16 Metal Tracks and Songs Influenced by Literature

In his previous post, Dr Sam Thomas introduced his current research into how and why metal features in the work of Thomas Pynchon. Here he shares a playlist of songs that draw on widespread literary influences. Suggest your own in the comments or tweet #LiteraryMetal.

A disclaimer: this list is in no way intended as definitive. It is partial and idiosyncratic. I’m well aware of some significant omissions. Sepultura’s take on Dante, Bolt Thrower and Anaal Nathrakh’s thoughtfully provocative use of war poetry, Primordial’s tribute to early Yeats… This could have been much longer than it already is! It is designed, however, to give a sense of the diverse ways in which metal interacts with fiction and poetry (not just through lyrics). It covers a number of different offshoots and sub-genres of metal, from well-known classics with some level of mainstream appeal to the extreme metal underground. It features a few tracks that appear on (nearly) all of the literary metal lists available online… But I’ve also tried to highlight some of the less immediate aspects of influence and adaptation.

Iron Maiden, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, from Powerslave (1984)

Where to begin with Maiden? Whatever your relationship to this band, they have left an indelible mark on the history of metal and indeed popular music more generally. And Maiden, perhaps more so than any other metal band, have imaginatively engaged with an extensive range of literary sources over the years, including Tennyson, Huxley, Golding, Eco, and Chesterton. Their name is lifted from a Dumas novel and singer Bruce Dickinson even spoke at the unveiling of William Blake’s new gravestone in Bunhill Fields. No literary metal playlist, however, would be complete without ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, which draws directly from Coleridge’s poem. All the hallmarks of classic Maiden are here in this multi-part epic — Dickinson’s soaring vocals, the patented galloping rhythm, dual guitar harmonies, crescendo after crescendo, plus an eerie mid-section that combines creaking timber sound effects, acoustic finger picking, and husky-voiced spoken word. A truly ‘maximalist’ adaptation of Coleridge and a memorable way to begin.

Pig Destroyer, Book Burner, from Book Burner (2012)

From a 14-minute epic to 40-seconds of grindcore belligerence. Pig Destroyer’s vocalist J. R. Hayes is renowned in underground metal circles for his disconcerting lyrics (which combine darkly poetic images with flashes of political fury and a twisted, sometimes sardonic sense of humour). He has spoken regularly of his interest in literature (Celine, Baudelaire, and Burroughs are important influences) and the band have a close association with Dennis Cooper. This is the title track from Book Burner (2012), which is a sly reference to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Because Pig Destroyer songs tend to be very brief (one of the defining conventions of grindcore), Hayes’ lyrics are sometimes likened to haikus — a loose but not entirely outlandish comparison. Also note that the deluxe edition of the album was released with a short story by Hayes called ‘The Atheist’ about a dystopian near-future theocracy.

Metallica, for Whom the Bell Tolls, from Ride the Lightning (1984)

Like the Maiden track, this is one of the genre’s ‘set texts’. Singer James Hetfield has made a habit of exploring the horrors and hardships of soldiering and this song takes its cue from Hemingway’s novel about the Spanish Civil War. Interestingly, the lyrical focus here is not on the central protagonist Robert Jordan but the brief sequence in which El Sordo and four other men make a defiant (and ultimately futile) last stand by taking a hill from the fascist forces. Simultaneously bleak and anthemic, the song highlights metal’s complex, long-standing interest in the battlefield, alongside broader notions of sacrifice, heroism, and so on. Cliff Burton’s bass intro is something to cherish.

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Helpless Corpses Enactment, from In Glorious Times (2007)

This is full-blown ‘experimental’ metal, performed by virtuoso musicians with connections to jazz, avant-garde classical, prog, and freak-folk. The dual vocals here are especially striking, combining Nils Frykdahl’s staccato growls and screams with Carla Kihlstedt’s ethereal tones (who also plays violin). The lyrics are all borrowed from Finnegans Wake. The band therefore breathe strange new life into Joyce’s infinitely suggestive wordplay…and the video is a riot. Theatrical, audacious, wonderfully eccentric stuff from start to finish. “Ascend out of your bed, cavern of a trunk, and shrine!”

Mastodon, Blood and Thunder, from Leviathan (2004)

Leviathan, Mastodon’s second album, is something of a milestone in contemporary metal. Drummer Brann Dailor read Moby-Dick while the band were in the midst of a gruelling run of shows. Dailor was not only inspired by the book’s meditations on vengeance and monomania but also, rather humorously, by the parallels he saw between life aboard the Pequod and the experiences of a touring band. A concept album was therefore born, which borrows liberally but smartly from the imagery and themes of Melville’s epic. This is the opening song (and the traditional closer at most Mastodon gigs these days). The verses are bellowed by Troy Sanders with Ahab-like conviction; the wild drum fills and incessant riffing are as overwhelming as a storm at sea.

Ministry, Jesus Built My Hotrod, from Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs (1992)

A demented industrial-metal-rockabilly tribute to Hazel Motes, the central character of Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic masterpiece Wise Blood. In a brilliant article for The Flannery O’Connor Review, Monica Miller argues that this novel, despite its final emphasis on Christian redemption, “offers an alternative genealogy for rock and roll rebellion […] that is less about self-discovery and more about a celebration of masculinist nihilism as it undercuts its own mythicness”. Al Jourgensen of Ministry was reportedly captivated by the figure of Motes and the song samples John Huston’s 1979 film version of the novel. The bizarre, repetitive, borderline nonsense lyrics are by guest vocalist Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers.

Corrosion of Conformity, Wise Blood, from Wise Blood (1996)

Although there’s some evidence that the title of this song (and the album it’s taken from) originally came from a nickname that frontman Pepper Keenan acquired while staying in a North Carolina boarding house, the connection to O’Connor (again) is surely a legitimate one. Keenan later named his daughter Flannery and the lyrics provide a straightforward but nonetheless very effective distillation of some of the novelist’s key concerns: youth, age, faith, freedom, violence. Keenan’s distinctive voice and the Southern groove of the music lend the track a sense of regional rootedness. Perhaps not-so-incidentally, Buzz Osborne of the legendary Melvins (whose early ‘sludge’ sound was a formative influence on many Southern US metal artists) has also professed his admiration for O’Connor.

Tribulation, The Vampyre, from The Horror (2009)

Metal’s relationship to Gothic and Romantic literary traditions has been so richly productive that it deserves its own playlist. I include this song by Swedish band Tribulation to demonstrate the enduring significance of those traditions for a new generation of metal acts. The spelling of ‘Vampyre’ in this song’s title obviously alludes to Polidori’s short story, written during that famous summer of 1816 when Byron and the Shelleys gathered at Lake Geneva. It’s difficult to connect the lyrics to specific aspects of Polidori’s prose beyond the obligatory references to blood… But Tribulation are notable for giving Scandinavian black metal aesthetics a self-consciously Romantic twist, which makes total sense given the sub-genre’s emphasis on a kind of negative sublimity. They dress the (Dandy-ish) part and have namechecked Byron et al in interviews.

Salome, Carving the Ether, Our Enemy Civilization (split w/ Thou, 2009)

Besides the various literary resonances in this band’s name, I’ve chosen Salome because vocalist Katherine Katz has spoken about the long-standing influence of the poet e. e. cummings on her lyrical composition. She identifies the “simplicity and power” of his verse as a key factor (applying the same kind of minimalist, concentrated rigour to her own writing), as well as his distinctive syntax and word-ordering. So this is an example of a very subtle kind of literary-musical interplay. There’s also a deep sense of spiritual yearning behind Salome, as unlikely as the leap between cummings and ferocious doom metal might seem at first. Katz is an extraordinarily intense performer and writes stand-alone poetry outside of a band context.

Earth, Land of Some Other Order, from Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method (2005)

Earth are associated with the development of so-called ‘drone metal’ (long instrumental pieces based around down-tuned riffing, equal parts meditative and brutal). Their later albums, however, are far less reliant on distortion, with founding member Dylan Carlson crafting a unique kind of dark Americana. The subtitle of the album this track is taken from alludes to Blake but it’s Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian that informs the music. Many of the tracks on Hex are named after lines or images from the novel and its haunting sounds deliberately evoke McCarthy’s grim yet compelling visions of frontier violence, tinged with aspects of occult mysticism. This might not be ‘metal’ in the most straightforward sense but I’m including it because I’m intrigued by the ways in which literary texts might inspire instrumental composition. I can’t read the novel now without hearing Carlson’s twanging guitar work and Adrienne Davis’ achingly poised drumming. Note that McCarthy’s metallic legacy also encompasses bands such as Neurosis, Watain, and Sunn 0))).

Metal Church, Of Unsound Mind, from Blessing in Disguise (1989)

Edgar Allan Poe and horror fiction more generally are important to metal for obvious reasons. As with my previous point about Romanticism and the Gothic, entire playlists could be compiled with a narrower focus. Anyway, Metal Church had a great run of albums in the 80s and are notable for giving the distinctive sound of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (or NWOBHM) a thrashier, more frenzied edge. Similarly, they take the brooding menace of Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and transform it into a shrieking, hyped-up, punk-tinged rager. Not very subtle… But difficult to resist. “It is the eyeeeeee!”

The Great Discord, The Red Rabbit, from The Rabbit Hole (2017)

The influence of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland on rock, metal, and psychedelia (hello Jefferson Airplane!) would make for a fascinating academic study if it hasn’t already been written. This track is from The Great Discord’s most recent album, a three-act “progressive death pop” concept record that explores the struggles and adventures of Fia (a persona created by TGD’s costumed vocalist) after she is lead down the titular, Carrollian rabbit hole by a Valkyrie named Ire. The narrative that structures the album is a vivid, highly inventive synthesis of Alice, Norse myth, cartoon surrealism, and soulfully-articulated psychodrama. Nothing to do with the Tom Clancy novel of the same name.

Vader, Silent Empire, from De Profundis (1995)

Well, I had to include this. Vader are Polish death metal veterans and this track takes its cue from the Trystero, a mysterious underground postal system in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. The Trystero are often interpreted as a metaphor for the beginnings of sixties counterculture and the promise of what Pynchon memorably describes as an “alternative to the exitlessness of American life”. Vader’s lyrics, however, true the spirit of their name, emphasize the dark side (or at least the more unhinged possibilities) of this secret network, while also hinting at a kind of spiritual interpretation via a reference to “the timeless domain of disinherited ones”. A really creative response to the novel, propelled forward at breakneck speed by classic death metal riffing and blastbeats. Vader bring the latent apocalypticism of Lot 49 to the fore.

At the Gates, Heroes and Tombs, from At War with Reality (2014)

More death metal. This time of the melodic Swedish variety. At the Gates are a beloved and pioneering band, who helped to create what would become known as ‘the Gothenburg sound’. Their comeback album At War with Reality doesn’t enjoy the acclaim showered on the 1995 classic Slaughter of the Soul but I’m including a track from the former because the entire record is inspired by Latin American magical realism. Vocalist Tomas Lindberg is a serious, cosmopolitan reader and the album draws on sources such as Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Jorge Luis Borges. This particular track is linked to Ernesto Sabato’s On Heroes and Tombs — a grand, weird, and moving novel set in 1950s Buenos Aires.

Cult of Luna, Eternal Kingdom, from Eternal Kingdom (2008)

Cult of Luna are a key act in the cerebral and atmospheric ‘post-metal’ sub-genre. In the build-up to the release of Eternal Kingdom, the band fed a false story to the press. The songs on the album, they announced, were inspired by the diary of a madman and murderer named Holger Nilsson, which they had discovered in their rehearsal space (built on the site of an old asylum). The diary reportedly contained references to the Näcken (water spirits from Swedish mythology), with Nilsson protesting his innocence via the creation of an elaborate supernatural fantasy world. In 2010, an English-Swedish version of the diary (Eviga Riket) was actually published as a hardback book… And a sharp-eyed journalist figured out the ruse soon after. Cult of Luna have therefore contributed to the long, fascinating tradition of literary hoaxing. Their metafiction is a wry comment on the formulaic, unquestioning aspects of music reporting and it also represents the band’s commitment to both creative openness and scepticism.

Clutch, Emily Dickinson, from Book of Bad Decisions (2018)

Clutch have a loyal following in the metal world but their sound defies boundaries by drawing on blues, alt-rock, stoner, funk, and a touch of gospel. Frontman Neil Fallon is a great raconteur and his storytelling lyrics are consistently witty and allusive. Listening to Clutch’s substantial back catalogue reveals Fallon’s interest in Sci-Fi, Shakespeare, and Ovid… But this is something different. The song apparently grew from a mental image of a mysterious woman’s profile in the attic of an old farmhouse the band once lived in. That woman eventually became Emily Dickinson for the purposes of the lyrics, with Fallon playing the role of the poet’s suitor. Note that Fallon also sings a section of Mastodon’s ‘Blood and Thunder’, which demonstrates both his impressive versatility and his connections to 19th century US literature!

Read Sam Thomas’s previous post, explaining how his research on Thomas Pynchon got him looking for metal influences in literature. He will be introducing a special screening of Lords of Chaos at the Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle on 29th March 2019.

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