Reading Between the Merch Lines: Literature and Metal

There’s an inherent alchemy required to successfully combine two seemingly disparate forces into something new. Famous, enduring pairings can be volatile and even counter-intuitive at first glance, but when done properly the result can be something far greater than the sum of each part. Peanut butter and jelly are each perfectly enjoyable on their own, but when paired together they create one of the most well-known and universally enjoyed sandwiches in modern history. Likewise, Calvin is a perfectly funny — albeit bratty – cartoon character and, similarly, Hobbes is a charming and occasionally profound tiger. But it’s their pairing that creates something greater: a friendship that serves as a vehicle for an entire comic strip, a philosophical and temperamental foil for each character to bounce off, and the sheer intangible joy the strip provides readers by allowing us to live inside their friendship. By fusing two independently enjoyable ingredients, an effective pairing can not only allow for a greater appreciation of the pair’s individual components, it can simultaneously create something richer and more meaningful in the magic as well.

The notion of combining metal and literature isn’t exactly unique.  Led Zeppelin was referencing Tolkien as early as the 1960s and the Bible has served as a touchstone for too many bands to count, both for its apocalyptic imagery as well as holy text fodder for more anti-religious bands in the scene. But as the metal community continues to expand both in sound and cultural scope, the pairing of metal and literature remains an underutilized opportunity for fans of both.

One of the most recent examples of a metal band using a work of literature as a source of inspiration is Lotus Ash’s The Evening Redness. Released in April 2017, The Evening Redness employs droning, electronically-tinged doom to create a thundering and appropriately nightmarish soundtrack for Cormac McCarthy’s classic Blood Meridian. As an instrumental album, The Evening Redness only has track titles to indicate its source of inspiration; instead, the music does the heavy thematic lifting. Long, lumbering stretches of percussive doom suddenly explode into a distorted fury that match the sudden and brutal violence contained in the novel. Blood Meridian is a novel concerned with racial tribalism, war, and violence as a way of life. Lotus Ash invites listeners to engage with the same weighty philosophical concerns in their extended doom-filled soundscapes. Instead of specifically using plot points or direct quotations to explore a work of literature, The Evening Redness can perhaps best be considered a direct soundtrack for Blood Meridian, invoking the same sense of permanent dread and the ever-present potential for violence found within the novel.

 

Although Slow Forever is a fantastic evolutionary step for the band, Cobalt’s Gin serves both as a high-water mark and a likely introduction to the band for many listeners . Fittingly, Gin is also a record deeply indebted to the literary tradition. Wearing its influence quite literally on its Hemingway-printed sleeve, Gin is Erik Wonder’s vehicle to channel his literary heroes (Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson) into a blistering meditation on war, death, and a mania of sensual experiences. Hemingway and Thompson serve both as specific, textual inspiration (“Hemingway, save me” and the track “A clean, well-lighted place”) as well as more general thematic guideposts. Gin is often labeled as “war metal” and the visceral and explosive sonic experience it provides is certainly reminiscent of a battlefield. But war is only part of the equation. Violence abounds in Gin, true, but so does sex, alcohol, loneliness, existential confusion, and anti-authoritarianism: a complex and honest melding of the themes most present in Hemingway and Thompson’ s writing.

 

But perhaps no band has embraced the pairing of literature and metal as completely as Ahab.  The famed German funeral doom group has used literary influences to inform nearly every aspect of the band – including the band name itself. Beginning with their debut, The Call of the Wretched Sea, Ahab has used every album in their discography to more fully explore a work of literature. Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, and William Hope Hodgson all get the Ahab treatment in turn and the group’s sound, while always remaining true to the doom tradition, varies appropriately depending on the literary work. It’s exciting to see how a band’s sound can evolve as a result of using various literary influences. Wretched Sea, for example, is pure traditional funeral doom: glacial tempos, guttural vocals, desolate atmosphere. Listening to the record, one can almost feel the rocking waves crashing against the Pequod and the long, lonely stretches at sea described in Moby Dick. Conversely, The Giant employs more slightly shimmering guitar tones and wailing clean vocals to invoke the haunting, near-supernatural quality of Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym. Rather than getting stuck in any one thematic rut, Ahab allows a wide range of (admittedly water-based) literature to inform its themes and sound. This undoubtedly fights off creative staleness within the band while also making for a more interesting and engaging listen for the band’s fans themselves.

These are just a few of many more examples (yes, we all know and love Leviathan). And yet, as a devoted fan of both metal and literature, I can’t help but want more. Despite silly caricatures to the contrary, the metal community as I know it is filled with intelligent, thoughtful people who are more than willing to engage with challenging themes and ideas. In other words, we are readers. And to hear a band grapple with unexpected themes and offer a unique take on a beloved piece of literature is about as rewarding a listening experience as I can imagine. I can hail Satan and revel in cartoonish violence with the best of them, but those ideas can only be regurgitated so often. Instead, the prospect of Artificial Brain reimagining A Clockwork Orange or Primitive Man using Hubert Selby Jr.’s works as a springboard to explore the decay of modern humanity – now there’s something truly exciting and new.