Persian Black Metal: A Somewhat Incomplete Story

This documentary about Iranian black metal musician Faustoos Crowley rather glosses over the more controversial and questionable aspects of his work.

I was talking with Reprobate Editor David Flint the other day about a completely different movie and he remarked “what is missing from the film is just as important as what it includes”. This observation is acutely relevant for Persian Black Metal Story, the debut documentary from Janne Vuorela.

This project was born when Vuorela – a Finnish metalhead living in Germany, who shoots professional-quality interviews and concert footage for his website – met Magus Faustoos Crowley, the frontman of black metal acts like Tears of Fire, Mogh and Nashmeh. He found Faustoos’s story so interesting that he wanted to turn it into something long-form and the result is this 40-minute film. It’s framed around a single interview with Faustoos in which he recounts his life story, intercut with home footage from his archives. No one else is interviewed.

Faustoos’s heritage is half-Israeli/half-Persian and he was born in Seventies Iran. He lived through the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and lost both of his parents in the subsequent Iran/Iraq war, leaving him an orphan drifting from home to home of distant relatives. He nonetheless accomplished a number of impressive academic achievements (including a doctorate in Theology) and gravitated towards making edgy, anti-establishment art with a collective known as the Warriors of Peace.

He also started making black metal around this time, despite the risks associated with it in Iran. As other Iranian metal stories from the likes of Confess and From The Vastland can attest to, if you’re caught playing metal in Iran you can be incarcerated, beaten or even put to death. After Faustoos was brutalised within an inch of his life by Iranian police and forced to sign a waiver saying he would never create subversive art again, he fled to India. Once there he formed his most well-known band, Mogh, developed a heroin habit, married a German porn star (!) and moved to Berlin where he’s lived and worked ever since (although he divorced said German porn star).

As a 40-minute interview, Faustoos’s story is never dull. He’s a lucid talker, intelligent and witty, has an undeniably interesting life and is clearly the leading authority on it. I did feel however that Vuorela sold his subject short by making this film simply a whistlestop tour of his life. He also failed to acknowledge several very interesting elephants in the room, surely the cardinal sin of the documentarian.

For a film ostensibly built around a music career, there’s very little in here about the music. The few cool bits of archive footage from recording sessions and concerts are nice to see but the film never looks at what drew him to black metal (an unusual enough choice for a young Iranian that it warrants more discussion) or how his music has been received by the wider black metal scene; whether and where he fits in. It also never really looks at what drives his art. He talks a little of his spiritual inspirations and how he wanted to make “oriental black metal” but it feels unsatisfyingly brief. He also never once mentions his lyrics, and it’s hard to know if this is deliberately obscure or not.

A good deal of Mogh’s lyrical content is staunchly anti-Islam. With the same degree of subtlety that Norwegian bands attack the Christian church, Mogh lets rip into his homeland’s religion. Album titles (none of which are mentioned in the film) include Islam Is Dead, Burn Your Local Mosque, Massacre Muslims and (new for 2020) Nuke MENA. After hearing Faustoos’s story, it’s admittedly clear where this anger comes from. Here’s a man who has had his entire life torn apart by the Islamic government in Iran. His parents were cruelly taken from him and he was the recipient of unthinkable physical violence just for trying to make music. It’s no surprise he’s furious with the regime there and he has every right to be. He’s rebelling directly against a government that uses religion to oppress its people and, by extension of that, against oppressive religious rulers everywhere. Taken in a cultural vacuum, as the documentary implores you to, Faustoos is expressing himself in much the same way punks and metallers have since the genre began.

However, his frank lyricism has placed his band within a whole subgenre of anti-Islamic metal acts and that’s when the lines start to get a little blurry. There are other anti-Islamic Middle Eastern acts like Mogh but there are also a larger number of white, western acts (e.g. Svolder) with the same message and medium. Much like the National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) scene, the anti-Islamic metal scene is rife with mystery and deception. Seeds of Iblis, for example, is allegedly the work of an Iraqi woman, Anahita, who hides her identity because she doesn’t want to risk government reprisals for songs like Allah Is Dead or Epileptic Muhammed. But there’s substantial doubt online as to whether she is either Iraqi or a woman. Likewise, doubt surrounds Tadnees, an alleged Saudi Arabian band who covered Burzum, released a demo called Nuke Mecca and used a high-contrast mirror-image photograph of German NSBM band Morke as their official band photo. It’s never been confirmed one way or another but it’s entirely possible Tadnees were just Morke in disguise and, if that’s true, lyrics like “I entered the mosque and broke everything around, I took a piss at every place” take on a very different context.

One very interesting story (which, again, you’d think would be unusual enough to warrant inclusion in the documentary) is that in 2016, artwork from Mogh’s Burn Your Local Mosque album was appropriated by UK white power groups and used for posters and stickers. When he found out about this, Faustoos issued a statement: “It shocks us because of many reasons. Mogh is an international conceptual art and band which includes members from Germany, Syria, Iran, Bulgaria and Peru. Mogh philosophy believes in every person as a star regardless of its race and believes religion in any form steals that identical essence and makes you a systematic slave.”

On the surface, this is a reasonable response to something out of his control. You certainly can’t judge Faustoos by the acts of unconnected peers, but if you look deeper into Mogh’s oeuvre, you start seeing uncomfortable signs of allegiance with NSBM. For example, Mogh reclaims a number of sacred eastern symbols like the swastika and uses the word Aryan a lot in its lyrics. This is, of course, in the sense of the original Indo-European Aryans (indeed Aryan as a word stems from ancient Iranian language) but it’s arguably courting another kind of audience that enjoys Aryanism and swastikas and hating Islam. Mogh also records and performs with NSBM acts in Germany. Nuke MENA was released via the distributor Nervengas (directly affiliated with Mogh’s label Terror Records) who sell a wide range of far-right merchandise and records by the likes of Skrewdriver and Frank Rennicke (listed on their website under “patriotic songwriter”), and it doesn’t seem incongruous at all that those acts nestle alongside Mogh titles like Massacre Muslims or Killing Genes In Hijaz.

The problem is that by aligning himself even tangentially with far-right groups and ambiguous iconography, Faustoos the oppressed risks becoming the oppressor. In Iran, as a non-Muslim minority, he has been victimised by the state. He now lives in Germany – a country bursting with its own uncomfortable history of totalitarianism and currently rife with Islamophobic violence – and performs anti-Islamic black metal to a predominantly western European audience.

Ultimately, the issue may well be revealed by the title of this documentary. Yes, this is a Persian Black Metal story but Faustoos’s art exists outside of just his culture. The full story here is a global one; a message that plays one way in Iran plays another altogether in Germany and there’s an interesting story there, especially since its protagonist is someone who’s lived in both. What started as a criticism of a specific form of authoritarian Shia Islam in Iran has become an audience of white German dudes cheering on the slaughter of Muslims – a minority in their country. This is where starts to feel like a form of oppression and victimisation that’s ultimately not so different to what Faustoos is rebelling against.

To clarify, I do believe black metal should be controversial. It’s a music rooted in exploring feelings of hatred and darkness and there’s definitely an argument that if it’s not upsetting someone somehow, it’s doing black metal wrong. But at the heart of black metal should be a rebellion against any form of herd mentality and against oppression. Black metal is a wild spirit in the truest sense of the word wild. The problem with a lot of the material I refer to above is that it’s depressingly dogmatic and discourages free thought in exchange for tedious sloganeering. Expressing anger and hatred is a thorny subject because while it can be an incredible catharsis for artist and listener, it can also consume both. What’s most worrying about anti-Islamic metal is that its simplistic lyrical approach encourages the dehumanisation of Muslims and promoting dehumanisation is arguably the most crucial, and callous, tool in forming a dictatorship. Just like the one Faustoos despises. It becomes a vicious circle of hate and oppression. Black metal, to me, should be a provocative fireball breaking vicious circles to pieces.

I’m not saying the film would work better as a character assassination though, not by any stretch. Mogh’s music itself is actually really good and Faustoos is a fascinating character. I just feel like if Vuorela was a more daring documentarian, he would’ve found the real story here and applied more scrutiny, perhaps even exploring this anti-Islamic metal scene in a wider context and allowing the viewer to at least see it for what it is. A candid look at it from the inside would certainly be a unique perspective. Instead, Persian Black Metal Story exists in a vacuum that metal does not and that oddly makes it seem more tacitly approving of the anti-Islamic scene than it probably would be if it’d explored it. It feels like the issues are intentionally skirted in favour of remaining a simple, pleasant puff piece, whereas a more challenging, penetrating film would’ve been a stronger one (and arguably truer to the spirit of all involved, one way or another).

In Christian Falch’s Blackhearts (2017), he examined global black metal through the eyes of a number of artists including fellow Iranian Sina Winter (From The Vastland) and far-right Greek band Naer Mataron (fronted by recently imprisoned Golden Dawn MP Giorgos Germenis). He let the artists speak for themselves and, as a result, created a fascinating, often disturbing view of a scene that thrives on extremity for better or for worse. In Persian Black Metal Story, I’d liked to have seen Vuorela push Faustoos further out of his comfort zone. I’d like to have seen him address the taboos of his lyrics. I’d like to have seen more about his life and circle of extreme acquaintances in Germany and how he reconciles this with his Iranian heritage.

Most documentary features are around 90 minutes. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that this 40-minute one feels like it’s missing so much. While perfectly watchable in itself, it shied away too much, held back and swept almost all of the interesting, troubling and unpleasant subject matter under the rug (and when you think about almost all the best documentaries, they’re about troubling and unpleasant things). The result was a one-sided whitewashed account of a life that probably deserved more.

RICHARD BYRNE

Persian Black Metal Story is showing online as part of the Doc ‘n’ Roll Festival between the 9th and 16th of November: https://www.docnrollfestival.com/films/

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