of some other people who incidentally love that music. Perhaps this idiocy is best exemplified by Joanne from Armagh who calls in to comment. She begins her opinion with the words, “I think the band should not come to Northern Ireland because…” and then ums and ahs as she tries to formulate an argument, ending with the very learned observation that the band members are “evil-lookin’.”

The stereotype of God-fearing ants controlled by church authority and holy text is as untrue as the assertion that Akercocke are going to ignite satanic longings in the heads all who listen to them. Northern Ireland is a heterogeneous society comprised of different people with different tastes and different beliefs. To speak of a single “Northern Ireland people” remains only a testament to the stupidity of the utterer.

The province is subject to divisions, but not between Catholics and Protestants. An internal gulf separates a caste of mindless traditionalists who persist in elevating the slightest of religious difference to a political doctrine and those who see these divisions of religion as meaningless. It’s encouraging to see the birth of mindsets that run counter to the traditional establishment, persons who can avoid being dominated by old ideologies and fears.

The problem, however, lies in the fact that political power rests in the hands of puritanical parties intent on perpetuating antiquated divisions. Just observe the remarks of Iris Robinson – Member of Parliament and wife of current First Minister Peter Robinson – who recently defined homosexuality as an abomination and morally homologous to paedophilia, remarks that she continues to defend even after a slew of negative publicity. It’s atop this protuberance of ignorance and myopia on which Northern Irish politics is hoisted. Sure there are parties fighting the status quo, but real political power is gripped by extreme corners.

Akercocke did play Belfast in May 2007, despite protests from locals incited by the appearance on Nolan Live. The visit permitted the band a look at two sides of Northern Ireland: the side aligned with religious fundamentalism, slowly retching its last dying cries, and a side untainted by indoctrination into twisted moral absolutes. The metal community is a space for distancing oneself from the old guard, of refusing to accept an identity based on the arbitrary dictate of the religion into which one is born. I don’t want to generalise too much – total uniformity is never present in any sort of subculture – but Northern Ireland’s metal community is commonly populated by people who don’t think Catholics and Protestants are eternal enemies, who don’t place importance on whether certain people can march in certain locations.

The power structure of Northern Ireland alienates people, it seems backwards, entrenched in orthodoxies that mean nothing in a cosmopolitan society that communicates with the world on a continuous basis. Such estrangement breeds the adoption of niche identities. Metal is a domain for creative exploration and solidarity along aesthetic lines. The fans of Belfast were able to enjoy Akercocke’s blend of aching brutality and dulcet melody on that date, undeterred by the seething protests typified by Stephen Nolan and his guests.

A final voice from the audience at the close of the show speaks of respecting difference, enjoying the band if you are inclined to do so and ignoring the band if otherwise. Sanity pierces Northern Ireland’s improving physiognomy at times, and does so more and more, but work still remains, we must slice away the ties of sectarianism and religious obduracy. If it means freedom for bands of the quality of Akercocke to come and play without restriction, then it’s all the more urgent that action happens now.


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