The Bizarre Links Between ISIS and Heavy Metal (And One Big Difference)

Both share an appetite for destruction. Both prefer the hirsute look. But as the events in Paris last week showed, when it comes to Islamic State and heavy metal, the devil (horn) is in the detail.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
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American rock group Eagles of Death Metal perform on stage on November 13, 2015 at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.
American rock group Eagles of Death Metal perform on stage on November 13, 2015 at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.Credit: AFP
Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

Amid the carnage and chaos of last week’s Paris attacks, one of the most unexpected realizations to have emerged is the bizarre link between ISIS and heavy metal. Yes, you read that right: heavy metal.

What proof can we offer to back up this seemingly outlandish claim? Well, on the one hand, we have bearded fanatics who take sadistic pride in decapitating and crucifying innocent victims in the name of a holy war against Western culture and values. And on the other, we have longhaired fanatics who take a perverse pleasure in depicting decapitations and crucifixions on album covers, and who would like to consider themselves as waging an unholy war against Western culture and values.

There are some spooky similarities – ones that, until now, have been considered merely strange coincidences. One such coincidence is the uncanny tale of respected U.S. metal band Isis. Named after the eponymous Egyptian goddess of love, and formed in 1997 – long before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men vied for world domination – the band nonetheless found itself forced to change the name of all its media outlets (Facebook page, Twitter account, website) in August 2014, to the much less mysterious and menacing “Isis the band.” Just in case some longhaired teen looking to rock out unwittingly joined a jihad against the infidels, presumably.

Another way in which Islamic State has linked itself to the world of heavy metal is the strange correlation between ISIS’ penchant for iconoclasm, its seemingly insatiable desire to demolish ruins and archaeological artifacts, and heavy metal bands’ oft-noted inclination to depict such destruction on apocalyptic album covers. Or, to put it another way, ISIS has an odd habit of putting heavy metal album covers to shame – which, speaking as a huge Megadeth fan, is a feat in itself.

Seeing these ties that the two movements share, perhaps it was inevitable that they would meet eventually. And that fateful meeting, while seemingly coincidental, isn’t without its own meaning – one that lies in the difference between art, irony, representation, and the ethical void that ISIS represents, which aims to efface all representation, to deny irony, to eradicate the soul.

The forces of irony here, of course, are represented by Eagles of Death Metal, the American band whose show at the Bataclan last Friday was the bloodiest scene of carnage in Paris, resulting in 89 deaths. The irony is that Eagles of Death Metal aren’t even a metal band at all – it was a joke name devised by founders Jesse Hughes and Josh Homme, one that, in a very self-referential, self-conscious kind of way, seems to poke fun at the menacing, violent aura that such a name would suggest. In other words, by naming themselves Eagles of Death Metal, the band were branding themselves as the least threatening, least violent musical act imaginable (unless you consider their cover of the Duran Duran hit “Save a Prayer” an act of violence, which I imagine some might).

We in the West – and here I’m somewhat carefully aligning Israel with the West – are used to violent images being a way of escaping reality. We do it through metal music and its fake decapitations, through horror and action movies, and through violently bad reality shows. But there’s nothing fake, ironic or self-referential about the kind of violence and ideological fervor that ISIS represents.

The exploding temples, statues and ruins in Iraq and Syria aren’t Iron Maiden album covers. Jihadi John – God (please don’t) rest his soul – wasn’t a movie character in a new Schwarzenegger movie, but a real, ruthless force, wreaking havoc and determined to wreak some more.

Although there are, as noted, similarities between heavy metal and ISIS, there is also a fundamental difference: Metal, for a time the antiestablishment, counterculture successor to punk rock’s reign of disdain and rebellion, is a form of representation. Tacky, yes, but just art. ISIS – as the Paris attacks proved, and as it proves every day in the atrocities carried out in its realm – is a very real and frightening embodiment of that gruesome picture.

The Paris attacks made it quite clear to anyone watching that the real eagles of death weren’t the soft-spoken American rockers performing in the French capital that fatal night. Instead, they were a dark, violent and merciless force that will seemingly stop at nothing in its bid to take us all down the highway to hell.

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