Jan 232014

(Our Denver-based friend and writer Mike Yost, who remains our friend despite that sportzball thingie that’s being played on Feb 2, wrote the following piece, which I should have posted 6 weeks ago. It originally appeared at Mike’s own blog here. Do you listen to music when you write?)

As an author, I listen to a wide variety of music while I write — from metal to electronic ambient  to classical music.  Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) is one of my favorites.  The composition was inspired by one of Saint-Saëns’ own poems where death plays a violin at the stroke of midnight surrounded by skeletons dancing in their shrouds.  Pretty damn metal.

Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club) once said in an interview that he prefers to draft novels in the waiting areas of emergency rooms, feeding off the noise and drama unfolding all around him.  Hemingway is often attributed with the quote: “Write drunk; edit sober,” which I often do in noisy bars downing pint after pint of fermented liquid happiness.  But several authors I work with can only pen the future great American masterpiece in complete silence.

For me, silence stifles my ability to write.  It’s deafening.  In truth, silence is really fucking distracting.  It opens the black iron gates to that cacophony of shrill voices in my mind that come crawling out of the obsidian that is my subconscious—their pointed fangs and claws flashing white in the darkness just before sinking deep into my trembling eyeballs.

And it’s not easy to write with bleeding eyeballs.

To quell that silence and keep those visceral voices at bay, I often use metal to mangle my imagination, hopefully resulting in a host of stories convulsing and bleeding on the floor with exquisite ingenuity.   And the bands I usually gravitate toward — like the Saint-Saens’ piece — feature a strong narrative quality throughout their albums.

Moonsorrow is a great example and has always been a savage source of creative strength when I’m killing off fictional characters in innovative ways. (Usually involving Medieval weapons.  And lots of fire.)  The band’s thirty-minute magnum opus, “Tulimyrsky,” (from the EP which shares the same name) cultivates just the right amount of pagan black metal madness and macabre tranquility.

The song itself (translated as Firestorm) is a story of revenge: The violent sacking of a village, homes burning brightly in the night, bodies riddled with arrows, axes and swords coated in crimson, screams drowning in waves of blood—all sung in Finnish. These narrative elements lend themselves to my own story lines and characters whose own internal battles often leave them slaughtered alongside piles of swirling ash.

Another band good for cultivating creativity is Xanthochroid, which I came across on metal-archives.com as a related band to Ne Obliviscaris. Paralleling Portal of I (with the exception of that signature kick-ass violin), Xanthochroid’s album Blessed He With Boils similarly boasts melodic vocals juxtaposed nicely with growls.

There’s a folkish element to many of their songs, including a flute in “Winter’s End.” An acoustic guitar drops in often throughout the album to lull your malleable mind into a false sense of security just before thrashing guitar riffs and high-pitched growls tear your head off your shoulders. There is even a piano solo.

The album, which should be listened to in its entirety from start to finish, fosters a fantastic atmosphere of reflection, animosity, and anguish, the perfect scrim for my own fictional characters to play out their own hardships and miseries.

Caladan Brood‘s debut album Echoes of Battle offers yet another impressive metal conduit for those creative writing juices to bubble up to the surface. With influences ranging from Tolkien to Moonsorrow to World of Warcraft, the band’s first album generates yet another rich atmosphere of black metal embedded deeply in fantasy folklore.

One particular song that tickles my testicles as I write (which is essential for any successful author) is the song “Wild Autumn Wind,” a melodic, slow-paced-yet-fiercely-energetic song, featuring the band’s signature choral vocals.

And then there’s that gorgeous guitar solo at 9:35 that just makes my head slam forward over and over, driving my fingers to type faster and harder.

And check out the lyrics to the song, “Book of the Fallen”:

Strap on your shields and raise your banners. / Hear the call of raging battle. / Beneath a hail of flaming arrows. / Push ever forward. Never surrender.

I don’t think there’s ever been a more accurate description of the creative process put to song.

All of these albums share a common narrative theme: Vicissitude. Peaks and valleys. The dichotomy of those guttural screams clawing alongside clean vocals. Gentle piano interludes and head-crushing blast beats. Those all-too-human moments of empathy followed by furious eruptions of raw acrimony that burns the world black with soot.

I greedily feed off the talent and creativity of theses bands, and the albums parallel the very stories I try to write. Conflict. Loss. Resolution. Contemplation. Retribution. Death.

  25 Responses to “METAL AS THE MUSE”

  1. I tend to write/study well with doom (or doom-y) metal in the background. The particular bands that come to mind are YOB, Om, Ataraxie, Sleep, etc. Silence indeed suffocates and impedes focus, but more upbeat stuff also steals away attention, at least for me.

    • YOB. Definitely a strong contender for inspiration while writing. Morgion has always been my doom favorite, and great background music to just about anything.

  2. i’m not much for writing, but i’ve done drawings since i was in grade school and i’ve always listened to music while doing it. and it’s always been metal, because…well, duh.

  3. Xanthochroid is awesome. I’ve never heard of them before. Metal is compulsory for me when writing, it just puts me in the zone.

  4. Maestro Camille Saint-Saëns is more metal than you think guys. Glad to see/read a fellow metal head that appreciates this type of music

    • Saint-Saens is such a metal composer – the 3rd Symphony, when the organ rumbles into the proceedings? Now that’s metal.

      Hmm, maybe a guest post on lesser-known, metal-friendly classical composers is in order? William Schuman and Edmund Rubbra immediately jump to mind.

  5. I don’t write as much as I’d like, but for most everything I do when I’m not working (and I keep my iPod handy for tasks where I can afford the distraction of music) or playing video games, I tend to have music on, sometimes only as background noise, sometimes loud enough to keep my attention. Reading is the only time where I prefer it to be quieter. I read at a fairly good clip, sometimes able to get through a few hundred pages or so in a day. Having music on seems to slow me down.

    Music doesn’t always inspire me, mostly because when I’m doing something (somewhat) creative, I already have a good idea of what I want. A song title, lyric or sometimes a solo or other moment will sometimes bring an idea to mind and I add it to a master list of things to revisit later. The list is getting pretty long, so I need to go through and see if I can take things off the list by finally getting around to what I had in mind or scrapping the idea.

  6. I’m beginning to think I’m more easily distracted than the average metalhead. I can’t write, or do any kind of mental work with music on. It’s just too distracting. Before I know it, I’ve stopped what I was doing and am thinking about what I’m hearing. But if Im doing some kind of physical work or other physical activity, then I love listening to music — the more boring the work, the more I like it the musical accompaniment.

    • I have the exact opposite problem, at least with regards to reviewing. I have an extremely hard time writing a review if I’m not concurrently listening to the album. i will say that the likelihood that I will listen to music increases as the mental strain of the activity decreases, and vice versa (though even in the hardest tasks I might listen to something somewhat ambient – like Om – just to keep my mind from wandering too far). Without the focussing aspect of music, my mind goes off like an ADHD toddler on speed.

      • I think its great there is such variability in how people approach the creative process. This means more variability with the final product, whether that’s literature, art, music, photography, ect . . .

  7. I’m no writer, but wow, Xanthochroid! Another great band courtesy of NCS. I’ve lost count of all the great stuff I’ve found via this blog (already love Moonsorrow and Caladan Brood). Not heard Saint-Saen’s Danse Macarbe but I love his Piano Concerto #2 in Gm (I think), need to listen to more of his work.

  8. Cool article Mike! Metal is indeed the choice of music while i write and its more important that you shut out all the noise. Like you said it lends better concentration than while trying to do something whilst in complete silence. And i will need to check Xanthochroid once again, i remember liking it back then.

    P.S. I’d like to make a correction here. Caladan Brood takes direct influence from Steven Erkkson’s 10 book series called ‘Malazan Book of the Fallen’. And ‘Caladan Brood’ in particular refers to a warlord that plays a major role in it. I just happen to have read the first book in the series, and i must admit it’s interesting as much as it is confusing.

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