Watain at a concert in the US in 2010. Photo by Jason Scragz, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Religion, Singapore, and a Cancelled Metal Show

Author: Daniel Peters
Published:

Not since Metallica has a metal band gripped the Singaporean consciousness—and it’s not because they’re scoring any radio hits.

Watain, an acclaimed black metal band from Sweden, incurred the wrath of local fundamentalist Christians when they discovered that the five-piece outfit would make their highly-anticipated live debut in Singapore. A Change.org petition was started and collected over 17,000 signatures. The pressure worked: the Infocomm Media Development Authority announced, just hours before the band was to take the stage, that the concert’s licence would be revoked.

Watain and black metal

A sub-genre of heavy metal established in the 1980s, black metal has courted controversy in many parts of the world. Anti-Christian and Satanic themes are rife. While a lot of it is utilised in the tradition of the genre, primarily for atmosphere and (for certain bands) shock tactics, Watain’s members stand out for being theistic Satanists. Danielsson has stressed the careful distance between their music and real-life beliefs.

“People often seem to think that the Satanism which constitutes the ideological and religious fundament of Watain is something that we want others to take part of and explore through us,” he tells Metal Hammer in 2017. “This is not the case. We have never intended to be messiahs or zealots in that sense.”

Still, the band has been embroiled in their controversies, such as when their former guitarist was caught on video doing the Nazi “Sieg Heil” salute on stage. Amid a hail of criticism, the band quickly denounced any Nazi ties, and have since split with the guitarist.

A sub-genre of heavy metal established in the 1980s, black metal has courted controversy in many parts of the world

A dive into the band’s many interviews would reveal that while their music may be inspired by their personal beliefs, it’s certainly not the fatalistic Satanic propaganda that Singapore’s petitioners fear. Yet, Watain’s constant boundary-pushing attitude using transgressive (and potentially dangerous) language means that they’re often treading a very fine line.

Nonetheless, concert organisers Ravage Records had still successfully secured a licence—with conditions imposed—from IMDA for the band to perform on 7 March, only for it to be taken away on event day.

Singapore’s history with metal concerts

It’s not the first time a metal concert has faced backlash. Metal fans, affectionately known as metalheads, have endured restrictions over concerts in the past.

In 2006, renowned thrash metal band Slayer performed for the first time in Singapore, but after a few last-minute adjustments to their setlist by IMDA, they made it their last. One of the songs barred from performance, ‘Jihad’, criticises Islamic extremism.

Conditions such as the ones placed upon Slayer and Watain (at first) are not uncommon, but several black metal bands have successfully performed for local fans, abiding by rules set by the relevant authorities. Also in 2006, Norwegian black metal band Mayhem held a concert at The Pavilion despite written protest; in response, plainclothes police officers were scattered throughout the venue to address concerns of potential conflict among concert attendees. The concert was also given a restricted rating, barring attendees under the age of 18.

In 2013, at least two metal concerts ran into issues following local pushback. British black metal band, Cradle of Filth, had their performance postponed when the hired venue pulled out after looking into the band’s background. Instead, they held a meet-and-greet at another location.

Weeks later, another event—featuring a series of metal bands headlined by French outfit Manzer—had its license revoked the day before it was set to happen.

“My band was ready to play the next day with Manzer, as well as the other bands, but it all got cancelled,” says Mia Priest, a Singaporean musician who had toured with Watain in Europe in 2007. “From what I remember, someone complained to the MDA [before it was renamed the IMDA in 2016] and the permit was cancelled for the show, citing religious offence as the main reason.”

“I would say that the threat [of a show getting cancelled] has definitely increased as metal and punk music gets more exposed online and through social media”

In the pre-social media era, concert promoters spread news about metal shows via flyers at various music stores, thus reaching their target, but relatively niche, audience. Now, shows are promoted on social media and on websites such as the music news site Bandwagon. It has made it easier for concerned Singaporeans to find out about the event and take action; the petition against Watain is simply a case in point.

“I would say that the threat [of a show getting cancelled] has definitely increased as metal and punk music gets more exposed online and through social media,” says Mia Priest.

The conservative reaction to Watain

Prior to the petition, pushback against Watain’s scheduled concert had already begun to fester online—in the comments section of an article on the band on Bandwagon, commenters expressed unhappiness with the band’s usage of Satanic imagery, and one comment advised others to “write to express your concern”, listing email addresses of various government authorities.

Rachel Chan, who launched the Change.org petition merely a day before the concert, lamented the band’s “subliminal messages” which promote “death and suicide”, although she did not cite any specific examples.

It is unclear if Chan or the other commenters were aware that the IMDA had already imposed restrictions—such as the removal of religiously offensive songs and the banning of ritualistic acts onstage—and it seems unlikely that they would have been among the concert’s attendees themselves. But while their fears seem to have been misplaced, the band has indeed talked at length about their belief in black metal’s connection to real-life extremities. “I think criminal activities and metal are naturally connected,” Watain frontman Erik Danielsson once told Revolver. “To me, that fact is very much based on the energies that black metal deals with. They are, to a great extent, malevolent energies that are not shunned, they are praised and welcomed.”

It comes as no surprise that Singapore’s sizeable conservative Christian community would not be happy with such a philosophy. But, despite Danielsson’s comments, Watain has been prominent in the genre for over 20 years, touring around the world to packed audiences—audiences that, to our knowledge, have not gone on to commit atrocities in the name of black metal.

“I saw the lyrics—it’s four-letter words on Jesus Christ, on Christianity, on religion, abusing the cross—everything that is so far out that I can’t see how we could have agreed to it,” Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam told the local press two days after the concert’s cancellation.

Watain in Singapore - New Naratif
Watain and their fans in Singapore responding to the last-minute concert cancellation. Boplay Photos

But the fact is that the IMDA had—after consultation with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA)—decided to allow the concert to take place, laying out a clear set of regulations that pointed to a considered approach to the band’s history and music. These conditions had been aimed at addressing concerns such as the ones raised by Shanmugam to justify the last-minute ban.

“Watain was planning to downsize the show in Singapore,” says Mohamed Khalid, also known as Khaal. He runs Ravage Records, which doubles as a music shop and a concert promoter. “A lot of things that they were doing in concerts overseas was not going to happen here.” This includes throwing blood onto audience members, a move that has received sharp criticism over the years.

Khaal says that he’s worked with IMDA for all of his shows; the application for Watain’s show went through the same procedures, beginning with an application at least two months before the concert.

“The setlist was verified by IMDA,” he says. “IMDA were nice enough to cooperate and gave me advice. The day before the concert, I met them again to make sure that we were following the guidelines. There were IMDA officers who were going be present when the band was supposed to perform.”

Having organised metal shows for years, Khaal says he’s well aware of the limits. “I wouldn’t defend them performing ‘Storm of the Antichrist’ here,” he says, referring to one of Watain’s songs. “I myself, as a citizen, know what is right and wrong.”

“The setlist was verified by IMDA… IMDA were nice enough to cooperate and gave me advice. The day before the concert, I met them again to make sure that we were following the guidelines”

With the licence already granted and conditions met, MHA’s sudden reversal has led people to link it to the online petition. In his comments, Shanmugam had also made clear that he had spoken to Christian preachers about this matter. When New Naratif asked the IMDA if the petition had been a factor in the show’s cancellation, IMDA did not directly respond, but merely referred to a letter written by their cluster director for communications and marketing published in local broadsheet The Straits Times.

“On March 7, the day that the Watain concert was due to take place, MHA asked IMDA to consider cancelling the Watain concert due to new and serious concerns about public order, and ground reactions relating to social and religious harmony,” the letter read. “After careful consideration, IMDA agreed to do it.”

Amid the online chatter, questions have also been asked about the influence that conservative Christians might wield in Singapore, given that high-ranking members of the People’s Action Party government and the civil service are known to belong to conservative Christian churches. It isn’t the first time such questions have surfaced in Singaporean public discourse.

A pastor, who has chosen to remain anonymous, tells New Naratif that he spoke with officials of the Inter-Racial & Religious Confidence Circle—an inter-faith platform aimed to promote racial and religious harmony—about his concerns. “In my conversations, we do recognise that the lyrics of Watain songs threaten our security,” he says.

He also reveals that within his church, they had “resorted to praying for our governmental leaders that they will have wisdom and courage to lead Singapore. With the Watain performance issue, prayer groups were mobilised to intercede and pray for government, the protection of young minds from the damaging messages, and for God’s mercy for the band and their supporters.”

He did not mention if the petition had been part of their mobilisation efforts, but prayer groups from other churches encouraged members of their congregation to write in to IMDA and sign the petition.

The stigma against heavy metal

The cancellation of a show that would have been attended by no more than 200 fans isn’t a particularly earth-shattering development in and of itself. But there are concerns that the authorities’ abrupt about-turn has set a dangerous precedent sparked by an imbalance in power.

A show that took over two months of planning and approval was ultimately thwarted, almost overnight, by a petition backed by over 17,000 Singaporeans. The controversy has sparked a Streisand effect—making Watain and their ill-fated performance much more widely known in the city-state than they would otherwise have been—but the stigma of metal music has also been amplified. The ripple effects of the cancellation have irrevocably added to a bleak and anxious atmosphere within an underground movement that’s been at odds with bureaucratic systems for a long time.

A show that took over two months of planning and approval was ultimately thwarted, almost overnight, by a petition backed by over 17,000 Singaporeans

“I am concerned and worried. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the metal scene here,” says Khaal. “At this point, it feels like we can only try our luck with future bands.”

It’s going to be a tough fight; the pastor who spoke to New Naratif says he plans to petition against other metal bands coming into the country, “simply because of extreme anarchy sentiments”.

“Besides anti-Christian sentiments, these bands were birth out of transgressing authorities: ecclesial, national, or otherwise,” he says. “Supporters of such work may have a distinctive culture where they all draw their identities from, but the question they need to ask is whether this builds community at the national level or further isolates us in our own corners?”

Mia Priest, on the other hand, thinks that “concerned groups have to understand metal music and the psychology behind it. People fear what they don’t understand and knowledge is the key to change fear to empathy. Most concerned groups aren’t willing to go that far, unfortunately, but hopefully one day they will.”

The petition that took down Watain’s show also took aim at Soilwork, a Swedish death metal band whose music contains little to no anti-Christian or Satanic sentiment. With conservative voices given a boost following the petition’s success, who’s to say Soilwork or any other metal band is safe?

Street Noise SG, the promoter for the upcoming Soilwork show, remains undeterred. “Soilwork is here to stay. So are the other shows. And the future shows to come,” they wrote on Facebook.

Religious harmony, or a limitation on artistic expression?

It’s clear that, while conservatives have framed the narrative as one of prioritising religious harmony and social cohesion, it also comes at the expense of any form of religious criticism, depriving audiences within a secular society of the opportunity to participate in tough conversations and learn how to navigate conflict and diversity. It’s a worrisome limitation on artistic expression.

In 2011, The Straits Times reported on an international inter-religious roundtable that then-Foreign Minister George Yeo was involved in. The article looked at examples of “sensitive issues” that the government had to deal with. Explaining why the country banned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and not Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ—both controversial pieces of literature—he was quoted as having said, “Our reply was the Christians are less likely to riot.”

Christians may not riot, but modern social media tools—the same tools used to market a band like Watain—allow voices to be mobilised and amplified without a need to take to the streets. The question is whether those voices are speaking for a diverse majority or a outraged, but effective, minority.

 

Daniel Peters

Daniel Peters is a Singaporean writer, covering music and culture for almost a decade — saving memes and absurdist (read: juvenile) humour for Twitter at @humswhilepeeing.

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