Zeal and Ardor
Photo: Georg Gatsas / Sub Pop

Zeal & Ardor’s Antiracist Nietzschean “Götterdämmerung”

In “Götterdämmerung”, black metal band Zeal & Ardor carve out an empowering Black position from Nietzsche’s response to a rotten nihilistic culture.

Zeal & Ardor
Zeal & Ardor
11 February 2022

Nietzschean Traces

“So God is Dead, like Nietzsche said,” James Dean Bradfield sings in the Manic Street Preachers song “1985” (on the 2004 album Lifeblood), adding: “Superstition is all we have left.” Nietzsche’s famous diagnosis of the state of modern culture after the death of god and the destruction of all metaphysical horizons is used in this song to describe the feelings of devastation and emptiness caused by Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal aim to destroy the unity and consciousness of the working classes during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike. The lyrics go on: “In 1985, Orwell was proved right.”

Nietzsche also returns in the Manic Street Preachers’ song “Judge Yr’Self” (from 2003’s Lipstick Traces), albeit in a very different manner. This time, the German philosopher’s ideas about nobility and strength present a worldview that revolves around individual self-constitution and the attempt to become one’s own god and one’s own truth in a godless and truthless universe. Including the Nietzschean phrase “Dionysus against the Crucified”, the lyrics allude to the attempt to make oneself stronger by disciplining and even harming one’s own body, reflecting the worldview of the band’s fourth member Richey Edwards, who disappeared in 1995 and was never seen or found again. 

This variety of references within the oeuvre of only one band illustrates the different ways in which the realm of popular music is haunted by the specter of this German philosopher. Nietzsche’s ideas also return in the anti-Christian song “Crucifix Kiss”, on the 1992 Manic Street Preachers album Generation Terrorists. Another example is formed by Simon Critchley’s references to David Bowie’s persona Ziggy Stardust as a Nietzschean ‘Übermensch figure’ who eventually left behind the human condition. Furthermore, whereas Joe Talbot of British post-punk band IDLES has a portrait of Nietzsche tattooed on his left side, Laibach’s 1997 album, Also Sprach Zarathustra, completely revolves around Nietzsche’s ideas, combining readings of his texts over haunting ominous soundscapes.

However, even though Nietzsche’s emphasis on aesthetic exploration and creative self-overcoming resonates strongly with the controversial avant-garde sensibilities of Laibach, there is probably no other music more densely permeated with his ideas than the one made by bands belonging to the second wave of black metal. This is no surprise, given this genre’s emphasis on waging war against Christianity and, more broadly, everything that modern-day Western civilization seems to hold dear.

The title of Mayhem’s 2002 album Grand Declaration of War, for example, refers to Nietzsche’s description of his book Twilight of the Idols as “eine grosse Kriegserklärung“. In 2003, furthermore, the Norwegian band Gorgoroth referred to this same book in their album Twilight of the Idols: In Conspiracy with Satan. More generally, as Adam Kalmbach of the experimental American black metal band Jute Gyte observes in an interview with The Quietus, Nietzsche’s emphasis on self-overcoming and transgression resonates strongly with metal’s drive to push the boundaries of radical music and of the social order: ‘in metal, there’s this kind of Nietzschean adversarial posture to things. Unpleasant things are presented, and there’s this implicit sense that you’re being challenged, like, “Can you handle this?” […]. And that puts the music in a certain context of overcoming.’

This Nietzschean “overcoming” also returns in the music group we focus on here: Swiss avant-garde metal band Zeal & Ardor, who entwine Nietzsche’s ideas with a powerful diagnosis of, and resistance against, white supremacy and anti-Black racism.

Zeal & Ardor‘s Alternative History

To some extent, the entwinement of these philosophical, cultural, and socio-political ideas cannot be understood without turning to the origins of Zeal & Ardor, which lie in a digital post by the band’s songwriter and mastermind Manuel Gagneux. Gagneux asked on the online forum 4chan which two musical genres he, for his experimental project Birdmask, should combine to write a song in 30 minutes. Two responses he received were that he should play “n***** music” and “Black Metal”. Gagneux, the son of a white Swiss biologist and an African American jazz singer, made the ingenious decision to turn that anti-Black racism against itself. This resulted in the music he started releasing as Zeal & Ardor, which indeed entwines various musical forms, genres, and styles into a type of music that has been characterized as ‘black metal blues’ and, as indicated by the title and style of one of their own songs, “J-M-B” on Zeal & Ardor, as ‘Jazz Metal Blues’.

On the one hand, Zeal & Ardor’s music indeed includes elements of Delta blues, gospel, African American spirituals, forms of jazz, and what Gagneux himself defines as ‘slave music’, consisting of soulful clean singing, field hollers, and call-and-response structures modeled after American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s field recordings. Several of their songs even contain rattling chains or percussion that remind of the foot-stomping and hand-clapping that used to provide the singing of slaves with beats and rhythm. Some also include sounds of crickets or birds, alluding to the nature sounds on plantations in the American South. These elements are combined with a black metal style most commonly associated with the second wave of black metal, which originated in Scandinavia in the 1980s and 1990s. This extreme musical genre is defined by a distorted guitar sound, blast beats, tremolo picking, high-pitched screams and shrieks, and a lo-fi production that stresses the genre’s anti-commercial and anti-mainstream attitude.

Gagneux also combines the cultural and ideological connotations of these musical genres. He takes allusions to Satanism and dark mysticism from black metal and foregrounds similar traces within the Blues tradition. This genre is rooted, after all, in the legend of Robert Johnson traveling from a Mississippi plantation to a crossroads to sell his soul to the Devil and receive the gift of playing Blues music in return. From music rooted in the Black American experience, Gagneux also takes emphasis on Black power and resistance against anti-Black racism.

Entwining these musical and cultural elements and meanings, Zeal & Ardor’s oeuvre started to revolve around the telling of an alternative history, which Gagneux describes as follows in a 2022 interview: “What if American slaves had turned to Satan instead of God?” An illustration of these elements is formed by the visuals, lyrics, and music of Zeal & Ardor’s 2016 song, “Devil Is Fine”.

Zeal & Ardor also took the above-mentioned Nietzschean emphasis on overcoming black metal. In the context of the alternative history that the band aims to tell, however, this overcoming concerns not only a transcending of Christian metaphysics but also of socio-political structures that institutionalize, perpetuate, and justify anti-Black racism. We see the intricacies of these tendencies in “Götterdämmerung”, the 11th song on Zeal & Ardor’s self-titled album.

Götterdämmerung’s Three Modes

As indicated by its title, “Götterdämmerung” describes an apocalyptic event – a mythological Ragnarök – in which “the gods you knew before” are dying and are replaced by “fallen” who “will now rise”. Its first eight lines go as follows:

“Wasch die Götzen von der Wand
Brenne die Lügen weg
Nimm von Göttern was sie wollen
Und was zu Recht dir gebührt, Schrei…
Deus / Magnus / Niger / Quoniam
Deus / Magnus / Niger / Quoniam
The writing’s on the wall, and there’ll be hell to pay
The gods you knew before are dying anyway”

These lyrics not only indicate that the apocalyptic event alluded to with the Wagnerian phrase Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) is coming, but they also address a “you” and encourage them to set this event in motion actively. The song, in other words, has a prophetic mode, but also one that can almost be defined as programmatic: the “old gods” are dying, the lyrics suggest, but they should also be actively killed. How this should be done is explained in a third mode: one that can be characterized as ritualistic: “Ritze Zeichen in den Boden bis um dich die Erde bebt / Zeig den Göttern wessen Willen in dem Höllenfeuer schwebt.”

These three modes return in the three languages used in the lyrics of “Götterdämmerung”: whereas its more prophetic parts are sung in English, the programmatic – and aggressive – passages are in German. Indeed, two other German lines read almost like a list of instructions: “Nimm diе Säure in die Hand / Ätze die Lügen weg / Töte Götter, gib als Gaben nur was dir nicht mehr bekommt.” The Latin phrase, which returns several times throughout the song, contributes to its ritualistic dimension, reminding of religious prayer.

The three modes are heard in the ways in which these different lines are sung. This observation concerns what scholar Alison Stone, following Julia Kristeva, characterizes as the “semiotic” elements of popular music, or that which Roland Barthes called “the grain in the voice as it sings”. The German parts of “Götterdämmerung”, as well as the Latin phrase, for example, are sung – sometimes screamed – by Gagneux in an aggressive, high-pitched, and shrieking voice, typical of the singing style associated with the second wave of black metal bands such as Satyricon, Gorgoroth, Burzum, Emperor, Darkthrone, and early Ulver. Furthermore, the Latin lines are sung rhythmically and pronounced clearly, almost like Gagneux is casting a spell, contributing to its ritualistic aura. On the other hand, the English lines use a clean and soulful singing voice that, in contrast with the parts that are screamed, almost has a soothing effect, albeit not without ominous and threatening undertones. 

Götterdämmerung’s Idols and Gods

Apart from the almost programmatic mode of especially the first four lines and the employment of three different languages, what stands out in the above-cited passage is the word “Götzen”. Contrasting this word with “Götter”, which returns in several other lines and the song’s title, Zeal & Ardor constitute a tension between Gods (“Götter”) on the one hand, Idols or False Gods (“Götzen”) on the other. This tension can again be linked to the entwinement of the prophetic and the programmatic: the gods in their twilight are “false” and are therefore dying “anyway”. Yet, these Götter have to be actively killed by ritualistically “burning” their lies and exposing them as the Götzen they are. 

This contrast between Götter and Götzen constitutes the link with Friedrich Nietzsche. More specifically, it can be read as alluding to Nietzsche’s 1889 book Götzendammerung, oder, Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert (Twilight of the Idols or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer), itself a playful – and critical – response to Götterdämmerung, the last of the four dramas that make up Richard Wagner’s opera Ring der Nibelungen. In Götzendämmerung, Nietzsche famously criticizes – and rejects – the culture in which he finds himself for being nihilistic, for having destroyed all values – wiped out its (religious) horizons – and for being unable to create or construct anything for human beings to cling to and to give their existence meaning.

Nevertheless, the “human, all too human” response to this situation, Nietzsche observes, is to desperately hold on to the same rotten values that, in his view, resulted in the decadent form of cultural nihilism that he diagnoses in many of his works. These values, he observes in Twilight of the Idols, have their roots in the Socratic emphasis on reason and in Plato’s distinction between eternal metaphysical Ideas and a false ‘reality’, which eventually resulted in the Christian conception of the divine and a morality that turned against anything concerning instincts, embodiment, nobility or hierarchy. In different ways, as we have seen above, these ideas return in the oeuvre of Manic Street Preachers as well.

To some extent, Nietzsche’s ideas echo Zeal & Ardor’s apocalyptic song, which seems to be a modern attempt at taking up a Nietzschean hammer, in this case, one made of radically aggressive music and lyrics, and smashing everything humanity holds dear. It is important, however, to note that the song’s title does not follow Nietzsche by replacing “Götter” with “Götzen”. An explanation can again be found in the German language: “Dämmerung” not only refers to “twilight”, but can also mean “dawn”. The song, this suggests, revolves around dying gods and one(s) that is or are (re)born. The latter interpretation is foregrounded by the Latin phrase “Deus Magnus Niger Quoniam“, or “For the Dark Lord is Great”.

“Götterdämmerung” might therefore be understood as describing a Satanist ritual during which a Christian God is killed, and a Dark Lord is welcomed back. Again, the observation that its musical style borrows elements from bands belonging to the second wave of black metal, most of whom referred to forms of Satanism, substantiates this interpretation.

Against an Anti-Black Metaphysics

However, this is not the only way this reference to a new dawn, when fallen, will rise, can be interpreted. As mentioned above, Zeal & Ardor add a radically new ingredient to Nietzsche’s damning diagnosis of Western culture. The Gods and Idols that they claim throughout their oeuvre, will and should be killed form the foundation of a world driven by anti-Black racism that rests on white suprematism ideology. “Deus  Magnus Niger Quoniam“, after all, can also be translated as “Because the Great God is Black”. Not only do the band target Christian Gods from a Satanist position, this suggests, they also take aim at white suprematism by embracing an empowering Black perspective. As such, the Nietzschean ‘overcoming’ instigated by Zeal & Ardor’s “Götterdämmerung” targets a racist social world that Devon R. Johnson, in Black Nihilism and Antiblack Racism, describes as follows:

“Black people in antiblack racist societies are not simply a part of society. We are a part of society’s underside: the underbelly bolstering its frontal dimensions. We embody the cultural limits of antiblack racist societies, displaying everything they are, by virtue of what they are not.”

This observation, Johnson goes on, concerns the entire metaphysical system on which whiteness is based and that provides this world with meaning: “Blacks are dehumanized by the white-normative organization of traditional Western theories of Humanity, including the construction of moral, ethical, political, economic, and social contracts ordering antiblack racism.”

Inspired by Nietzsche’s response to a rotten nihilistic culture, and in spite of Nietzsche’s racism, Johnson defends an existentialist attitude and worldview that makes it possible to carve out an empowering Black position, simultaneously smashing the metaphysical pillars on which the anti-Black metaphysical system rests. Referring to Nietzsche’s reflections on aesthetic self-becoming, Johnson especially highlights the arts’ role in this endeavor. It is in light of these ideas that we can understand Zeal & Ardor’s “Götterdämmerung”: by embracing a form of Satanism, the Swiss band explore and transcend the “frontal dimensions” mentioned by Johnson, killing the idols, values, and gods on which anti-Black metaphysical worldviews are based by letting the ‘other’ of this system rise from beyond this frontier.    

Like Johnson, who rejects scholar Cornell West’s embrace of a Black Christian spirituality in favor of a Nietzschean transvaluation of all values, Zeal & Ardor suggest that the Christian norms that they reject by praising the rebellion embodied by Satan might be the same ones that form(ed) the basis of the ideology of white suprematism. Again, this implies that making a “Dark Lord” rise might go hand in hand with empowering those who are repressed and excluded by anti-Black racism. Indeed, the lyrics of “Götterdämmerung” include the indication that “the symbols on the floor will take the pain away”, suggesting that the (Satanist) ritual that is described in and perhaps performed by or with the song shapes an opportunity for, in this case, those targeted by white suprematism. That is the “you” apostrophized by the song, existing in the present or the past – to give a voice to their political and existentialist struggles, to express their suffering, and, again, to embrace a transvaluing form of Black power that overcomes the ideology that “others” Blackness. 

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

It is unclear what kind of world will be constituted after the end times prophesied and set in motion by Zeal & Ardor’s music. In “Götterdämmerung” the band employ Biblical imagery to describe this event, with Gagneux soulfully singing: “Behold the skies / A wheel with eyes / Will scream your name / To rule again.” This refers to one of Ezekiel’s visions of angels in the sky, appearing in the form of several wheels whose rims are covered with eyes. Again, however, the “you” in these lines does not refer to the Christian God but to his opposite. Furthermore, the band entwines this biblical reference with links to a German literary idol.

One of “Götterdämmerung” last lines goes as follows: “Walle walle, manche Strecke, daß zum Zwecke, Götter sterben.” This line refers to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1797 poem, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (“Der Zauberlehrling”), with the original’s ‘Wasser fließe’, referring to the poem’s apprentice casting a spell to magically clean the floor, replaced with the phrase “Götter sterben” (“Gods dying”).
Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, Zeal & Ardor suggest here, their Nietzschean attempt at overcoming a world of racism and white supremacy may unleash powers beyond their – and our – control. It is impossible, after all, to imagine a world outside of or beyond the metaphysical boundaries that both generate and limit our imagination. This idea resonates with the way in which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels refer to Goethe’s poem in the Communist Manifesto, which describes ‘modern bourgeois society’ as “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells”. 

This unclarity and uncontrollability make it unclear what kind of forces Zeal & Ardor’s music may unleash and what kind of future it may announce. Perhaps this will be the topic of a future album. What is clear, however, is that these references to an uncontrollability emphasize the ways in which Nietzsche’s ideas about super-human “overcoming” continue to form a fruitful ground for the entwinement of aesthetic experimentation and socio-political critique, especially within the realm of popular music. 

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Grain in the Voice”, in S. Frith and A. Goodwin (eds). On Record: Pop and the Written Word. Routledge. August 2000 (paperback).

Bienstock, Richard.“ Zeal & Ardor’s provocative Black Metal / Spirituals Mash-Up Gets Stranger”. Revolver. 5 June 2018.

Critchey, Simon. 2014. Bowie. OR Books.

Ctrl/Alt. “Zeal & Ardor” Album Review. 14 February 2022.

Godfrey, Pavel. “Cosmic Pessimism: An Interview With Jute Gyte”. The Quietus. 3 August 2016.

Johnson, Devon R. Black Nihilism and Antiblack Racism. Rowman & Littlefield. November 2021.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Utrecht: Open Source Social Publishing. 2008.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. Penguin Books. May 2003.

Peters, Mathijs. Popular Music, Critique and Manic Street Preachers. Palgrave Macmillan. July 2020.

Stone, Alison. The Value of Popular Music: An Approach from Post-Kantian Aesthetics. Palgrave Macmillan. December 2016.