The suspect accused of burning down three historically black Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish has ties to the "black metal" music scene, a Scandinavian subgenre whose enthusiasts espoused anti-Christian beliefs and were linked to a string of Norwegian church fires in the 1990s. 

Subsets of the group have also espoused racist views for decades, including white nationalist ideologies that became associated with the genre as it gained popularity and name recognition in Norway during the 1980s. 

Louisiana authorities announced Thursday the arrest of Holden Matthews, 21, and suggested his association with black metal music could be linked to the case. But they stopped short of identifying a motive for the fires, saying the investigation is still ongoing.

Experts have also cautioned against jumping to conclusions based on Matthews' black metal fandom or condemning the entire genre in response to the recent allegations.

Matthews' social media presence indicates an adherence to pagan beliefs and interest in ancient Norse mythology — both ideologies promoted by black metal's most notorious figure, Norwegian bass player Varg Vikernes, who's credited with introducing extremist beliefs into some black metal circles. 

Vikernes was part of the band Mayhem, which helped to expand the genre's fan base in the late 1980s. Within a decade, one of its members had been murdered and another had died by suicide. Vikernes was arrested and accused of setting a string of church fires in Norway, as well as killing his bandmate.

Matthews posted several comments on Facebook referencing a movie about Vikernes and the Norwegian church burnings that came out last year. The posts don't indicate that Matthews was endorsing the extreme beliefs Vikernes has come to represent.

Vikernes served 16 years in prison before his release in 2009. But he continued his "studies of Norse mythology, neo-Nazism, Germanic neopaganism and folklore" both before and after his sentence, even publishing his opinions from his prison cell, according to a 2009 column in the Guardian

Vikernes' blog includes multiple posts that reject Christian beliefs and embrace paganism as a reflection of "our traditional European values and cultural heritage." He never confessed to the church fires for which he was convicted. 

Vikernes isn't the only black metal leader convicted of arson. At least two others served time in Norwegian prisons for similar crimes in the early '90s.

Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center who studies hate groups and extremism, said one small subgroup of black metal in particular — called "national socialist black metal" — has clear connections to Nazism. But he said there are lots of other fans who actively oppose racism and extreme politics. 

"I don't want to diminish what his motivations are, but I think we just don't really know yet," Hankes said. "It's a subculture. Some people have bought into it, but that's not indicative of everyone involved."

Hankes said the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as hate groups some record labels known to distribute music that endorses extremism. 

"I think the real question here is the role racist music has played as a recruitment tool over the years," he said. "Music being used to bring people into racist politics — that element of building a subculture, giving people something to identify with. That's a big part of it."

Some fans have taken issue with the media attention devoted to Matthews' musical tastes. A website dedicated to heavy metal music and culture posted a column Thursday claiming the emphasis on Matthews' black metal fandom serves to "unfairly scapegoat" the genre. 

"Listening to violent music doesn't make you a violent person," the post reads. "But a**h**** like Varg Vikernes, who use their art as a platform to spread actual, sincere hate, are dangerous. And guys like Matthews, who buy into their worldviews, make us all look bad."


Can't see video below? Click here.



Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.