(In this guest post, Booker identifies works of literature that he was inspired to read as a result of metal, along with the specific music that provided the push. If you’ve had similar experiences, we’d like to hear about them in the Comments, along with any thoughts you might have about Booker’s post.)
Well, if you’re reading NCS, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that metal is one of mankind’s greatest creations. When I’m feeling generous I’d even expand that to music in general. You know what one of human beings’ other greatest creations is? Sending humans to an orbiting lunar body in specially controlled atmospheric craft and protective suits? Pfft, no! Using a modified virus to evoke lasting immune responses to deadly diseases? Meh.
What I’m talking about is writing. That’s right, writing, without which those other achievements wouldn’t even be possible. When you think about it, it’s pretty mind-blowing that we can scrawl lines on paper, and now digital displays, and someone else can look at those hieroglyphics and almost instantaneously discern meaning, enabling us to convey ideas and thoughts to someone else without even talking to them! From one side of the planet to another, or even from one mind to another across the abyss of time and the divide of death. Think about that after smoking a few pipes (oh my god, it’s like there’s people reading my mind!… over the internet!… and I’m reading some thoughts from someone who’s dead!… woooaahh).
And with writing came literature (and humorous toilet graffiti). Not surprisingly, given the vast array of ideas and storylines conveyed by literature, some of those works have in turn inspired musicians to craft musical works covering the same themes, and when metal musicians do it you get what I’d call a veritable orgy of humanity’s greatest creations – metal meets literature, all getting off over each other. That’s what I’m talking about! But what I’m going to cover here is taking this one step further – not just metal albums inspired by literature, but albums/songs/bands that have in turn inspired me to go back to the source and read the inspirational literature in question.
Now, a few caveats – when I say “inspired me to read the works in question”, obviously some of the books I’ll cover here are pretty famous, and it might be an exaggeration to say the music was the sole reason I read them – they may have been on a list in the back of my mind of “I should really read that someday”, but a band releasing an album or song was the catalyst that finally got my ass into gear to actually get my hands on the book. To give this blurb some structure I’ve also tried to keep this in roughly chronological order from the release date of the metal involved.
First things first, we should start with HP Lovecraft. I’m not going to try and list all the metal musicians he’s inspired, or even all the songs I’ve heard revolving around his stories, but suffice to say his influence has probably been one of the most widespread in the metal genre.
My first exposure was no doubt Metallica’s “The Call Of Ktulu”, which back in my younger days someone told me was a creature from some ancient mythology that existed at the edge of the universe ready to devour everything. Sounded like a plausible explanation. Lo and behold, how wrong they were, when I later realized it derived from Lovecraft’s short story “The Call of Chthulu” (in fact, most of his works are short stories), where Chthulu is an undersea beast tormenting people in dreams and waiting to arise again.
As time went on and I saw Lovecraft’s name reappearing in different metal interviews I endeavoured to read some of his works, first with free versions of individual stories from Project Gutenburg, and then a few years back I decided to get serious with Lovecraft and got my hands on the complete anthology available from: http://cthulhuchick.com/ (which I’d highly recommend – Lovecraft was a great writer, but hopeless businessman, and his works are available without copyright). For now, let’s just leave Howard Phillips L. aside with my favourite Lovecraftian tune, “Elders” by Mencea:
I’ll admit being late to the Mastodon party. It wasn’t until Blood Mountain that I heard about these Atlantan chaps, and in discovering their back catalogue I came across Leviathan, an album inspired by Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Also motivated by the existence of the band Ahab, named after the novel’s protagonist captain, I decided to give this work of literature a go.
Now, Moby Dick is regarded as one of the great American novels of its era, and to the uninitiated it is no small tome – the copy I have weighs in at 684 pages. Just to make things harder for myself, I decided to read it in my second language, Spanish. Now, call me Ishmael, or call me an ingrate, but I found the book to be a lot like the quest to hunt Moby Dick – an immense lumbering piece of work that seemed to roll on forever toward an unseen horizon. With entire chapters dedicated to detailing the anatomy of the whale, or the process of whale hunting, the weapons involved, hauling the carcass aboard, etc., the novel is in equal measure a manual of seafaring and the enterprise of whaling as much as a fictional work. Although I didn’t set out to compare the music with the literature, I found I couldn’t help but think: Moby Dick-inspired metal > Moby Dick the novel.
Mastodon: “Blood and Thunder”
Ahab: “The Hunt”
Like a lot of metalheads who spent their teenage years in the 90’s, Sepultura were a big influence on my formative musical tastes, and while they’ve struggled to retain their place in the metal world, they’ve earned a place in this post via their literature-inspired works Dante XXI and A-lex (below). As could probably be guessed from the title, Dante XXI was supposed to represent a 21st-century reimagining of Dante’s great work Inferno. When word was released of the album concept in the pipeline, I decided it was time to take on that mighty piece of cultural history bestowed on us by Dante Alighieri.
His famous work The Divine Comedy seems to use the same meaning as Shakespeare, where “comedy” was not at all the funny theme we know and love today, for The Divine Comedy consists of three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, detailing the author’s descent into hell, and funny that shit is not. The works of Gustave Doré (which Islander has often featured in the NCS facebook feed) were later used to illustrate prints of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and his work is the perfect visual accompaniment to the poem’s themes – not a hilarious notion in sight.
The Inferno represents a fantastical combination of 14th-century Italy with ancient Rome and its mythology, whereby the poet Virgil acts as Dante’s guide through the underworld, passing Charon and the river Styx to descend through 9 circles of hell, each reserved for a particular brand of sinner. There’s one simple way to sum up Dante’s Inferno: metal as fuck.
So, with some trepidation, I got hold of Sepultura’s Dante XXI — trepidation not only for the epic subject matter, but also because, coming off the back of their previous album Roorback, which I felt was a great disappointment, I wondered whether they had it in them. All in all, I’d say it’s not a bad effort, and the aim of marrying the Inferno with the 21st century can be seen in the video for ‘Ostia’:
While it was Dante XXI that inspired me to read the original literature, I would now say that Eye of Solitude’s new album Canto III, also inspired by the Inferno, captures to a much greater extent the essence of the work. Perhaps it’s simply that the subject matter lends itself better to doom than thrash; while some aspects of Sepultura’s Dante XXI helped convey the sorrow of the work, such as the cello solo in “Ostia” above, Eye Of Solitude have really delivered in spades an opus of beautiful soul-crushing darkness.
Lyrically, Canto III also includes a number of spoken-word passages from segments of the poem (e.g., in “Act III – He Who Willingly Suffers”, below), in both English and the original Italian, and the overall sombre, haunting nature of the work, complete with cover art depicting Charon (compare with the illustration from Gustave Doré), is a fitting complement to such a great work of literature:
Moving on to 2007, Machine Head released their phenomenal come-back album The Blackening (while Through The Ashes of Empires was pretty good, this really cemented an unexpected return). The closing track for said piece is a 10-minute anti-war anthem titled “A Farewell To Arms”. Well, obviously that name rang a few bells, and I decided that the oft-heard-of, but never personally read, Ernest Hemingway was probably deserving of my attention – or being scrubbed off my bucket list.
Now, having heard Hemingway’s name bantered around literary circles, I steeled myself for some highbrow “best of the 20th century” style literature. I was not at all prepared for the almost anti-literature feel of what followed. The first chapter barely measures a full page, and the writing contains great “your English teacher would throw you out of class” sentences like this:
“The mountain that was beyond the valley and the hillside where the chestnut forest grew was captured and there were victories beyond the plain on the plateau to the south and we crossed the river in August and lived in a house in Gorizia that had a fountain and many thick shady trees in a walled garden and a wisteria vine purple on the side of the house.”
More “ands” than blow jobs in a typical porno! I wondered whether this was on purpose since the story is told from the point of view of a soldier, who might not be the most scholarly of individuals, and Hemingway was artfully recreating what this soldier would have written, but after reading other pieces of his work I think this is just Hemingway: Straight up, to the point, and the fuck with sentence structure! Maybe it was all those Cuban mojitos talking.
Not only that, but the book tells the tale of a soldier in World War I who becomes completely disillusioned with the war, absconds from duty (a capital offence at the time), and runs off to Switzerland with his lover. No wonder the book was banned. Now I don’t know if Rob Flynn actually read the book or just borrowed the title for the song, but either way, I felt both book and song were worthy of my time:
Staying with Hemingway, following a dabble with A Farewell To Arms, it seemed fitting that I then took a look at that famous work, For Whom The Bell Tolls, with its obvious Metallica influence. You can see how this one would make movie-translation material – starting with a scene where a couple of guys are wiring up blowing a bridge, the whole work builds the tension to the actual event of hitting that trigger. The sex scenes are hilarious and the kind of thing you could see being nominated for the Bad Sex awards in this day and age. Of course, the metal-literature link in this case is a double-whammy, with Hemingway taking his title from John Donne’s “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions”, and I’ll admit to not having read that entire 23-part treatise (yet!).
Returning again to Sepultura, their following 2009 album was also based on a work of literature, which in turn was the impetus for me to read said work. The album title A-lex is a somewhat obscure reference to the protagonist of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Having already seen the Kubrick film, which I thought was relatively mediocre, and with The Cavalera Conspiracy having included a song entitled “Ultraviolent” on their debut album also derived from A Clockwork Orange, I felt it was time to give the book a crack.
One thing about the book that stands out is its length – at a mere 140 pages, the work seems to fit with a group of similar works of relatively short length but wide influence, such as I Am Legend (165-odd pages), Fahrenheit 451 (160 pages), or even Fight Club (200 pages). The other thing that stood out for me was just how much the book kicks Kubrick’s film adaptation out of the park. In this case: book >>> movie. Burgess’ experience as a school teacher is evident in his nuanced depiction of a group of teenagers gone astray, raping and bashing for entertainment, completely out of touch with their parents and the older generation, and with their own highly-infectious slang vernacular, which is based on a merging of Russian, English, and a linkage-by-association something akin to Cockney rhyming slang (e.g., “Gulliver” = head, after Gulliver’s travels; or pre-empting the rise of “wicked” to mean “cool”; “horrorshow” means something similar to “awesome” or “fully”). The book was released in 1962, and was somewhat prophetic in its subject matter.
So, how did the metal stack up in comparison? Musically, Sepultura’s A-Lex was similar to Dante XXI, which I found neither particularly upsetting nor particularly inspiring. In one of the book’s great caricatures, the teenage protagonist listens to his own unpopular cult music, but in a twist this is not some underground new music of the young, but in fact classical. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is mentioned in various sections, when the young Alex talks of how alive and wanting to smash skulls it makes him feel, or when he veritably rapes two schoolgirls, he’s drugged while listening to Beethoven’s Ninth. No wonder the book was banned. But kudos to Sepultura for keeping with the theme and providing a metal cover of Beethoven’s Ninth under the title by which he’s referred to in the book: “Ludwig Van”:
The Cavalera Conspiracy’s “Ultraviolent” also keeps to the theme to some extent, including some lyrics from the youngster’s slang ‘nadsat’ language (from 2:00 – 3:00):
Well, before this post becomes too long, I think I’ll start rounding this to a close. Keep in mind, I decided to focus on works I’d read specifically via a metal release as a catalyst. So if your favourite literature-metal amalgamation isn’t included here, it’s not because I didn’t think it worthy of mention. There are also other combinations that have gone in the other direction for me (i.e., I read Fahrenheit 451 before hearing of Pig Destroyer’s Book Burner). In fact, I’d be curious to hear of others’ experiences of reading literature via an inspiration from metal.
One of things that has struck me in compiling this post is how many of these musical endeavours have been inspired by banned books, and also how many of my favourite novels have at one point been banned. Maybe it’s something to do with metal not being afraid to cover controversial themes, or take on perspectives that run contrary to the mainstream?
As a close, I’ll leave you with one more metal-literature combo: After getting into the band The Human Abstract, I decided to look up the William Blake poem from which they derived their name. Verdict: a misanthropic poem?… that is indeed a fitting inspiration for some metal:
Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;
And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.
He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears:
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.
Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Catterpillar and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.
And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat;
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.
The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain