An ancient Latvian religion, marginalized during 700 years of occupation, is being revived through heavy metal.
Winter parties in Riga hark back to ancient times of Latvian independence, way back before EU accession, Soviet occupation and the Christian crusades. Kids roll into clubs to drink ale, smoke double strength ‘Black Iris’ cigarettes and listen to death metal. The only clothing brands you see are ancient swastikas. Everyone’s jeans are acid-washed black. It’s a scene of young kids with an increased poignancy in expressing what it means to be Latvian now that the coins in their pockets have turned to Euros. Since Latvia joined the Euro on January 1st a growing number of people are finding identity in pre-crusades history and flying the flag of the resurgence is Pagan metal band Sky Forger. “People are looking way back into Latvian history to find our true identity,” says Pēteris, the band’s lead singer and historian. “Our music brings historical, patriotic issues back into people’s lives. It gives them something to be proud of.
Metal bands in Latvia usually rely on self recorded self-releases to get their music out, but in 2011 Sky Forger got the attention of Slayer’s former label Metal Blade. Subsequent album ‘Kurbads’ went on to win a Latvian Grammy award, instantly bringing pre-crusade history into the mainstream. Last Spring the band played a municipal open air concert to 4,000 people (pretty big in a country of only two million), fans from various backgrounds and ages getting down to double kick drum blast-beats, all funded by the local authorities. “Not only metalheads,” says Pēteris, “but many others come to our shows for the national message we bring.” Sung purely in Latvian and with an historic relevance to the Baltic region’s independence, Pagan metal songs have become a form of sovereignty in themselves.
During the Soviet era, Latvian culture was heavily censored. But Pēteris tells me you could get hold of music via homemade cassettes or records bought on the black market at 6am in the morning. It was the messages within these songs that kept his homeland together throughout the occupation. “Folk music and even rock and pop music have a very deep meaning for our people still to this day. To the Soviet regime it was just some fun folk song, but you could put so many things in-between the lines.” As he talks it becomes obvious that in weaving Latvian identity between the lines of their own music, Pēteris and his band are the natural extension of this centuries old folk tradition. He speaks with a sense of delight when he says: “this was our secret weapon with which we fought back.”
Sky Forger’s swastika symbolism and nationalist rhetoric has inevitably drawn comparisons to fascism and the extreme right. Pēteris himself has links to Latvia’s far right-wing conservative party – All for Latvia – a group branded as “racist” by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights. “I am nationalist and I support All for Latvia. But I’m no Nazi,” Pēteris says as he explains his position. “Just take a look at what is going on here in Eastern Europe right now, many countries are slipping back into the Russian empire. We simply can’t afford go back there, believe me. Just look at what is happening now in the Ukraine!” Over hundreds of interviews for TV and print, Pēteris has had to answer for his links to the right-wing so many times he has lost count. But no matter how many times he answers the question, the sincerity in his answers remain. “People will always wrongly brand us with different labels. Nazi. Fascist. But we are the only ones who are fighting back.”
Post by Pete Kowalczyk, petekowalczyk.com