Wednesday 27 November 2013

Book Review: Andreas Diesel & Dieter Gerten – 'Looking For Europe: The History Of Neofolk'

'Looking For Europe: The History Of Neofolk'

As the pathetic, deplorable habit by ego-manic, power-tripping fractions of the revolutionary armchair/keyboard left to persecute and slander individuals and bands more libertarian than they are, belonging or associated with neofolk, based on a poor, sad mix of a total inability of distinguishing artistic language from political one, the impotency of marking and attacking scapegoats instead of those with real shady intentions and the power to determine policies I.E. the real enemy, and outright lies, the translation to English of the 'Looking For Europe' book, now published alongside the release of the compilation bearing the same title on vinyl (five of them to be precise!) is a welcome and crucial source of information, serving as a long-needed case for the wrongly or maliciously accused, and an indictment of who (behind dated ideological veils) are the true authoritarians in this ongoing quarrel. The sexual harassment scandal within the ranks of the Trotskyite SWP, and the appalling way it handled it internally is but one example of just how unsavoury the left's backyard can be (FYI, I despise the political right and consider myself a boring social-democrat politically, and a nihilist philosophically).

The analysis of neofolk's ideas and aesthetics fills the concluding part of the book, the majority of which is a low-down of band histories and description of album contents, influences etc. This at times gets a tad tedious and is helped when a band member is interviewed to provide extra insight. Still, when next to the obvious Death In June, Sol Invictus et al some of the bands are very obscure, the Wikipedia-style overviews are welcome.

What crucially transpires when going through those overviews, band by band, is that neofolk as a sub-culture and musical genre is not different to any other, both in terms of the staggering musical diversity (demonstrated fully on the compilation: from freak-folk to industrial to abstract experimentalism; from musical masterpieces to cringe-worthy, irritating whining) sharing a single genre tag, and in terms of content, messages, aesthetics, ideologies and beliefs. Every sub-culture includes within it both left and right leanings (as well as a-political and nihilistic ones, and ones that defy polar categorisation), including industrial, punk and metal. Therefore, the blanket attack of neofolk is ignorant, hypocritical, malicious, arbitrary, or indeed all of the above. Indeed, there are neofolk acts out there that do not subscribe to a liberal democrat ethos, but, what of it? How weak and helpless should one feel to be so easily threatened by that? More importantly, it will be more difficult to find actual, implicit or explicit racism within neofolk than it would be within punk (I.E. racist skin bands) or metal (I.E. NSBM).

If there's one weakness to 'Looking For Europe', it is that in a handful of instances where dealing with bands who, while nothing remotely close to fascism or nazism are nevertheless openly not followers of the 'Judeo-Christian' legacy of the enlightenment (yet at times sharing more with humanist neo-paganism than with the outright political right) the authors seem to try and underplay it a bit instead of freely discussing it. This is less a result of a sinister nazi conspiracy to infiltrate (un)popular culture, but more the fact that every shred of 'confession' for such sins encourages yet more disproportional persecution. The atmosphere into which the book launches itself is therefore not one of real democratic dialogue, and it is sad that it sees fit to be defensive and less honest as result. Neofolk might have been more self-criticising if it didn't have to constantly fend off witch-hunts based on lies, moral panics and misinterpretations. In that sense alone, certain self-proclaimed anti-fa circles (this text will not go down the same anti-democratic path and deny the existence of anti-fa groups and organisations who are doing important, positive work fighting the real enemies: the people in suits behind the scenes, or indeed in cabinet offices, as well as their foot soldiers) is doing more harm than good and as such is part of the problem and not a solution and should start persecuting itself! Ha!

On a personal note, and to demonstrate that I do not emerge from circles the ignorant might automatically associate with supporting neofolk, I feel it relevant to state that I'm Jewish, offspring to Holocaust survivors, and that a large chunk of my critique of the dogmatic extreme left is based on being involved with it since I was a teenager in Israel, inspired by anarcho-punk, which I still listen to and deeply respect as part of my ideological upbringing. It is in fact the powerful, aggressive gestures and aesthetics of anarcho-punk which allowed me to understand that an idea becomes potent carried on sound and vision, and in many ways that sound and vision are the message, before a single word is uttered. This prepared me for the challenges posed by a band like Laibach, but it still took me years to be able to articulate what at the time I understood intuitively: that what is nowadays considered 'fascistic aesthetics' were used equally by the left before (and in socialist states also after) WWII, and are more broadly part of human cognition and expression since the dawn of civilisation. I found a more suitable term: monumental aesthetics. The taboo on the monumental, I discovered, can be bigger than the taboo on the satanic or sexually 'deviant'. Still, upon my first encounter with neofolk heroes Allerseelen (who are of course covered in the book) , sometime in the early '00s, I wrote a review which parroted the same lefty accusations that are still bandied around to this day. It's perhaps no wonder that my uninformed moralist arrogance manifested when I was living in Berlin and coming to terms with the somewhat strange ways Germans cope with their past. I've since met Allerseelen's frontman Kadmon, interviewed him, and changed my opinion 180 degrees. Allerseelen can be at worst accused of artistic and cultural romanticism, but more so of boldly dealing with taboos (political, sexual, artistic), and as such following a legacy of outsider art, undetectable on the radars of those limited to a one-dimensional political analysis (either left or right, in this case). I own a copy of Allerseelen's controversial 'Gotos=Kalanda' album, based on poems written by occultist Karl Maria Wiligut, 'Himmler's Rasputin', who headed a department for early history within the SS, and got kicked out after his earlier hospitalisation in a mental institute was discovered. There is nothing in this album suggesting glorification or support of Nazism. It is a study of a madman which is no different than the interest by Allerseelen in outsiders like revered filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, for example. Safe subject matter? Definitely not! Proof of nazi sympathy? Definitely not!

What this book proves beyond all doubt is that the neofolk scene is self-aware and thinks about its aesthetics and messages in-depth, in a way which is often lacking in the safe confines of some punk-by-numbers scenes. The interview with Paul Poet and his case for neofolk is probably the highlight of the book and worth its cover price alone for anyone who dares to challenge their own misconceptions of the scene.

As every music journalist will agree, not all musicians are verbal. Not all are well-versed in articulating their art in words, and for sure not all of them are as discourse-savvy in post-colonial and post-structural literature as those aforementioned armchair ego-tripping geeks who have sharpened their debating-society claws since they were lonely teens and therefore win arguments yet perpetually lose in any sort of engagement with the complex and contradictory nature of art and indeed life itself. If, after reading 'Looking For Europe', you still think neofolk is worthy of condemnation, fair enough – then, at least, you will be able to form one that is informed.

Avi Pitchon

Looking For Europe - book and five-vinyl box set available separately - are out now Prophecy.  

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