One Minneapolis lawyer's neo-Nazi record label, and the fight to shut it down

Rob Dobi

Rob Dobi

The anonymous tip came in from a metalhead on the warpath, whose goal was to rid the Twin Cities music scene of neo-Nazi infiltration. Ranking high on his hit list was a prominent Minneapolis intellectual-property lawyer who spends his spare time running a black-metal record label.

At first glance, the website for Behold Barbarity Records and Distro looks like any other low-production metal shop: the Gothic type, the retina-killing red prose over a black background, the generous deployment of all-caps.

The site sold a customary catalog headlined by name bands like Slayer and King Diamond. But closer inspection reveals an exhaustive selection of more obscure titles, with album covers sprinkled with permutations of neo-Nazi symbols like swastikas and iron crosses.

Take Deathkey, whose 2010 album is called Behead the Semite. Then there’s Aryanwulf, whose songs include “Kill the Jews” and “At the Dawn of a New Aryan Empire.” There’s also the Raunchous Brothers, whose rhyming poetics include such passages as, “You’re of no use to me, you disgraceful fucking dyke, so I’ll shove you in the oven like the glorious Third Reich.”

As the titles swim into focus, it becomes obvious that Behold Barbarity is a virtual vault of neo-Nazi tunes.

Though the aesthetic may be emblematic of the remote fringes of the web, Behold Barbarity’s website brags of distribution ranging from Germany to Argentina, India to Australia. Its reach is such that it’s caught the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group that’s become America’s foremost chronicler of racist organizations. Behold Barbarity is among the honorees on its most recent list of active hate groups.

The man behind the site is Aaron Wayne Davis. In photos posted on social media, but which have since been taken down, he appears as a broad-shouldered, powerlifting tank of a man. A black sun tattoo, fashionable among white supremacists, covers an enormous bicep. Judging from his shirts, he’s a fan of Bound for Glory, an old St. Paul band known for its point-blank screams of “White Power!” as well as the infamous Antichrist Kramer, pseudonymous publisher of copious racist bands.

By day, Davis is a partner in the intellectual-property firm Patterson Thuente, which is quartered in the IDS tower in downtown Minneapolis. His professional biography presents him in power suit and tie, with a confident smile. He is a decorated litigator with an expansive client list, including Ashley Furniture and Cardiac Science, whom he represents on such issues as patent infringement.

It seems if there was ever a man who lived one life that evaporated on contact with the other, he is it.


Dark arts

Metal guys tend to fancy themselves as keepers of a lofty morality, unafraid to explore the dark side of the human condition. It’s a hard-to-love genre that rebels against the entry-level listening of mainstream pop and rock. Brutalist riffs and unsheltered lyrics, delivered at concussive decibels, tend to obliterate all conventions of beauty, serving as magnets for those who find themselves on the fringe of everything normative.

“Metal is about hate,” explains metal specialist DJ Teace. “The atrocities of war... Telling you what’s going on without filtering.”

Black metal grew from a belief among lo-fi purists that bands were selling out to the comforts of the recording studio. It’s a genre that thrills in themes of death and gore, misanthropy and sacrilege.

It took root in 1990s Norway. Corpse-costumed rockers vaulted themselves to fame through dramatic acts of horror, setting fire to landmark churches across the countryside. The band Emperor’s drummer Bård Eithun stabbed a gay man to death. Mayhem’s vocalist Per Ohlin shot himself in the head, and guitarist Øystein Aarseth was rumored to have cooked bits of his brain in a stew and fashioned jewelry out of his shattered skull. Later, Aarseth himself was stabbed to death by Burzum’s frontman, Varg Vikernes. It was never clear what the motive was.

Not so widely flaunted was the geek vein and a love for Lord of the Rings that ran strong through these upstarts. Burzum took its name from the language of the orcs. Gorgoroth is a land formation in Mordor.

Over the years, the homicidal pageantry fizzled away, while such bands became a cautionary parable of lost nerds who took themselves too seriously. Today, the American black-metal scene is small. In the Twin Cities, there are just a handful of bands that lean neither racist nor xenophobic. As a rule, the style rejects both religion and politics as herd behavior. Yet some still employ Nazi symbols to carve a path back to black metal’s heyday of controversy, says DJ Teace.

“When something’s banned to you, it lures you more. And there’s always going to be a few people that take it really seriously because they’re mentally ill.”

Think of it as the difference between horror movie buffs, and the people who try to recreate them.

Shows for touring acts straddle a line where racist and non-racist metalheads meet uncomfortably. Bands like Slayer, which shapes the “S” of its logo in the font of Hitler’s S.S., provide a gray stage for confrontation.

But there are no major local venues that are willing to host skinhead concerts draped with swastika banners and confederate flags. No grassy festivals where guys with facial tattoos chant, “Heil.” The Twin Cities’ last big white supremacist band, Bound for Glory, was hounded out of every venue it attempted to play by protesters back in the 1980s. These days, far-right bands tend to cloak their views with abstruse lyrics about sheep and wolves. It gives them plausible deniability, a pass to nest in a remote outcrop of the metal scene.

That world never seemed bold enough to cross into common territory until recent months, local musicians say.

Guitarist PJ Randol of the non-racist black-metal band N.o.N. has been playing in Minneapolis for five years. He’d never felt political tension until unexpected cries of “White Power!” shook up a recent show, leading a throng of metalheads to throw the culprit out. But lately he’s personally confronted a man with a neo-Nazi tattoo passing out stickers reading, “Good Night Left Side,” a veiled white nationalist jibe at anti-racists. And he’s witnessed Davis holding court at a Behold Barbarity merch spread. 

That’s when he looked up Behold Barbarity, spotted the band Race War and their album The White Race Shall Prevail, and slowly came to realize the site enjoyed an esteem among fans with more love for ethnic primacy than metal.

Davis never seemed like a bad guy when they chatted about ordinary music, Randol recalls. But he began to wonder.


Inside the death’s head

For years, Davis put on an annual Satanic music festival in Chicago called Cathedral of the Black Goat, which was paired with the more covert, Nazi-flavored Night of the Long Knives festival, named for a murderous moment in 1934 when Hitler went on a killing spree to consolidate power.

On metal forums and white supremacist blogs, promotional posters for Night of the Long Knives lured audiences to hear some of the most racist bands from across the globe. Entry was refused to anyone “deemed unworthy,” a definition left to those keeping the gate. Lineups were closely guarded secrets.

Last year’s festival featured the Finnish band Goatmoon, which sings, “The Third Reich rises once again. The time of nigger sympathies is over. Our legion marches strong.”

Then there was Der Sturmer from Greece: “Feel our thunder, Jewish parasite. All your hopes are turned to ashes. How does it feel, ‘chosen’ scum, our weapons dripped in your filthy blood?”

A podcast that once accompanied the Cathedral of the Black Goat festival hints at Davis’ vision. In a 2013 episode titled “What makes a Satanic festival,” he described his calling to preserve a “bastion of extremity” in the Satanic underground.

“I have to believe in the people I’m doing work with and their intentions, and that their intentions are similar,” he says. “They have that same dedication. They have that same long-term goal.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center sees Behold Barbarity as a rallying point for racists. The music it sells implores the listener to be a hero, to set an example by committing acts of violence against a nemesis du jour.

“It’s just no surprise that we’ve seen everything from low-level common assault to murder,” says SPLC director Heidi Beirich. “They come directly out of that scene.”

Take Wisconsin’s Wade Michael Page. Prior to shooting 10 people at a Sikh temple in 2012, he was better known for performing in the white power bands Blue Eyed Devils and Definite Hate.

Reformed supremacist George Burdi was the founder of Resistance Records, the preeminent “soundtrack of white revolution” and producer of Bound for Glory and Angry Aryans.

He describes the power of hate music: Drop the slogan “White people awake, save our great race” a couple times in a chorus, then quadruple it per song, and you have listeners nodding along to it with every step and stumble of their day.

His label took racist ideology out of old texts that took time to read, and put it on cassettes that could be handed out to kids outside high schools and clubs.

Though notions of race wars and beheading Jews tend to ebb and flow with the times, they’re once again on the ascension with the unapologetic, scorched-earth conservatism that’s swept the land since Donald Trump’s election. 

“They just come back,” says Beirich. “And what’s interesting about this guy Aaron is he’s a big part of how this stuff is starting to come back.”

Behold Barbarity would prefer to see it in another light, billing itself as a fortress of free speech, rather than a flashpoint for conspiracy. “Behold Barbarity believes in the First Amendment and is against any and all censorship, weakness, or political correctness!” its website read. 

In other words, Davis posits himself as a champion of the freedom of expression, the first rule of a free world.

The whole operation unfolds like a love letter to unabashed, howl-at-the-moon speech. Like many outhouses of the internet, it delights in trafficking in the offensive, triggering those who go aflutter over small slights by being cold, bold, and impervious to judgment.

The basic mindset doesn’t differ much from conventional conservative trolling: Strike a pose of intellectual and moral superiority, dismiss opponents as weak-kneed and mushy-headed, and pose as the anointed emissary of life’s hard truths.

“I’m currently reading the Koran, which I doubt 99.999 percent of the liberal advocates for the acceptance of muslims ever have,” reads one post under the “Behold Barbarity” name on Nuclear War Now Productions, a heavy-metal forum. “In my experience, it is always best to know thy enemy, what he believes, and how he thinks. Then I will know how best to attack them. And I don’t just mean through music.”

The avatar follows up to clarify that last line: “Beheading them or bludgeoning them with a severed pig’s head, but a bacon trap would work too.”

That theme carried through to Behold Barbarity’s apparel section. There’s a shirt that rips off an old poster for Hitler, in which a Nazi arm crushes a caricature Jew. Other shirts read, “No Lives Matter,” “Muslims are No Friends of Mine,” and “I Won’t Coexist.”

When City Pages reached out to Davis, he did not offer a comment for the story.


Irreconcilable differences

Judging art apart from its maker is a dilemma that ensnares every aesthetic. Roald Dahl was a highbrow bigot who wrote lovely children’s books in tandem with deprecatory rants about Jewish submissiveness. Revered horror writer H.P. Lovecraft harbored a savage contempt for New York’s Chinese.

Vernon DaFoe, a former host of KFAI radio’s metal show Root of All Evil, refuses to separate the artist from his art. “That’s bullshit. If it looks like shit, smells like shit, it’s shit.”

Root of All Evil has a no-Nazi policy, DaFoe says. As does the Triple Rock, the Twin Cities’ principal metal venue.

Even the original Nazis would be repelled. Hitler wasn’t high on individualism or free speech, enforcing a conformity that rivaled the most radical strains of religious extremism. Under his rule, even jazz was considered an instrument of “degenerate arts.”

Still, despite the contradictions, today’s supremacists seem emboldened.

ShugE, owner of the late Anti-civ Records and a member of the General Defense Committee Local 14, an anti-fascist group, sees right-wing radicalization creeping into daily life. Stickers for Identity Evropa, which mongers the fear of a dying white race, have sprouted across the University of Minnesota. In May, white supremacists promoting South African apartheid tried to co-opt a Trump rally at the Capitol. It doesn’t take long to find barely veiled racial tirades on sites like Breitbart, whose former chairman is now Trump’s chief strategist. Internet message boards are full of people who say vile things to one another under the cloak of anonymity. Last week, hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists converged on Charlottesville, Virginia.

And at a recent Minneapolis metal show, men were spotted wearing the horned helmet insignia of the Soldiers of Odin, an international gang that patrols the streets, beating up immigrants.

Twin Cities metalheads have tried to shut Davis down. They lie in wait to protest Behold Barbarity shows. Hacktivists have tried to bomb the site’s online payment system. But nothing has discouraged Davis thus far.

Nobody’s really asking for the government to ban these bands, explains Lucas Scott, guitarist for the death-metal band Sunless. “We’d prefer they didn’t exist. We would like these people to be more emotionally intelligent, to understand other cultures and essentially let everybody be.”

Scott would rather not isolate those who’ve fallen into the clutches of conspiracy. But he feels it’s likely a lost cause to reach out to people who distribute that hate.

The alternative is to let neo-Nazis share a little corner of the metal scene, each to his own in separate spheres of truce. But that seems impossible in a collision course between white nationalists and hyper-vigilant saboteurs.

Says diehard metal fan Sam Wagner: “No, I’m not willing to cede any territory to these ideas. I don’t want to see any one venue become a white power venue again. Not everyone remembers how hard everyone literally fought to get these fuckers out of town. I don’t want to see that happen again.”